Xml Matters #33: Xml For Word Processors

Open source embraces XML as native document format

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Bibliophile, Gnosis Software, Inc.
February 2004

In their recent versions, the three major Free Software word processing programs have all adopted XML formats as their native document format. The approach to XML taken by AbiWord, KOffice's KWord, and OpenOffice.org Writer differs somewhat between the applications-- largely reflecting the underlying development focus of each project. But all open source word processor developers have realized the advantages of XML as a document format: componentization of parsers and writers; openness and formality of format specification; applicability of XSLT and other transformation APIs.


Beyond some abandoned or incomplete efforts, three word processors are available now in actively maintained states. All do an excellent job as word processors; all provide a variety of useful import/export capabilities--include with the widely used, but proprietary, MS-Word format; and all are available in both source and binary form for Linux along with other platforms (on both Free and proprietary OSs). And most interstingly for this column, AbiWord, KWord, and OpenOffice.org Writer all use XML for their native document formats.

For this column, I am not interested in comparing the features, appearance, and user interfaces of the three abovementioned projects. Suffice it to say that all of them have obtained a very nice degree of polish in look-and-feel, and all have a sufficient feature set for creations of most types of business and personal documents. What I am interested in here is the design of XML document formats--the guts inside these projects. An additional Free Software application is worth mentioning in passing here: LyX is a GUI front-end to creation of LaTeX documents. For specialized technical documents--such as those involving many equations or complex cross-referencing--LyX is a good choice, but its learning curve is steep for creating general business correspondences.

A few words on the three projects are worthwhile for those unfamiliar with them. AbiWord is a standalone word processor with an emphasis on cross-platform compatibility, moderate size, and good execution speed. OpenOffice.org is an outgrowth of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice product, which was released under Free Software license, and taken up by a developer community. OpenOffice.org Writer is just part of a suite of inter-operable applications including a spreadsheet, vector drawing program, presentation application, and some other components. Similarly, KWord is part of KOffice (which is itself part of the overall KDE project); KOffice contains even more components than does OpenOffice.org--adding flowcharting, raster image editing, charting, and other applications. In any case, for now we focus only on the word processor component of KOffice and OpenOffice.org.

Testing Document Formats

As you would expect, new versions of these open source word processors usually tweak the document format a bit. Fortunately, XML is well suited to upward changes, which usually can amount to addition of (optional) new attributes and child elements. If done well, earliers versions of applications can even degrade relatively gracefully when they read newer saved documents--usually just by ignoring unfamiliar tags and attributes.

In the XML formats I looked at, DTDs are provided by the project developers, but they tend to be somewhat out of sync with the actual XML documents created by the same version of the applications. Well-formedness is still respected--as you would hope, but creation and parsing seem to be rather informal matters, the final say is the source code that implements the formats, not a DTD or Schema. In other words, the samples below will not validate successfully. To get a look at what documents really look like, I created a very simple test document, shown in screenshot:

Screenshot of simple document

Interestingly--if perhaps not surprisingly--we will see in the XML versions of this document that the representation on the identical document is not unique. Of course, being XML, issues like whitespace normalization allow non-identical files to represent the same infoset; but that is not what I mean. I found that, at least in some details, the exact same formatting can get different markup due to the sequence of user actions that went into the document creation (and perhaps due to other factors too). While this fact is not necessarily a problem--and probably applies equally to binary document formats like MS-Word's .doc format--it seems mildly unfortunate that cannonicalization is not as straightforward at a semantic level as it is at the XML syntax.

Starting Simple: AbiWord

AbiWord uses a relatively simple and straightforward XML document format in which appearance and layout are specified in CSS-like attributes. While many such attributes are directly taken from CSS, the AbiWord developers decided that CSS was insufficient for their needs, so took it only as a starting point.

Although they are a bit long, I would like to present the entire XML source of the word processor documents created. I have prettified these sources, but have verified that my infoset neutral changes do not affect re-import. First the AbiWord version:

<!--------------- simple.abw AbiWord document -------------------#
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE abiword PUBLIC "-//ABISOURCE//DTD AWML 1.0 Strict//EN"
  props="dom-dir:ltr; lang:en-US"
    <m key="dc.format">application/x-abiword</m>
    <m key="abiword.generator">AbiWord</m>
    <m key="abiword.date_last_changed">Tue Feb 10 20:04:46 2004</m>
    <s followedby="Current Settings"
       props="text-indent:0in; margin-top:0pt; margin-left:0pt;
              font-stretch:normal; line-height:1.0; text-align:left;
              bgcolor:transparent; lang:en-US; dom-dir:ltr;
              margin-bottom:0pt; text-decoration:none;
              font-weight:normal; font-variant:normal; color:000000;
              text-position:normal; font-size:12pt; margin-right:0pt;
              font-style:normal; widows:2; font-family:Times New Roman"
  <pagesize height="11.000000"
  <section props="page-margin-footer:0.5in; page-margin-header:0.5in">
    <p style="Normal">Minimal document with <c
       props="font-weight:normal"> and </c><c
       props="font-style:italic; font-weight:normal">italics</c><c
       props="font-style:normal; font-weight:normal">.</c></p>
    <p style="Normal"><c
       props="font-style:normal; font-weight:normal"/></p>
    <p style="Normal"><c
              font-weight:normal">New paragraph with </c><c

A few features stand out. One notable advantage that comes with XML is the use of namespaces to indicate external Schemas developed and refined by other groups. For example, inclusion of equations or figures can be done using MathML or SVG, respectively; the AbiWord developers have no need to re-engineer these capabilities themselves.

Another thing to notice about AbiWord's format is that it only half-heartedly uses XML attributes in describing the rendering of sections or character spans. That is, where some XML formats try to list a priori all the possible formatting in attributes or child tags (named in the DTD), AbiWord simply throws in a generic props attribute that contains CSS-style formatting. This pushes the rendering semantics outside of the XML infoset (for better or worse I am not sure).

Becoming Formal: Oasis

The XML format developed by Sun Microsystems for StarOffice (and taken up by OpenOffice.org), has been assumed by an OASIS Technical Committee (see Resources)--in short, it is on its way to becoming a standard, not simply a format. Moreover, the KOffice project, which previously used its own XML format, has recently decided to move towards native use of the OpenOffice.org format--or some future OASIS enhancement to that format. I find it more useful, therefore, to present the OASIS/OpenOffice.org format than to detail the older KOffice format. That said, current stable versions of KOffice have not yet switched formats as of this writing.

In contrast to the AbiWord format, OpenOffice.org's XML format encompasses all the type of documents supported by OpenOffice.org applications--i.e. not simply word processor documents, but also charts, drawings, and so on. Data of different types is indicated by namespaces for each type, allowing multiple data formats to be embedded in the same document. How and whether a particular application handles a given data type is up to the application; but, for example, one application might pass control for rendering a given data type to another component (either in the same suite, or a wholly external application).

For now we are interested just in the simple word processor document presented above. Let us take a look at it--as with the AbiWord version, I have prettified the XML, but maintained the infoset. Also as with AbiWord's version, the document does not actually validate; in this case the dr3d, form and math namespace attributes are missing from the version of the DTD included with my OpenOffice.org installation (the same one that created this document).. Also, while the below is the content of interest, the complete OpenOffice.org data file is a zip archive containing several ancillary XML documents for settings, metadata, and styles (normally having the extension .sxw):

content.xml from simple.sxw

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE office:document-content PUBLIC
  "-//OpenOffice.org//DTD OfficeDocument 1.0//EN"
<office:document-content office:class="text" office:version="1.0"
    <style:font-decl fo:font-family=""
                     style:font-pitch="variable" style:name="F"/>
    <style:font-decl fo:font-family="Mincho"
                     style:font-pitch="variable" style:name="Mincho"/>
    <style:font-decl fo:font-family="Times"
    <style:style style:family="paragraph"
                 style:name="P1" style:parent-style-name="Standard">
      <style:properties fo:font-style="normal"
    <style:style style:family="text" style:name="T1">
      <style:properties fo:font-weight="bold"/>
    <style:style style:family="text" style:name="T2">
      <style:properties fo:font-weight="normal"/>
    <style:style style:family="text" style:name="T3">
      <style:properties fo:font-style="italic" fo:font-weight="normal"/>
    <style:style style:family="text" style:name="T4">
      <style:properties fo:font-style="normal" fo:font-weight="normal"/>
    <style:style style:family="text" style:name="T5">
      <style:properties style:text-underline="single"
        text:display-outline-level="0" text:name="Illustration"/>
        text:display-outline-level="0" text:name="Table"/>
        text:display-outline-level="0" text:name="Text"/>
        text:display-outline-level="0" text:name="Drawing"/>
      text:style-name="Standard">Minimal document with <text:span
      text:style-name="T1">bold </text:span><text:span
      text:style-name="T2">and </text:span><text:span
    <text:p text:style-name="P1"/>
    <text:p text:style-name="P1">New paragraph with <text:span

The OpenOffice.org format follows a generally similar structure to that of AbiWord. Instead of AbiWord's <p> tag, OpenOffice.org uses <text:p>; and instead of AbiWord's <c>, OpenOffice.org uses <text:span>. A notable difference here is that where AbiWord uses formatting descriptions directly accompanying marked character sequences, OpenOffice.org always uses indirect references to named styles, even where the names of "automatic styles" are generated on the fly by the generating application.

Our sample document also illustrates a point made above about incidental variations in document infosets. For example, notice that the period at the end of the first paragraph is marked as style "T4", while the period in the final paragraph is outside any span. Moreover, looking at the "T4" style definition earlier we see that it merely defines "normal"--i.e. default--font style and weight. In other words, there is no actual reason to mark text with the "T4" style as opposed to leave it as PCDATA of the surrounding paragraph.

Processing An Xml Document

One important advantage of using XML formats like those in the word processors we have looked at is the facilitation of access by new tools to those documents. It is just easier to write new applications that process XML word processor documents than it is to write ones that work with binary formats, especially with proprietary ones. To some extent, RTF (rich text format) achieves a similar goal: RTF is an textual markup format that is publicly documented. But as things have unfolded, there are many more commodity XML parsers to choose from than there are RTF parsers.

One application that obviously comes to mind for working with an XML word processor format is a new word processing application. The hoped-for transparent interoperability between KOffice (KWord) and OpenOffice.org (Writer) is an example of this. But somewhat more modest applications are worth keeping in mind to: indexing, analyzing, summarizing, comparing, or otherwise batch processing documents are also tasks that are frequently useful.

For many of these batch-style applications, XSLT stands out as an obvious processing language--and indeed, existing conversion routines often use XSLT. However, I am much less fond of XSLT than are its proponents. Despite the declarative goal of the language, I usually find its details confusing and difficult to maintain and debug. In any case, what I present below is a very simple utility that utilizes the gnosis.xml.objectify Python XML binding that I have discussed in several previous installments of this column. The utility I present is similar to the -dump option in lynx, only it processes OpenOffice.org Writer documents rather than HTML documents. My utility is crude, but is also extremely concise, thereby demonstrating some XML benefits:


#!/usr/bin/env python
import sys, zipfile
from gnosis.xml.objectify import XML_Objectify, EXPAT, \
                                 children, tagname, content
XML_Objectify.expat_kwargs['nspace_sep'] = None
doc_content = zipfile.ZipFile(sys.argv[1]).read('content.xml')
doc = XML_Objectify(doc_content).make_instance()
write = sys.stdout.write
for o in children(doc.office_body):
    if tagname(o)=="text_p":
        for s in content(o):
            if type(s) is unicode and s.strip():
                write(" "+s.encode('utf-8').strip())
            elif tagname(s)=='text_span':
                write(" "+s.PCDATA.encode('utf-8'))

As well as not necessarily handling every OpenOffice.org construct gracefully (but I think it handles all text content), line wrapping is not peformed for paragraphs. You could easily add this capability, either by using the Python 2.3+ module textwrap, or by piping to the external utility fmt, e.g.:

dumpOO.py in action

$ ./dumpOO.py simple.sxw | fmt
 Minimal document with bold and italics .
 New paragraph with underline .


Free Software and XML document formats are a natural pairing. The inherent readability of XML just makes interchange and format specification easier, and the wide availability of XML libraries makes creation of new tools simple. Moreover, from a biographical perspective, looking at these word processor formats really helped me in seeing the modularity benefits of namespaces--done right, namespaces can leverage the work done by many groups of independent developers.

However, XML itself only goes so far. For example, Microsoft is also moving towards an XML format for future versions of MS-Word; but in contrast to the openness of the OASIS/OpenOffice.org or AbiWord formats, Microsoft is surrounding its format with patent applications and a veil of secrecy around the format variations (plus the simple fact it uses cryptic tag and attribute names rather than self-documenting ones). XML by itself does not really mean "open"--but fortunately, the developers of KOffice, AbiWord, and OpenOffice.org have done a generally wonderful job of obtaining openness with XML (albeit, the wild world of community development still leaves occasional impedence mismatches in, e.g. DTDs).


OpenOffice.org is licensed under a mixture of Free Software licenses (all approved by FSF and OSI). Depending on which components you are interested in, either the PDL, GPL, LGPL, or SISSL may apply; moroever, you have some choices about the license terms you prefer to accept. Information about the project in general, as well as about the licensing specifics, can be found at:


KWord is part of the GPL'd KOffice project.


The set of DTDs used by KOffice components can be found at:


The plans of the KOffice project to switch to using the OASIS/OpenOffice.org file format as its native format was announced following the 2003 KOffice Developers' Meeting:


General resources for the GPL'd Abiword (including downloads) can be found at:


The (non-definitive) DTD for AbiWord can be found at:


An OASIS Technical Committee has been organized to create an open, XML-based file format specification for office applications. The basis of this specification is the StarOffice/OpenOffice.org format specification created by Sun:


The OpenOffice.org project maintains a page related to standardization of document formats between office suites:


About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz once led the desperate life of scholarship. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at http://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed. Check out David's new book Text Processing in Python at http//gnosis.cx/TPiP/.