Microsoft Publisher 98

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With improved office integration and ongoing assistance throughout the design  process, Publisher is ideal for automated in-house design, but it still has core  weaknesses when it comes to commercial print.

Microsoft Publisher 98

Publisher is a slightly strange member of the Microsoft range of applications. It certainly can't be called a failure with over 4 million users world-wide, but while each of the Office flagships is a best-of-breed program, Microsoft Publisher is something of a misfit. There's an obvious role for it to fill when Office users need to step up a design level to produce professional print, but the program seems to fall down in the two areas that should, almost by definition, be its strengths - Office integration and publishing power. The end result has been that turning to Publisher has always seemed to involve a step down in power rather than a step up.

The latest release of Publisher 98 is designed to address this problem. The interface has now been brought into line with the rest of the Office 97 suite so that features like the Office Assistants are now in place. Behind the scenes, the sharing of the same Office command bar code cuts down on RAM requirements, while offering easy customisation and faster loading. More importantly from the designer's point of view, the addition of AutoCorrect and background spell-checking capabilities are major boons along with Word-style table editing and the life-saving multiple levels of undo. On the graphical side, the integration of Microsoft Draw and WordArt at least brings Publisher 98 into line with the other Microsoft applications, though these are hardly state-of-the-art tools for the serious publisher.

This is true of Publisher 98's interface as a whole. The program certainly feels slicker and more efficient than in the past, but there are still a number of rough edges. While the overall Office integration has improved this is sometimes let down, for example, by the mail-merge which can pick up data from Word and Excel documents but not from Outlook. An even more obvious limitation is the restriction to one open document at a time. In spite of the improvements, the whole program still feels semi-detached from the new Office-style minimalism, with the interface if anything over-friendly. If a cursor already has the word "move" on it, does it really also have to look like a lorry?

Of course such user-friendliness is what Publisher is all about. The program's strength has always been its ability to help non-expert users to achieve professional results. Central to this is the New File dialog - the Catalog - where users are given access to over 1,600 professionally designed publications. The Catalog has been redesigned to offer an Explorer-style view of the template previews, but more importantly the templates themselves have been reworked with a lot more thought put into design consistency. This means that Publisher 98 now allows layouts to be chosen based on design rather than purpose with master sets of themed layouts ranging all the way from business stationery through to web site. Such design consistency is a crucial way of giving a company its own strong identity - which makes it rather disappointing that Publisher only offers ten master themes!

In the past, once the wizard had completed and the basic publication had been created, you were largely left to your own devices. Now though the wizard stays open in an optional panel down the left hand of the screen. This means that you can return to it at any time to fine-tune your choices. The most obvious example of this is the new use of more than 60 co-ordinated colour schemes. Clicking on any of the schemes automatically - and very quickly - updates the text, clipart and design features in the publication you are working on. Because the colours have been specially chosen to work together this is an excellent way of quickly and reliably changing the whole look and feel of a publication. For the inexperienced user, trying to achieve the same results in a normal DTP program would not only be laborious but potentially damaging.

Publisher 98 not only offers in-built design intelligence on the global publication level, it also offers it at a local level through the use of intelligent components. The new Design Gallery offers access to over 350 of these design elements ranging from mastheads through to adverts. Once the smart object is inserted it can be customised more often than not with its own wizard. The calendar wizard, for example, controls which dates are shown while the logo wizard controls the arrangement of a few set graphical devices and lines of text. The end results are generally impressive and the way of getting there has been well thought through. User details are automatically picked up in the components, for example, and can be quickly changed between four profiles for home and business use.

At its best, Publisher's behind-the-scenes intelligence seems to be working on your behalf to get your job done as quickly and professionally as possible. With the new levels of interactivity it can even be quite fun. On the down side though it's important to realise that the pre-designed approach can only go so far. Using an in-built newsletter design is fine, for example, but in the real world most stories will not fit the spaces intended. Likewise, if you insert one of the reply form components, the initial impression might be good but if your boss asks you to add an extra line for the address you are suddenly thrown back onto your own devices. At least Publisher 98 does offer the necessary complete control - unlike a fully automated program like i publish - but it's important to realise that a flying start doesn't necessarily mean a quick finish.

You should also bear in mind that the decisions that Microsoft makes for you are not necessarily ideal. A simple example is the use of the new copy-fitting component that ensures that a heading automatically fits its frame. This certainly makes the practicalities of fitting text simpler, but at a cost. By throwing away the fixed point-size of headings and the resulting white space around them, the user is losing two important orientating devices that help reading and comprehension. Rather more fundamental is the whole question of colour. Microsoft's use of schemes certainly helps produce attractive work onscreen, but when it comes to paper this opens up a whole new can of worms.

The problem is that Publisher's outputting options are very limited. On an in-house printer connected to your own computer this isn't going to be a problem but, when it comes to producing commercial offset print, the control Publisher offers is simply inadequate. It's not just that there aren't the high-end features like colour management and trapping, there simply isn't the option to produce the necessary colour separations at all. Even for spot colour there is only the option to have up to two spot colours despite the fact that most of Publisher's schemes are built on five. The bottom line is that if you are wanting to produce commercial output of longer print-runs you really need a professional publishing package.

Control of commercial print then is a major disappointment that Microsoft seem to have no intention of addressing. Instead they seem to be waiting for technology to develop until large-scale direct print becomes a more feasible alternative. In the meantime though, at least there's always the web. Publisher's web site wizard now offers nearly 40 well-designed templates to meet just about any basic requirement. When working on a site, Publisher in effect works in a separate web mode which only offers access to relevant commands. It also offers access to a number of dedicated new tools for adding form controls, direct HTML code and hot-spot links for creating image maps.

It's generally better to design for the web from scratch, but if you've already produced your design for paper you can still convert it either as HTML tables for older browsers or as cascading style sheets for the latest. A nice sign of Publisher's in-built intelligence is that, if the layout you are converting was based on one of the in-built newsletter or brochure templates, it is completely re-purposed with each story converted to a page of its own - Publisher even automatically adds in the necessary navigational links. Even better, once the site has been created it is still possible to browse through the web wizard's set of schemes with the entire look-and-feel of the site changing automatically before your eyes. Publisher doesn't offer the site management or fine-control of a dedicated package like FrontPage, but this really is powerful stuff for the small business user.

Ultimately then Publisher 98 remains a strange beast. While its office compatibility has been improved, it still remains at best a semi-detached and slightly awkward member of the office suite and uncomfortable in a corporate environment. More importantly in terms of publishing power, although both its in-built design intelligence and its advanced web output have been strongly boosted, its inability to produce commercial print remains a huge and unavoidable stumbling block. The long and the short of it is that Publisher can't actually "publish" as most people think of the term.

The problem isn't that Publisher is a bad program then, but rather that Microsoft is pretending that Publisher is something it isn't. The program shouldn't really be seen in the same terms as the desktop publishing applications like PageMaker, Ventura or even PagePlus. Rather its strength comes as a glorified print house program competing more with the likes of Corel Print House and Windows Draw to offer the automated production of well-designed but resolutely in-house paper and web-based projects. Within this smaller field of non-professional office-based publishing, Publisher 98 is definitely a flagship application. If you are wanting to quickly produce your own good-looking business stationery, Publisher 98 is the first program to turn to. If you want to produce a professional colour brochure or newsletter, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.



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Tom Arah

November 1998

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