Linux Word Processing Still Requiring Too Much Thought for Me

A few years ago, I went to a Linux conference, featuring all kinds of corporate Linux advocates, mostly speaking to education issues.

In one of the breakouts, someone from a major Linux company, and a person very much invested in Linux, made an interesting statement. He said Linux would never be a major desktop OS because too many people are too invested in Microsoft Office. He said Office was what kept people in Windows.

His theory was that there were plenty of other non-desktop opportunities for Linux, not that it wasn’t a viable OS.

I heard this five or six years ago. Before the rise of Ubuntu. Before Google Docs. Even before widespread cloud computing.

But word processing is still an issue. Not even word processing, so much as moving documents between operating systems.

(And at this time, I’d like to note that years ago, when I worked in medical publishing, a good one hour out of every day was spent translating Mac files into usable PC files, so I’m not necessarily citing any of this as a fault of Linux, but more as a inter-OS challenge).

On Xubuntu, I use AbiWord, the default word processor. Within the Linux world, I imagine most people use OpenOffice or the upcoming LibreOffice fork.

Even in my GNOME days, I gravitated toward AbiWord (when I needed a formally formatted document and couldn’t get away with a text file) because OpenOffice just didn’t make sense to me. It felt slow and bloated, trying unsuccessfully to mimic Microsoft Office, but seemingly only able to port over the worst aspects.

AbiWord is simple. It can’t do much, but it can make a typed page look OK.

The challenge I run into is maintaining formatting across operating systems — specifically citations. Even something as simple as a hanging indent doesn’t seem to consistently remain when shipped (via RTF) from one OS to another.

I’ve spent some time with Google Docs, and while it’s very convenient, allowing me to work on articles across operating systems and physical computers, there’s definitely a lag when you work in it, and it’s just enough of a lag to be a dealbreaker for me. Plus, printing is a two-step process (download the PDF and print the PDF), although word on the street is that might be changing soon.

I could write locally, upload to Google Docs, format, and then download the converted file, but that too seems a step or two labor intensive.

For right now, I usually try and send out final drafts of articles from work, where I have access to Microsoft Word and can clean them up before shipping them off.

When I can’t get to my work PC, I just kind of ignore the formatting and trust editors to fix things for me. I like to imagine everything needs to be reformatted between my document and their pagination systems. But I also worry they think I don’t know how to do simple citation formatting.

To sort of remove this barrier once and for all, I’m getting ready to explore LaTeX, a document markup language. It’s very popular with math/science/technical people who need to use formulas in their documents, but I believe it also has a small following among control freaks, like myself, who want to control every aspect of their document themselves (not unlike AppleWorks used to allow me to do, back on my family’s IIe clone).

There’s a LaTeX plugin for gedit, so I’ll get to stick to my favorite editor. To move from LaTeX to RTF, I’ll probably use something like pandoc, which converts a variety of markup languages into other markup languages. I like the idea of LaTeX, because there are also ways to convert LaTeX outlines into presentations. Beamer is one such project.

(The lack of decent presentation software for Linux is another thorn in my side. I’m usually too rushed to use S5, so I wind up using PowerPoint at work.)

Moving files between Linux and Windows is much, much easier, but it still isn’t perfect. I’m hoping LaTeX will be the method to make sure more complex word processed documents look relatively close to the same on Linux machines and on Windows boxes.

Otherwise, I may develop a standard formatting disclaimer to send off with my Xubuntu-created word processed documents.