When Steve Jobs introduced Safari at a Macworld keynote two years ago, it made me wonder what else Apple might have had tucked away, somewhere on some hard drive in some office of some manager somewhere in Cupertino.

After all, announcing a replacement for Microsoft Internet Explorer was a pretty bold move. To my rheumy old eyes, it almost seemed like an aggressive move. It’d been a long time since Steve had used any portion of a keynote to indicate to Microsoft that they were free to kiss his Vegan white backside at their convenience… and now here he was, telling the whole world that the single most important application on the planet simply wasn’t good enough for Mac users, and that Microsoft was therefore free to take the aforementioned app and stick it up their aforementioned body part.

Of course, it needed to be done. Internet Explorer was woefully inadequate. Still, if Safari was a terrific gift to Mac users, it was also a clear message to Microsoft: we can do without you. Even back in 2003 I had to believe that Apple had plans to do to Microsoft Office what they did to Explorer: to find a free, open-source alternative to the world’s standard, and give it the full “Pygmalion” treatment, ridding it of its coarse open-source accent and sticking it in a sharp ballgown. It’s been said – by me, in fact – that if Microsoft ever really wanted to kill the Macintosh, all they’d have to do is discontinue Office. It only makes sense that Apple would try to have their own professional-grade productivity suite ready to go, in case Dr Strangelove ever found the keys to the bunker. The open-source community has made wonderful strides with OpenOffice.org, but at this writing, development of a true Mac-like edition has stagnated.

I still think Apple’s working towards the goal of weaning itself off its Microsoft dependence, just like Obi-Wan Kenobi did in the movie Trainspotting – and it deserves our emotional support during this trying period. As any viewer of that fine film learns, getting off the smack is a gradual process and you can expect setbacks across the way. Apple made a great start with Safari; Explorer cracked in two and sank during the opening salvo. Next, Apple targeted PowerPoint. Keynote won my heart with its very first release. Every time I created a presentation with PowerPoint, a little animated assistant would come up at some point and say “I see that you’ve inadvertanetly created a series of slides that are clear, interesting and will hold your audience’s attention; would you like me to correct this for you?” So Keynote won my heart right away.

Still, it’s been a war of attrition. Keynote 1.0 was impressive but 2.0 is miles ahead of it, thanks chiefly to its export abilities and its more-muscular tools for actually conducting presentations. We’ve yet to achieve victory, but we’re probably nearing the stage where PowerPoint starts making quiet rumblings about having achieved its primary tactical and strategic goals for the region and being ready to make long-term plans for force-reductions.

And now we have Pages, Apple’s answer to Microsoft Word. I’ve been using it exclusively for the past couple of weeks, and I feel confident in describing it as the Methadone of word processors. That is, using it leaves you with much the same problems as you had when you were on the real stuff… except now, you’re no longer supporting an evil world-wide economy of pain and exploitation. It’s definitely a step forward but clearly we’ve still got some work left ahead of us.

I really, really want to love Pages. Just on general principle, I mean; it’s about time that someone created a brand-new word processor with a fresh approach. I have to confess that Microsoft Word isn’t a bad app at all. I’ve written at least 10,000 words a week with its various incarnations for the past decade. But while Microsoft has steadily added features to make Word better at preparing documents, they really haven’t done anything to make it better at writing words.

I’d like to use a word processor that makes things simpler for me. This is my nth column for Macworld. Why can’t my word processor understand that, and help me find the relationships between this and its brothers? By the second paragraph, a small window should populate itself with details about the other Macworld columns in which I discussed Keynote and Safari, just in case I’ve used the “Trainspotting” reference before. It should load in Macworld’s stylesheets automatically, and warn me when I’m getting close to my maximum word count.

Overall, its interface should get out of my way, presenting my words and paragraphs in a fashion that makes them easier for me to read and revise. At this point, I don’t care what this column will look like when it’s made all pretty for publication. Why can’t I have a screen filled with nothing but big, cozy text – no buttons, no scrollers, no menubar, even – and the app’s tools and information only appear as a ghostly overlay, only when needed?

Word processing is in desperate need of a Big Rethink. Unfortunately, Pages isn’t it. “Because that’s the way it’s always been done” is a good answer when performing open-heart surgery or landing an Airbus, but when you’re developing an app it leads to the same mistakes being built upon deeper-dug foundations.

The worst thing I can say about Pages is that I’ve so little to say about it. It’s a perfectly fine, perfectly ordinary word processor. Still, it’s only a 1.0. I hated iPhoto 1.0 so much that I used to leave flaming bags of dog poop on Mr iPhoto’s porch and ring the bell, hiding in the bushes and giggling discreetly when he came out and frantically stomped all over it in his good shoes. But I love iPhoto 5.

I still think Pages is an exciting development, though. Not for what it is, and not for what it might become in three years’ time. With its arrival, Keynote ceases to be a standalone business app and instead, it becomes merely one component of a brand-new iWork suite.

If the emergence of a new challenge to Microsoft Office lessens Apple’s reliance upon the support and continued good intentions of another company, that’s good for all Mac users. And if iWork gives Office’s developers a competitor to innovate against, that’s good for all users everywhere. MW