I came across an interesting project this weekend that is basically a proof of concept for an idea I've been wrangling with for a while now. But this project actually exceeds my expectations, which is what makes it so interesting. It goes like this: What would happen if a group of developers got together and created a word processor that duplicated, say, 90% of the functionality in Microsoft Word? And then they released this product, for free, over the Internet? In my imagined version of this scenario, this product would run on Linux, not Windows, of course, since that's where you'd be likely to see this sort of development occur.

Well, it's happening. But it's much more exciting than what I had imagined because the product--called AbiWord--is in active development and it runs on Windows 9x/NT/2000, Linux, Solaris, and the Be OS. The creation of this word processor is happening under the banner of Open Source, so the source code is freely available; only the AbiWord name is copyrighted (as is Abi, the name of the company creating it).

What's most amazing about this project, however is that its native file format is XML, not yet another proprietary format. And it also reads and writes HTML, RTF, plain text, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Word documents for compatibility.

AbiWord is also beginning to support some of the more advanced Word features, such as on-the-fly spell checking, though the current version doesn't yet support that nice right-click correction feature we're used to in Word (remember, this thing is in active development; it's not done yet).

In its current form, AbiWord isn't complete and certainly can't replace Microsoft Word on any typical user's system. But the kernel of the idea is there and you can see that this is going to be something special, a true competitor for Word. And it's free. In the future, when this product is "feature complete," it will make a compelling case for foregoing the expense of Microsoft Word. And it runs on Linux and the Be OS, which makes it compatible with the other leading Intel x86 OSes.

For more information, please visit the Abi Web site.

The Windows download is currently less than 1 MB, which is pretty impressive; it also makes one wonder why Word 2000 is so huge. Granted, you're not going to get all of Word's features... yet. But I suspect most of the important ones are on the way. This is definitely a product to watch.

--Pau