Microsoft Publisher 2000

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The attempt to graft professional design capabilities onto Publisher's  in-house strengths is ultimately unconvincing.

Microsoft Publisher 2000

Microsoft Publisher's greatest strength has always been the flying start it gives its users through its use of templates. The opening Catalog dialog now provides access to over 2200 different publications arranged either by category or by design. This latter option is particularly important for producing consistent house styles and Publisher 2000 now offers another ten attractive master sets. Once you've picked your starting template a wizard takes over so that to set up a brochure, for example, you are asked to choose an orientation and colour scheme and whether you want to include your logo, business details and even a ready-made reply form.

What sets Publisher apart from other template-driven programs is that these same options remain available even after initial set-up so that you can instantly change fundamental features, such as the current colour scheme and overall design, at any time. This makes the whole design process much more interactive and flexible and it's quite addictive just exploring the huge range of options available.

Publisher takes automating design further than any other program, but there's still only so much that it can do. While the system works well for simple publications like letterheads and business cards, producing a newsletter or brochure is a much more complex business. The latest Publisher does offer some new general design power with the ability to specify your own colour schemes, visual page navigation and a Measurement tool for controlling precise placement and sizing. Even so, when you really try to get to grips with your layout, the program often seems under-powered. When you come to edit the reply form Publisher added to your brochure, for example, you'll find that it's made up of numerous separate text blocks and graphics which are virtually impossible to edit. Often you'll find that you would have been better off starting from scratch with simpler plans.

It's much the same story when you look at Publisher's web capabilities. At first sight these look extremely impressive with the web site wizard offering access to more designs than ever. What's more, with more than 200 web backgrounds and more than 300 animated GIFs, the designs are certainly eye-catching. Best of all, for designs based on the brochure and newsletter templates, Publisher will even automatically convert between formats turning multiple-page paper layouts into fully navigable web sites. Publisher 2000 even converts its paper-based reply form into an HTML form that can be filled out online.

When you begin to dig a little deeper, however, the limitations appear. The backgrounds and animated GIFs might have initial impact but they're download-heavy and will soon irritate serious browsers. More importantly, although Microsoft deserves credit for building a wysiwyg web-editing environment into Publisher, without an HTML code view there's no way to take complete control. Worse, because of the HTML table-based output littered with undesirable <Font> tags, it's virtually impossible to fine-tune your site elsewhere.

Again Publisher takes you a long way quickly but then leaves you dangling. When you come to save your converted brochure, for example, Publisher suddenly informs you that for the reply form to work online you'll have to add the necessary data retrieval procedure. Familiarity with CGI scripting is a bit much to ask from a program that's trying to protect you from HTML! Ultimately Publisher offers enough to provide you with a quick fill-in-the-blanks web presence, but if you want to take things further you'd be better off starting from scratch with a dedicated program. Despite initial appearances, Publisher's web capabilities are only acceptable for the occasional SOHO user.

Exactly the same used to be true of the program's paper output. Microsoft didn't exactly advertise the fact but without the ability to produce the colour separations needed for commercial print, previous versions of Publisher were really only capable of producing in-house print. While you could happily design your business stationery and output it in glorious technicolour on your local inkjet, when you took it to a commercial printer for a longer print-run the chances were they would just laugh. With Publisher 2000, however, Microsoft has finally risen to the challenge.

The new professional design capabilities are found under the new Commercial Printing Tools option. The most fundamental of these is the Color Printing command which lets you specify whether your publication is destined for RGB (ie local) or CMYK or Spot (ie commercial) print. Once you've made your choice your colour scheme updates accordingly. In addition, via the Fonts and Images commands, Publisher 2000 allows you to embed your fonts and link your images, while the Trapping command allows you to compensate for the inevitable misregistration of colour-separated print. Once your design is finished you can use the Pack and Go command to bundle your publication and linked images into a single compressed PUZ file ready to take to your service provider.

So does this finally mean the end to embarrassment at the printers? Some of the control certainly looks impressive with the trapping management in particular, based on parameters such as shared percentage of ink and luminance ratios, putting Quark's in the shade. However I still have serious doubts. Successful commercial print depends on successful Postscript output and Microsoft's track record on this is non-existent. Unfortunately the problem isn't cosmetic but goes right to the heart of the Publisher approach. Much of the impact of its designs comes directly from the extravagant use of rainbow colour schemes, TrueType fonts and WMF clipart. Professional designers have learnt from experience to keep things simple and to stick to Postscript-based Type 1 fonts and EPS images.

While it's entirely welcome that Microsoft has finally addressed Publisher's fundamental failing, the program's inability to "publish" in the traditional sense of the word, the results just aren't convincing. Successful professional print depends on doing the basics well and Publisher's flashy impress-at-any-cost philosophy runs completely counter to this. Ultimately, while Publisher still has an important role to play in the SOHO office, the program just doesn't cut it at the higher level for either web or paper-based publishing.

Microsoft has discovered - as so many users have before - that Publisher can go so far but no further. Shortcuts aren't necessarily the best route.

Features

4

Usability

5

Value for money

4

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Publisher
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Tom Arah

April 1999


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