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Why is there no decent Mac word processor?

The late Isaac Asimov famously resisted computers for many years. With good reason: Until relatively late in his life, they couldn't have kept up with him. His workspace was infamous. He kept several long tables in the attic of his town house, arranged in a big "U", with an IBM Selectric (the fastest typewriter available then or since) every few feet. Each smaller workspace was set up to work on a different project, or part of a project. When he got bored working on one thing, he'd simply roll over to another project.

I got into computers to use word processors. That's not true: I got into computers to manage prose. That was really my dream: To manage prose, which meant managing ideas, managing text, searching seamlessly through stuff that I'd written, changing on the fly, getting rid of hard copy, automating tedious tasks.... I imagined a day when I'd be able to store large amounts of text and search through them easily. I imagined a day when I'd be able to effortlessly switch back and forth between projects the way that Asimov would wheel from one Selectric to the next.

That was in the mid-80s; I'm part of the way there. I use (and have used for something around ten years) a multi-tasking computer that lets me keep multiple projects in progress (dare I say "a la Asimov"?); with wireless networking, I can get connected to the Internet in a surprising and growing number of places; I have a small, light, powerful laptop that lets me do real work when away from an "office."

But I still don't have the text tools that I really want. OS X 10.4 has nice meta-data-aware indexing, implemented in a fairly efficient way; it also has good solid multitasking and power management. But it's still lacking one thing:

It doesn't have a decent word processor.

What would a word processor need to have for me to regard it as "decent"? At a high level, it needs to fulfill three basic criteria:

  1. It has to have good usability characteristics.
  2. It has to support all of the basic, required business functionality that people nowadays expect from a word processor.
  3. It has to be able to interchange files with no meaningful loss of information or formatting with the people with whom I need to work.
Those are actually pretty loaded criteria. Let's break them down a little:
  1. Usability: By this I mean that it has to stay out of my way and let me work. It has to not require that I do a lot of things with the mouse. It has to not place unusual constraints on me, like saving everything into some proprietary "project" or "drawer".
    1. Good interaction performance: Screen writes need to be fast and free of artifacts, document navigation actions like page up and page down need to be quick.
    2. It must be easy to do basic, standard things like move to different points in a document. There are conventional ways of doing this that might be CUA, but are probably just convention: Ctrl-End to move to the end of the current document, Ctrl-Home to move to the beginning, Ctrl-Up-Arrow to go back one paragraph, etc. You will find these conventions honored on the majority of Windows (and *nix) editors and word processors, with spotty acceptance on the Mac.
    3. It must at least be possible to de-clutter the visual field -- to remove extraneous noise. As an example, many find word processors have for many years offered a "full screen" mode that brings that page to your focus and blocks out all other programs. That's an extreme example; Word and OpenOffice 2.0 have a "draft mode" that's pretty good in that regard.
  2. Features: Again, pretty loaded, but at a minimum I think a useful business word processor absolutely has to support the following -- these are things that I have found myself using again and again in preparing business documents, and they save incredible amounts of time:
    1. Automatically formatted (and numbered) lists and outlines. This might seem picky, but if you don't understand the need for it, you haven't really created many complex business documents. Consider a project plan document, that might have a list of things in order. On review, the order changes. If your list has 50 items, you might need to change 50 ordinal numbers. (This has been available in MS Word, WordPerfect, StarOffice/OpenOffice, and many others for many years.)
    2. Section-sensitive headers and footers. I.e., start a new section, you can change the presentation or content of the headers and footers.
    3. Automated tables of contents.
    4. A simple way to format the first page of a simple document differently than the subsequent pages. This has been possible for many years in Word, WordPerfect.
    5. It must implement style-based formatting at at least the character and paragraph levels; more than that (such as page styles) might be overkill, since my experience so far suggests that they don't interoperate well. Furthermore, though, it must be possible to import styles from other documents or from some kind of repository. The feature is dramatically less useful without that capability.
  3. Interoperability: The software must, must, must be able to both import and export files -- files, not text, but files (this is important, guys, please listen) -- in one or more widely used formats. For practical purposes right now, that means that it must be able to interchange files with Word 2000 and later versions on the Windows platform. OASIS OpenDocument format compatibility would be nice from a future-proofing standpoint, but I'm already seeing some indications that the OpenDocument format may go places where it's not very inter-operable with Word's native RTF. So interoperability with RTF, clumsy and locked-in as it is, is what's needful.
    1. No information should be lost in an import/export. E.g., you should never ever lose footnotes/endnotes; you should not lose change tracking; you should not lose bookmarks.
    2. No formatting should be altered in an import/export. Obviously that's easier said than done -- especially with a poorly-documented format like RTF -- but OpenOffice and Word have come surprisingly close.

It's a fact -- and this is not seriously disputable by any honest and experienced user of both platforms -- that Windows (and to lesser extent Linux) beat all but one (arguably two) of the available Mac word processors hands down on all these counts.

I leapt into using a Mac with the assumption I'd be able to find what I needed when I got here, and for the most part, that's been true. Some glaring exceptions: There really aren't any good music players (iTunes is a sad and cynical joke), and -- most glaringly -- there are no (repeat, no, repeat, no capable, stable, usable, general purpose word processors.

The field of modern word processors is pretty small to begin with. On Windows you've basically got Word, OpenOffice, and WordPerfect, with a few specialist players. Down the feature ladder a bit you've got AbiWord lurking in the shadows: It's pretty stable on Windows, and does most of what you'd need to do for basic office word processing, but it has some problems translating Word docs with unusual features like change tracking.

On *nix, you've always got OpenOffice and AbiWord. In addition, you've got kWrite, which is about on feature-par with AbiWord, but tends to remain more stable version to version.

To be fair, there are a lot of word processors available for the Mac. But few of them really fill the minimal requirements for a business word processor, and those few fail in critical to borderline critical extended requirements. And what's most frustrating for me is that it's been that way for years, and the situation shows no real signs of changing.

Here are the players on the Mac:

Word (Mac)

The Good: It supports all the basic, required business features.

The Ugly: Performance sucks, and so does price. I

OpenOffice 1.1.2
The Good: Supports all the basic, required business features.
The Ugly:The two big problems are that it requires X11 and that it's not up to version with OO on the other platforms. I don't think. Truthfully, I haven't tried it yet, but my expectation is for poor performance. In any case, OpenOffice is in general clumsier than Word on a PC. That may not be true versus MacWord. Also, it does lack some Word features I've come to be very very fond of: Chapter navigation in the sidebar, and (this is a real biggie) the Outline Mode document view.
NeoOffice/J 1.1.4

The Good: Price -- it's free. Features -- it's got all the basic features, just as OpenOffice 1.2 does. By all accounts, it's more stable and performs better than OOo 1.1.2 does on a Mac. This is what I use every day, for better or worse. It's very impressive for what it is; I'd just like it to be more.

The Ugly: Rendering performance is flaky. It's hard to de-clutter the visual field -- there's nothing analogous to Word or OOo 2.x's "draft mode". NO/J is somewhat unstable from build to build, though genuine stability issues seem to get fixed pretty quickly, and the software will (theoretically) prompt you when there's a new patch or version available. Unpredictable behavior with regard to application of styles -- e.g. I apply a style, and it often doesn't fully obtain. Some of these problems get addressed on a build by build basis, but it's hard to know which are bugs and which are core defects of OOo. This is OO 1.x, after all, which was kind of flaky in the best of times.

Nisus Writer Express

The Good: Small, fast, good-looking, and the drawer-palette is less obtrusive than Word 2002's right-sidebar. RTF is its native format, which gives the (false) hope that it will have a high degree of format compatibility with Word.

The Ugly: I had high hopes for this one, but it's been disappointing to learn that it fails in some really critical areas. Format compatibility with Word is hampered by the fact that it's missing some really important basic features, like automatic bullets and outlining. I use those all the time in business and technical writing -- hell, just in writing, period. I don't have time to screw around adding bullets or automating the feature with macros, and because the implementation for bulleted or numbered lists is via a hanging indent, the lists won't map to bullet lists or numbered lists in Word or OO. Ergo, NWE is useless for group work. This is intriguing to me, since they've clearly done some substantial work to make it good for handling long documents, and yet they've neglected a very basic formatting feature that's used in the most commonly created kind of long document, business and technical reports: Automatically numbered lists and outlines.

Interestingly, it also fails to import headers and footers. I would have expected those to be pretty basic. Basically, this isn't exactly a non-starter, but it's close.

AbiWord 2.x

The Good: Free.

The Ugly: Unstable and has poor import and rendering performance in the Mac version. I know the developers are working on it, but there's only one guy working on the OS X port right now so I don't have high hopes. Also, it's not as good for long technical documents as Word or OO would be.


The Good: Don't know; haven't tried it. People swear by it for performance, but see below.

The Ugly: File compatibility. Doesn't read OpenOffice files or OpenDocument (OASIS-standard) files, and has a native format that isn't RTF. That makes me think it's a waste of time to even bother to evaluate it. I don't need to be screwing around with something new if I'm going to run up against the same file compatibility issues I have with Nisus.

The Good: Cheap. Light. Quick.

The Ugly: Features. As in, ain't got many.

Apple Pages

The Good: Inexpensive. Conforms to the Mac UI.

The Ugly: Conforms to the Mac UI -- which means that it requires finger-contorting key combinations to do basic things without using the mouse, and makes poor use of the screen. And it's severely lacking in features: Apparently it can't export very well to RTF, which is odd, considering how deeply Apple has ingrained RTF into their system.

Why am I mincing words, here? Pages, based on what I know about it, is the same kind of sad and cynical joke as iTunes. It's a piece of brainwashing; it's eye-candy; it's got nothing very useful to anyone who does anything serious with documents.

For the time being, it looks as though I'll be sticking with NeoOffice/J, and at some point installing the OO plus X11 package to see how ugly that is.

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