Composer, a Potential .html Based Word Processor

ATTN: An edited version of this article was published by FSM (Free Software Magazine), in issue #22, at FSM .

Rosalyn Hunter writes about Composer and the fact that she uses Composer as a stand-in word processor. I too, have used Composer as a replacement word processor. As I as of late work on OS X and because Abiword is available for OS X, I’ve tried it –but it’s OS X port leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, it has serious viewing issues –in the way of displaying illegible fonts.

I like Composer for various reasons. I’m quite familiar with it, as in the past I’ve used it for website authoring. It creates HTML (.html) –a markup language– files. I’ve come to the conclusion, “.html is not a bad “language” to use for a word processor”, considering that it already allows for basic editing, and then some, features.

Composer Features
Here are the reasons for why Composer (as a word processor) makes a decent stand-in. Keep in mind that these features are not revolutionary, but the point is that one need not resort to an overblown word processor to get these features, that Composer really can be used as temporary replacement word processor and even that it makes a good basis for a word editor –due to these features.

Basic Features

  • supports basic formatting (indenting, paragraphs, bulleting, etc)
  • supports various fonts
  • supports tables
  • supports images
  • has a spell checker (dictionary)
  • embedding hyper-links is easy

Universality of HTML

  • supports multiple character encodings, the near universal UTF-8 and my past favorite ISO-8859-3 for southern European languages. It even allows for a quick and simple conversion from one to another.
  • .html is a markup language that’s humanly understandable, if you want to read it. For the tech inclined, it even allows for low level hacking under the source tab. Don’t try to read any word processor’s file format after opening it up in a text editor.
  • supports ftp transferring, allowing the saving of documents to ftp servers
  • created documents can be easily integrated into .html based emails, just copy and paste
  • Lastly and perhaps most importantly, .html files can be viewed by any browser on any operating system (provided an Internet browser is accessible). Imagine putting a stop to friends and colleagues saying, “I can’t open that file. Can you buy (the latest) Word?”

To elaborate on the economical size of .html files … as with Scribus , Composer does not save images “within” the .html files it produces. This allows for a small sized documents. File size gains can be further leveraged by placing images –meant to be viewed in documents– on-line on ftp servers and have the document link to them via Internet for viewing. Pathways from .html documents to images need to remain constant, though. Otherwise, images will not be found to be where expected and consequently not shown.

Reasons Why Composer is Not Ordinarily Used as a Word Processor
So why hasn’t Composer been extended into a word processor? I’m not sure … maybe it’s because Microsoft Word won the most mind share. Also, OpenOffice and even Abiword are rather well established. There is also NeOffice for OS X, a Java based porting of OpenOffice to OS X. In the end, I usually find these slow, huge file downloads, and buggy. Word start quickly (on Windows anyway), but I recall that the trick to this is that Microsoft keeps Word in ram at all times. This is not to say that Composer doesn’t have it’s own issues, but given the slow start-up times, and overall sluggishness and memory use of the established apps, why use not use Composer. On the other hand, a Composer shortcoming is that it misses layout capability. It’s difficult to see what is going to hard-print beforehand. Another short-coming is that it prints a pathway header, which is undesirable and unsightly. A work around is to print it from Shiira 2.0 b2 which doesn’t insert the header. The selecting of paper size and wysiwyg implementation would be all that is needed to make Composer a respectable basic word processor.

There is another reason that no one has taken up in this .html processor idea. There already is a markup based writer’s program and its been around for decades, although accompanied with a steep learning curve. It’s called LaTeX. It provides professional quality usage and results. Unfortunately, it’s limited to academia and has never won avid support among laymen. It’s also a nuisance to install, with numerous and sizable files coming from various sources with various licenses. For instance, to get a working install, you must have a front-end, but front-ends do not provide the plethora of back-ends needed for a simple run of the mill install. Another problem again is interoperability; Common programs, such as Internet browsers, do not display LaTeX files. On the other hand, I don’t think .html renders mathematical equations, as does LaTeX. But then again, most of us don’t need to display them. There are some “work arounds” for installing LaTeX on OS X. For instance there are two installers, MacTex and i-Installer, freeing you from manually installing multiple files, whose functionality is not always clear.

The fact that this article juxtaposes two opposing approaches does not escape me. Word processors format words, while LaTeX is a document processor (or are said to be document orientated). Early on, word processors differentiated themselves from text editors in that they added styling to ordinary alpha-numericals. LaTeX differs in that it deals with wysiwyg, equations, and frees the writer from formatting. Both previsouly said, concepts are not lost on me, rather an application such as Composer allows for both approaches. That is, Composer easily allows text processing, the stylisation of individual or groups of words, while CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) could allow for a document orientated take. That is, CSS could work as templates, thus freeing the writer from formatting and to simply write, perhaps implementing the template afterwards or synchronously (”as you go”) by simply plugging words into the template. As for the typical critique of .html presentation inconsistency, CSS increases uniformity. Add the cross platform universality of .html and the fact that produced files are viewable in any browser (even curses based ones), and you have a powerful writing tool. As should be obvious by now, Composer needs development to make it a word/document processor envisioned herein.

Scribus, an XML Markup Page Layout Attempt
There is a Libre program that offers the layout elements missing from Composer. It’s a page layout program called Scribus , and an OS X port is available (Scribus/Aqua). It’s fairly easy to install, just a few dependencies in addition to the Scribus program. The learning curve is not steep, just different from word processors. Last I checked, the OS X port was a little rough around the edges (slow, and key-bindings don’t always hook, so use the menus) but it’s workable (with occasional crashes). The port is sure to stabilise in the future as work progresses and a native Intel port is eventually released. Even so, the problems are OS X specific (it flies on Gnu-Linux, though). It produces its own XML based .sla file format, without self-contained images contained (keep image pathways constant). As you might already have deduced, .sla documents are not viewable with most other programs, but Scribus can convert to universal .pdf and .eps files (among others) with great resolution (what are undoubtedly larger than .html files). Setting aside file size issues, I still prefer the .html approach because it’s easier to edit .html files than it is to edit .pdf or .eps files. Afaik, you can’t render images remotely with .sla as you can with .html, either.

Other .html Word Processor Attempts
There are/have been a few attempts at a .html word processor, although not with Composer. FLWriter fits the bill, EZ editor does as well (it also does equations), and GWP (GNOME Word Processor) may have had similar aspirations (hard to tell as their site is really slow, check GNOME for source). Afaik, only FLWriter is currently under development, and in alpha stage. Thus, Composer –being that it is mature– would seem to be the natural candidate onto which add page layout capability –to create a useful word/document processor– for a dual purpose word and document orientated processor. Most of it is already written.

Maurice Cepeda

This is licensed under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License. All brands mentioned are properties of their respective owners. By reading this article, the reader forgoes any accountability of the writer. The reading of this article implies acceptance of the above stipulations. The author requires attribution –by full name and URL– and notification of republications.

EZ Editor

GWP (previously XWord)


SeaMonkey (contains Composer)


On LaTeX:
LaTex OS X Installers

LaTeX Orientation

LaTeX Front-ends

Other LaTeX Info or Implementations


One thought on “Composer, a Potential .html Based Word Processor

  1. Pingback: My Composer Article Gets Picked Up « Le Blog de Maurice

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