What would Microsoft Word look like if you stripped it of all the buttons, features, and gimmicks you've never used, and if you kicked out the obnoxious menus that forced their way into the 2007 edition like rowdy wedding guests?
Such a stripped-down Word would remind many longtime users of the simpler, faster, easier Word of yesteryear. Instead of merely yearning for the old days, however, you can download a free copy of AbiWord, a Gnu open-source word processor that behaves much like a time capsule for Microsoft Word at its prime. Regardless of whether the unsung programmers who've developed AbiWord intentionally set out to resurrect an older, better word processor, that's what they've done. And it just happens to work with older Word-document formats and older formats from other programs too (though not with the Word 2007 .docx format).
AbiWord's screen is clean and uncluttered. In the space of two toolbars, AbiWord manages to put within reach 99 percent of the tasks just about anyone needs out of a word processor, including formatting, styles, layout, spelling check, and printing, as well as symbols, footnotes, mail merge, and hooks to insert art. If you do need something more esoteric, say, math formulas or language translations, you can add them with plug-ins, some of which are ready and waiting while others are under development. If you have a pressing unique need but you don't even know how to program your microwave, you can always offer one of the dozens of programmers who volunteer on AbiWord a fee for custom work. Try that with Microsoft sometime.
Download AbiWord (Free)
Open-source groups are not the source of all free software. Atlantis Nova, a commercial program from Sun Solutions, is a great little word processor that does everything--except charge you a bundle.
Atlantis Nova is a Microsoft Word competitor that adheres to the 10/90 theory of software design: It provides the 10 per cent of word processing features that most people need to get 90 per cent of their work done. And it's small enough--684KB installed--to fit on a USB thumb drive.
While the free Nova version is not a total replacement for Microsoft Word, it is a delight to use in its own right. You handle most tasks outside of basic typing through icons, which you control by a switch that instantly flips you between two sets of three-line, icon-studded toolbars. Atlantis Nova is perfect for traveling with an underpowered and cramped notebook, and it's not bad on a desktop machine either.
If you need to include specialized content (such as differential equations) in your documents or if you want to create indices and tables of references, you'd best look elsewhere, perhaps in the direction of the new Atlantis Word Processor, the brawnier big sibling of Nova, which costs US$35 (with a 30-day free trial); it includes features such as automatic spelling-as-you-type, double precautions against losing documents, drag-and-drop functions, encryption, and a "control panel" to handle complex layouts.
Download Atlantis Nova (Free)