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Abiword or OpenOffice Writer?

Submitted by Peter on Mon, 2011-03-21 22:54

If I could have only one, Abiword or the OpenOffice Writer, which would I choose? After years of using both, I use Abiword on my netbook and OpenOffice Writer on my desktop workstation. Why choose different applications? The choice depends on hardware resources and usage.

Java is a killer

Java is monster software that kills applications. OpenOffice uses Java and Java is the biggest argument for using Abiword instead of OpenOffice.

Start with Java performance. My desktop workstation uses a fast processor with lots of memory and rarely uses all of the processing power or memory. When it does fill up, the cause is usually a Java program. Some Java based programs work, some do not. I have massive applications written in many other languages and none clog a machine unless they are processing massive amounts of data. Tiny Java programs can clog the whole machine when processing trivial amounts of data.

Java unreliability is the next problem. Java crashes and churns out useless information that does not help us diagnose the problem. The reliability of Java based programs is improving but many Java based application have only recently reached the reliability that the competitors reached years ago. On the reliability front, Java appears to put an application five or more years behind everything else.

Platform compatibility is supposed to be the big feature of Java. For the first two decades of Java, everything else was more compatible. If you use any other language, any of the popular languages for applications and utilities, you write 99 percent of your code without thinking about the operating system then you write the tiny remainder to work the right way in each operating system. Java does not let you write slightly different code for each operating system. Instead you write for a non existent theoretical operating system then Java makes a guess at what it should do in each operating system and, unfortunately, makes some wrong guesses.

I promote open source applications that work across multiple operating systems to help people move across operating systems. Whenever I try to use Java based applications on Linux, Windows, and Unix, they crash. Over the last few years the Java based programs started to work until you build up an important store of information then crash.

OpenOffice could easily be written in a useful efficient programming language but not in our lifetime because Sun own both Java and Openoffice, making the marriage a life sentence. Worse is to come because Oracle now own Sun and will try to force the world to use Java as a way of caching in on Java.

IBM and Google are among the many companies trying to unlock the Java noose and Oracle is suing Google for the same reasons Colonal Gadaffi is shooting his fellow countrymen, power.

Abiword works on more operating systems than OpenOffice because Abiword is not tied to Java.


My netbook has 1 GigaByte of memory while my workstation has 8 GB. The workstation rarely uses more than 2 for one application and rarely more than 3 GB when several applications are active. The netbook quickly fills the 1 GB with 6 applications open. Using large applications creates a real problem in the netbook.

I often have a word processor open while using other applications. I can read and update documentation for projects while working on those projects. I end up with a Web browser browsing several Web pages, an editor editing code, an application displaying and querying databases, the project application running, and the word processor open to the project documentation.

There is an email client using more memory and file browsers. An FTP client is the next application. I often work with more than this mix on the workstation. The netbook will slow down before I reach this far.

A regular application might load 10 MegaBytes of code. The Java equivalent loads 15 MB of Java before loading the application code. The regular application might allocate 20 MB of memory for working storage while the Java equivalent allocates 40 MB or 60 MB, because Java insists on storing simple data as complex objects. Multiply out the memory usage for your standard applications then multiply by two or three for the Java equivalents. One GB looks like plenty of memory until Java hits.

Based on measurements of typical desktop and notebook usage, you need more than 2 GB of memory to use OpenOffice and several other applications with multiple documents. Try email, a Web browser with several Web pages open, and a word processor with two documents open for a comparison. On one of my computers that adds up to more than 1.5 GB and on another it is 2.6 GB. No netbook has enough memory.

OpenOffice without Java

You can use Openoffice without Java. The problem is every part of OpenOffice is infected with a little bit of Java. You can use Openoffice Writer without Java until you want to save the document in docbook format then you need Java. I occasionally need Docbook output. Do I infect the computer with Java or use something else to produce docbook files? Abiword produces Docbook. I can open an OpenOffice document in Abiword and save the document as Docbook.

OpenOffice Impress works without Java. The database access part of Openoffice is unusable without Java. You have a 50/50 chance of using OpenOffice without Java.


Size effects several aspects of computing. Start with the download of software when you want to install free open software on every computer but most people pay for downloads in some way and there is a cost. The 130 MB OpenOffice looks expensive compared to Abiword at less than a tenth of that size.

Now look at space on your disk. Open Office expands out to hundreds of MB. A couple of applications like OpenOffice can blow a GB. The best price point for SSDs is currently at 30 GB. Tick off a couple of GB each for the operating system and page file then a few more for temporary files, 10 GB is gone. If you then installed 20 applications similar to OpenOffice, you are down to 10 GB. Most of my Web site projects are larger than 10 GB when including the source content, images, and documentation.

Try the maths with 20 applications similar to Abiword. You save 9 GB of application space and the page file can shrink by another GB. You now have 20 GB spare instead of 10 GB. Most of my web projects would fit 20 GB. Abiword makes heaps of sense on my netbook. Size on disk is not an issue where I have TeraBytes of disk.

Size dictates how long it will take to start an application. Abiword, Bluefish, and a whole lot of other applications start instantly on my netbook. OpenOffice takes forever by comparison. OpenOffice is also slow on the workstation with unlimited everything.

OpenOffice and Java both install worms by default. The worms infect your operating system, using up resources that slow down your operating system start up. Startup time is of low importance on my workstation which is started only once per day but the combined slow down of Java and OpenOffice is still enough to change their default settings. The same defaults on my netbook would be a disaster.


I tried to download the English version of OpenOffice 3.3.0 and it is available only with Java included. Java is supposed to be downloaded once then shared by every Java based application. OpenOffice makes you download a duplicate Java in OpenOffice.

Java is an open door for viruses

Lots of computers are destroyed by viruses. I have only had one destroyed, out of several hundred, and the virus was introduced by Java. you can understand why I want to use applications without Java.

I had Java switched off in Firefox because Java is such an obvious problem. I applied updates to Firefox and one update secretly switched Java on. A quick search of the Internet, for some technology, produced a mixed list of unknown Web sites. I selected the Web site with the most relevant description. Bang, a banner advertisement used Java to pop in a heap of hidden Windows and one installed a virus. Openoffice might be installed on some of my machines but not with Java.

Easy editing

OpenOffice is slightly easier to use than Abiword. There are more buttons and automated things in OpenOffice. The difference is not important on my netbook where documentation is headed for use in Web pages. The difference is critical on my workstation where the documents aimed at a wider range of uses.

Revision marking

Revision marking makes editing of large documents easier. OpenOffice has useful revision marking. Abiword only recently gained revision marking and I have not used it for a large project.

Stepping around the text

Abiword lets you select a style for text then step through different styles using the up and down arrow keys. This behaviour is different to every other application I use and is incredibly annoying. After I select a style, I have to artificially select a different part of the page to revert the arrows to their normal behaviour.

The Abiword approach might be a good idea for word processing. It is awful for anyone using word processing along side of any other application. Abiword would be better if I could select a profile that made it the same as the standard approach of other applications.

Character formatting

Microsoft Word handles character formatting the way you expect. Learning character formatting in Word is relatively easy because there is a consistency on action. Both OpenOffice and Abiword have so many funny anomalies that both are hard to learn and difficult to use.

If you apply a character style to text up to the last character of the paragraph, both Abiword and OpenOffice apply the formatting to the paragraph. Fail!

If you delete the end of a paragraph, the formatting flows the wrong way. OpenOffice messes up more than Abiword. What you have to do when combining two paragraphs is to practice two actions. create two paragraphs with different formatting. Delete the paragraph mark at the end of the first paragraph and see what happens with the formatting. Repeat the process but this time delete the paragraph mark by selecting the start of the second paragraph then hit backspace.

Repeat the paragraph test. This time add a character style up to the end of the first paragraph then delete. The mess is slightly different between Abiword and Openoffice. The result also varied slightly across different releases. In both applications, some keystroke combinations convert the character style to a paragraph style. You end up having to leave spare characters, usually a space, at the end of every paragraph.

Anyone for spreadsheets?

I have a few spreadsheets on my workstation and need the OpenOffice spreadsheet program. When you install any part of OpenOffice, you install all of the overheads. Adding the OpenOffice writer to the OpenOffice mix adds about the same overhead as adding Abiword. If you need another part of OpenOffice and you have a full size computer, you might as well use the whole lot.

Netbooks and other devices with limited resources benefit from installing only what you actually need.

OpenOffice includes text processing, spreadsheets, drawing, presentation graphics, and a database interface.

The database interface competes against the complexity of Microsoft Access and the simplicity of phpMyAdmin. I know SQL and use web interfaces for everything else. phpMyAdmin is my choice and I never use the OpenOffice database feature or Microsoft Access.

The OpenOffice draw feature is primitive. Inkscape and Gimp are better for the type of graphics I produce.

The OpenOffice presentation program, Impress, is better than Microsoft Powerpoint and is worth installing if you present information that way. I tend to create web pages and present them because the Web pages can be used in other ways.

My default desktop or workstation will include Impress or the OpenOffice spreadsheet eventually, making the full OpenOffice install the easiest approach.

Inserting drawings

Word processing programs let you insert drawings. Microsoft Word had a drawing program then Microsoft purchased Visio to add the Visio application for drawing diagrams. Abiword lets you draw in other applications then insert the drawings or images. OpenOffice has drawing built in and accepts a wider range of external drawings.

The Openoffice drawing facility can be used in both the text processing and presentation programs, giving you more options when you want to use the same diagram in a document and a presentation. Web developers are more likely to create diagrams and graphics in SVG, using Inkscape, for use in Web pages then reuse the diagrams or images in documents and presentations. Openoffice and Abiword both import diagrams, in various formats, and images in various formats. I have not found a commonly used format that does not work in both.


This is one of the exciting new developments in Abiword. So new that i have not tested it. you can have multiple people editing one document at the same time using Abiword. The updates are synchronised between editors.

As I said, I have not tried it. Synchronous editors usually work over the local network or work through a Web browser over the Internet. Abiword gives you a choice of protocols for working over the Internet or a local network. Abiword appears to be ahead of everyone else because it is a full word processor and works both locally and across the Internet.

The one thing I would like to try is the collaboration coupled with revision marking to see how it tracks changes when several people hit the same section of text.

Future development

Abiword is ahead of OpenOffice in some areas, slightly behind OpenOffice in other areas, and is still missing some features already in OpenOffice. I would like to see Abiword developed to the point where it is an equal to OpenOffice Writer in every way. I would like to see OpenOffice replace the few parts of OpenOffice Writer that need Java. Both developments would give us freedom to choose between the two and the freedom to use the applications on small portable devices or to recycle slower old computers for a few more years.


Abiword has definite advantages on computers with limited resources. For everything else, choose based on the features you use.