Need a (free) replacement for Word? Try Abiword

by Jeremiah Foster

Recently I received the same question from two different people; "What is a good replacement for Word on my Mac?" My brother Nathaniel asked me this when his version of Word stopped working on his new Mac. Microsoft apparently is able to install software on Apple's new computers providing a preview of Word amongst other things. When the preview software expires, the software useless unless you pay up. My brother was a little upset, he didn't really understand how the software got on his computer in the first place since he did not install it, and why did it suddenly stop working? And no, he was not prepared to pay for something he thought already belonged to him. He uses his computer for writing, "a glorified word processor" as he called it, but he uses iTunes and does some web surfing too. One would not necessarily call him a "power user."

On the other hand, my good friend Gustav is a power user. He blogs, runs Excel programs he's written, and is teaching himself Ruby on Rails on his machine. He is always running the latest version of OS X and when he asked about a replacement for Word he said he wanted something with a smaller memory footprint that Open Office, which is a bit of a resource hog. Abiword was the perfect thing then, it is just a word processing program, nothing more.

Abiword is a free text editor (free as in beer and as in freedom), licensed under the GPL. Abiword looks a lot like Word, or rather how you expect Word to look. I have no idea what Word looks like today, with the release of Vista surely the interface has changed in Word but I do not use it. Abiword has all the right buttons in the usual places, it is very easy to get acquainted with its interface. It has all the tools you'd expect, spell checking, various formatting, plus some things you might not expect. One very handy feature is that it reads and writes all kinds of documents. You can use it to write html for example and of course it can read all your Word documents (.doc) and rich text (.rtf) documents. Abiword also has a versioning system. This is particularly useful if you make multiple revisions of your documents or need to get back text you wrote previously. It changes the text of different revisions to make it clear what has changed. It even has a built in tool to report bugs so you can aid in the development of the software.

Abiword has been developed for years and has a mature code base. It has versions for nearly every platform including the big three: Mac OS X, linux and Windows. I strongly recommend it to anyone who needs a word processor.


2007-02-26 06:14:25
I love AbiWord. But on my iBook G4 (1.33mhz OSX 10.3.9 1.25mb) it's very flakey. The cursor is often a couple of letters off, the ends of lines of text are often cut off from view though they're still there and can be seen when the text is selected and it crashes.

I've found it to be very dependable on linux and Windows.

2007-02-26 07:34:48
I always thought that TextEdit was a good replacement for Word. You put it into Rich Text Mode and it's pretty darn good. I've been thinking about it too. I've purchased Word when I was teaching so I got the Teacher/Student Version of Office 2004 but I heard that Microsoft is going to abandoned that price point. I've been hearing a lot of great things about Pages but I know your brother is thinking in "Free" terms. So I guess I'm back to TextEdit.
2007-02-26 08:00:07
I don't like AbiWord. It just looks extremely ugly and feels clunky and buggy. For Word compatibility, I use OpenOffice. For generating letters and smaller artefacts, I use Pages. For articles and longer works, I use Mellel. For plain text, BBEdit. For distributed writing, SubEthaEdit. There are plenty of great, mac-like, cheap (or free) Word processors on the Mac. Others that come to mind are Nisus Writer, Mariner Write, TextMate or TextWrangler. All of these can be found on, of course.

One thing to keep in mind is this: If you're a writer, get a word processor you enjoy working in. Don't limit yourself to AbiWord or Microsoft Word just to save a few bucks or be free as in speech. You'll only make yourself unhappy.

2007-02-26 08:25:08
BTW NeoOffice ( port for Mac OS X) is a full office alternative for those, who has to deal with XLS, DOC and PPT files and want a native Mac OS X application (for PPC and Intel ... yes, it's Unibin). AbiWord is evolving silently but not as complete or bugfree as it should be...
2007-02-26 08:29:42
You're kidding, right?

It works OK if you are creating new documents with it, but if you need to open Word documents regularly (such as mountains of incoming resumes), stick with (or the more Mac-friendly version from It does a marvelous job, and will often open a corrupted Word document that even Word itself cannot. Yes, it's a resource hog but it actually works.

Back to Abiword: when opening Word docs, the kerning of the fonts gets totally icked up (I tried about 10 different documents, with which OpenOffice had no problem), and there is no obvious way to fix it (I couldn't find any way at all, gave up). It's worthless if this is what you need it for, and this has been the case for years (I download a new version every now and then to see if they've fixed this problem).

If you want something cheap and a bit less of a resource hog, Apple's "Pages" also does a fine job with most Word docs I've thrown at it, although it does make you do an extra save-as after opening a Word doc (assuming you make any changes).

2007-02-26 10:30:11
Here's a suggestion: if you're going to recommend that people use a piece of software, try to put a link to where they can get it in at least one place on your article, OK? Sure, I know I can Google it, but at this point I just don't have the incentive. Why should 100 readers have to re-do the work that one journalist should have done in the first place?
jeremiah foster
2007-02-26 10:34:45
Sorry I did not include the link Henry, here it is now:

Stephan F
2007-02-26 10:45:58
There are lots of Word replacement but how about Excel. Are there any good spreadsheets beyond Excel and Open Office?
jeremiah foster
2007-02-26 10:51:25
Hmm, good question Stephan, I am going to answer with a qualified yes. It is qualified because in order to use this particular tool you have to have Darwin ports installed and while that is not that hard, it is a little more than most people want to do. The tool is called Gnumeric and handles Excel spreadsheets and look a lot like Excel as well, or how Excel used to look, you can consider it a drop in replacement.

Here is the link for instructions on how to install:

2007-02-26 10:51:53
Honestly, one of the reasons I switched to Mac from the FOSS Unixes is that once in a blue moon, I just can't do without MSWord. I think the major push was when I had to deal with a really nasty template with nested tables.
2007-02-26 11:09:42
Ditto on TextEdit, which Apple has been gradually beefing up over the years without bloating it like Word and and so many others. There's also a freeware enhancement of TextEdit called iText Express ( that adds a few formatting options, sort of halfway between TextEdit and a full featured word processor. If you really need nearly all of Word's features, then NeoOffice works pretty well.
Kelly Martin
2007-02-26 11:36:03
This was an interesting article as I haven't tried Abiword. I use both NeoOffice (the more Mac-friendly version of OpenOffice) and Microsoft Word everyday. I went to Abiword's website and downloaded the program, but version 2.4 doesn't run or install on my Intel-based Macbook Pro. It shows up as a PowerPC application that runs under Rosetta (ugh). Thinking this was an old version, I went to the developer pages... as of this writing, version 2.5.1 is available as source only, unless you want the Windows version. I could compile this on my Mac and it should become a Universal binary... but I will have to read through the compile instructions for OS X to make sure all the extras are compiled in as required.

It's a little disappointing there isn't already a Universal version on the AbiWord website, since it's over a year since the Intel Macs first appeared. But if I can help out, I'll get to work at compiling this thing. Contact me at my website if you want to pass along some recommended compile options.


2007-02-26 12:52:30
I tried almost all the Mac alternatives to Word (including OpenOffice, Abiword, neo-office, etc) and honestly, the best one I found (and was thrilled to find it) was Nisus Writer Express. It can handle Word documents (and templates) but by default saves in RTF. The buttons, etc are very similar to word but not quite - but still very organic. I don't plan to go back. You have to pay for it, but.. it's worth it in my opinion.

2007-02-26 13:53:29
"Nisus Writer Express ... can handle Word documents ... but by default saves in RTF."

Actually, that would put me off. RTF is a nice option to have, but I don't see it as an appropriate default these days, when most decent word-processors are capable of using styles. RTF is the equivalent of "tag-soup" HTML on the web: basically it is a way of _formatting_ your text not _structuring_ it. Now you can get away with that in a wp document in a way that you can't on the web, because it is intended to be printed on paper and in that final form there's no distinction.

But I still prefer to write a properly-structured document--for example, a heading is a heading not large type. Styles also assist in rapidly producing documents with complex layout requirements. You also gain advantages like being able to swap different stylesets in and out (Mellel is particularly good at this). And, as with CSS on the web--bang!--you can change every instance of a particular style throughout a whole document by changing the style.

IMO, that kind of ability in a tool makes RTF look dated.

Open Office's Writer has good support for styling and a good range of styles pre-defined. It's one of the reasons one reviewer preferred it to both KWord and Abiword:

2007-02-26 14:08:45
I think Abiword is very useful if you have old WordPerfect files (I have thousands of them and it has opened them flawlessly when I have needed it to do that), something that, as far as I know, neither MSWord nor OpenOffice/NeoOffice can do.
2007-02-26 15:56:49
I've been using RedleX's Mellel for a while. It's not free but its $49 price is reasonable for a real Mac word processor.

I came to it because I needed a true right-to-left Unicode word processor. But it works just fine the other way. I appreciate its clean UI and stability. And it even exports .doc.

2007-02-26 18:39:24
Would it kill you to add a link?
2007-02-28 12:44:16
I am starting a new job as a freelance writer. I need a program that will allow me to count words, I have not been able to do that on TextEdit. Help!
2007-02-28 14:40:41
flgagenie, open Script Editor and paste in the following text:

tell application "TextEdit"
set x to text of document 1
set wc to (count words of x)
end tell

display dialog "Word count: " & wc

Save that as an application and run it whenever you need a word count. It works best when you only have one document open though, because it only looks at the first open document.

2007-03-01 04:46:45
FARfetched- It worked!! Thank you so much for taking the time to help me. You made my day.
2007-03-01 06:20:11
No problem, flgagenie, I'm glad it worked for you!
2007-04-01 18:57:25
So, no-one is using iWorks then? I find Pages rather useful and saving as Word for sharing is easy. And you get Keynote too. And it is fast. And cheap.
As a teacher, I find it invaluable. The Philosophy seminar I went to recently was divided between lecturers using Powerpoint and Keynote - care to guess who had the better presentations?
2008-02-12 16:09:07
Idiocy abounds when you read the often parroted, meaningless phrase "free as in beer".

Beer is never free

When you go drinking at a "free kegger" someone had to buy the beer and pay rent for the venue (apartment house, house, pavillion). As you freeload drink, someone else controls you by giving you welfare.

Also, true spending happens to brew beer. First, there is the spending of energy, matter and time to grow barley and hops as well as collect water. Next, there is the spending to brew the beer.

Free as in Freedom

Being free within the realm of Freedom means never having to support another man, politically, because that other man gives you hand outs (socialist welfare).

When you accept socialist welware, politicans force others to pay for that welfare with money taken from then under the threat of pay up or go to prison.

Socialist Stallman

Socialist Stallman, with his childish intellect, has no understanding of human interaction. Somehow Stallman missed seeing the entire 20th Century maddness of the murderous Soviet Union and Red China.

Duncan McKenzie
2008-03-21 11:32:46
OpenOffice Writer is a nice program in many ways, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it for its compatibility with MS Word. For one thing, it has a nasty habit if screwing up text that has been marked with highlighter, replacing the highlighting with the same color text background (a different attribute in Word). This will cause no end of complaints from any Word users who receive the document and can't understand why they can no longer erase the highlighting.

On the other hand, if OpenOffice Writer is used on its own, it works well, and its documents have a more structured quality than Word's. (Eg, removing a carriage return won't cause a paragraph to take on the properties of the one following - one of Word's less intuitive quirks.)