It looks like I'm going to be buying Microsoft Office for the Mac after all. I had hoped to avoid it -- not because I'm anti-Microsoft, which I'm not, but rather because I just wanted save the hundreds of dollars that Office costs. However, I was unable to find a suitable substitute among all the alternatives I tried.
I was thwarted by just one feature: I need a word processor that handles comments in exactly the same way Microsoft Word does.
When you add a comment to a Word document, it appears in a little bubble off to one side of the text, with a line leading back to the specific text segment you're commenting on.
I tried the open-source OpenOffice.org, as well as its Mac-specific version, NeoOffice, and neither one of those handles comments the way Word does. As far as I've been able to determine, they use something called "notes" instead of comments, and these notes appear onscreen in the form of tiny, yellow squares, which you then have to hover your mouse over to read.
The online word processor Zoho Writer doesn't do comments at all, as far as I've been able to determine.
Sounds like a minor matter, I know. But one of the main things I do with Office is exchange electronic documents with other people, with comments added.
I'm also concerned that if I use a non-Office word processor, the files won't be completely Office-compatible.
I'm willing to spend $300 (the street price of Office) to achieve those goals.
Still: $300. Ouch.
On the other hand, if you're looking for an Office suite for the Mac or the PC, I urge you to look long and hard at alternatives before you shell out hundreds of dollars for the Microsoft product. NeoOffice, OpenOffice.org, and Zoho are all mature products, and may satisfy your needs. You also can look for Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Ajax13. Indeed, Wikipedia lists 19 different word processors for Windows and Pure-Mac.com lists a dozen word processors for the Mac.
Meanwhile, a friend pointed me to an interesting, special-purpose word processor for the Mac: CopyWrite is designed especially for fiction writers, especially novelists. It's designed to let you keep notes in parallel with your work in progress, jotting down details on characters, settings, and other story elements you'll want to refer back to as you go. It looks pretty good and, since I do commit fiction in my spare time, I plan to give it a whirl soon. At $29.99, I can afford to buy it if it looks as good as it sounds.
It exports to standard RTF format, to make file-sharing easy. I don't know how it handles Word-style comments; it's not an issue for me in this task.
The vendor, Bartas Technologies, gets points for coming up with a great try-before-you-buy policy: You can use CopyWrite for an unlimited time, but you can only create five documents (they call a document a "project") and you can't export to RTF, although they note that you can cut-and-paste text between CopyWrite and other applications. A generous try-before-you-buy policy is just plain good business if you've got a good product; get the user hooked and, when the evaluation is drawing to a close, the user will be reaching for their credit card in a cold sweat of fear as they face the prospect of losing the ability to use the software that's become precious to them. (Are you listening, Mark/Space and Micro Logic?)
And Merlin Mann of 43 Folders raves about Scrivener, a word processor designed to combine tools for recording research, brainstorming, outlining, and final writing, all in one. It's $34.99.