(with comments by Adam C. Engst, email@example.com)
We're experimenting with a new distribution method with this review of Nisus. Quite frankly, it's not a program that can be trifled with in a review, and the TidBITS review will be rather long. Our reviewer, Matt Neuburg, didn't help matters by including extremely useful information that belongs not so much in a review, but in a third party book about the program. As a result, we're distributing this issue in three different forms. First comes this preview for people who don't know if they will be interested in reading the full review. Second will come the review, broken up into several issues to fit through gateways. Third and finally, the extended review, which includes the detailed nuts and bolts information that doesn't really fit in a review, will be submitted as a separate file to archive sites and file sections without a TidBITS issue number. Our apologies if this seems confusing, but it seemed to be the best compromise.
Nisus Introduction -- Nisus 3.06, the dark horse of the Mac word-processing world, is a paradox. Devoted users world-wide swear by it; yet it remains relatively unknown, and in a comparative evaluation of word processors in the Sep-91 Macworld it was not ranked top in any of seven document categories. Nisus provides tremendous flexibility, and incorporates features borrowed from far pricier page-layout programs; yet it lacks some basic functions necessary to produce acceptable formal copy. It comes with a powerful macro/programming language; yet that language is nearly devoid of fundamental page-description capacities. Nisus is a pure original, a rethinking of the philosophy of word processing on the Mac from the ground up; yet its creators often seem not to have considered the most elementary needs of word processor users. It is the best of word processors; it is the worst of word processors.
Nisus is cobbled together from so many elements, and its look and feel is so different from other word processors, that only a large description can give a fair sense of it. Imagine Nisus as three worlds piled upon one another, of which we will explore each in turn. The bottom is the hugely powerful search-and-replace and macro/programming capabilities from which Nisus derived its earliest incarnation (QUED/M). The top is a suite of page-layout-like capabilities such as page placing, graphic characters, updatable cross-references, footnotes, indexing, and so on. The middle is the word processor itself, where you see, navigate, edit, and format your document. The search-and-replace and macros are solid and worth buying the whole program for, and the word processor milieu is a brilliant tool for entering and editing text, but the page-layout features are, on the whole, badly enough constructed that you could not use Nisus as your chief word processor for generation of large formal documents. Nisus styles itself "The Amazing Word Processor," but I view it more as "The Amazing Text Processor;" creating and editing text is a blast and a half, but building certain types of complex printable documents may prove almost impossible.
[See the next few issues of TidBITS for the full review.]
Nisus Conclusions -- For large documents with layout needs such as tables, Nisus cannot compete with Microsoft Word. But it is perfect for what I bought it for: conversion of documents from other formats into Mac format. I would rather compose the basic text of a document in Nisus than in any other word processor I know. In fact, Nisus's search-and-replace and macro facilities are so handy and powerful, and its Rulers and Styles so convenient, that one is actually tempted to use it also as a sort of front end for Word.
But although I love Nisus's look-and-feel, and give its creators an A for effort in their rethinking of how a word processor can operate on the Mac, the point I keep returning to is that despite my genuine longing to use Nisus as my sole word processor of choice, I cannot. Things that I find constantly necessary that are easy in Word - the writing and appearance of footnotes, placing paragraphs in complex ways, tables and side-by-side paragraphs - are clumsy, difficult, or downright impossible in Nisus. These things won't change until Paragon recognizes the problems and makes time to fix them, something which can be difficult for a small company that provides at least seven different language versions of its software. Those of us who want a word processor with the features needed to write a book without the expense of a full page-layout program are going to have to go on, for better or for worse, riding a different train. But don't forget: I wouldn't be writing these words if I didn't love so much about Nisus as to wish fervently that it would fix its tables and footnotes and beat the pants off the Microsoft juggernaut.
[Adam] I agree the footnote facilities could be better, and there are some quirks with the way styles and rulers interact at times, but when it comes right down to it those are document processing and page layout features. I feel that Paragon added those features to compete in the advertising check box wars with Word, not because they wanted to make Nisus into a serious page layout tool. Nisus is and always has been a text processor, not an document processing tool.
I applaud Paragon's unique approach in writing a program that is not just another word processor because a large portion of the time spent creating any document must perforce be spent writing it. We need better writing tools and Paragon has provided that. I'm even willing to jump to the other side of the fence and suggest that they should strip out all those things that are merely lip service to the great god of desktop publishing. (Matt: And in a way I agree; my whole point is that Paragon should either make its bells and whistles fully useful or eliminate them altogether.) I'm sure that Paragon is considering these comments and those from other users seriously and will deal with many of them in future versions of Nisus, although I have no idea when we might see that next version.
Nisus's true calling will come when Nisus XS, the module for 3.06 that will enable full AppleEvents and interapplication communication, ships sometime this spring. What I'd like to see is all those programs that require sometime significant amounts of text editing, QuickMail, uAccess, FileMaker, PageMaker, etc., all link to Nisus's text editing and manipulation tools so we can have an advanced writing environment no matter what we're writing. Too many programs use Apple's limited TextEdit routines. Let's face it, Nisus stands no chance of taking over the word processing market from Word, but it would be an incredible coup if suddenly all the major programs could link to Nisus and use its full power in whatever context made sense. I congratulate Paragon on providing a program that stands out, a program with a difference, and I encourage them to continue on their unique and often misunderstood path.