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Microsoft's publishing solutions?

Tom Arah looks at the publishing power offered by Microsoft and tries to work out what the software giant is up to.

Word is nearly there for DTP

In my last article I argued, amongst other things, that the major Mac-inspired publishing programs should take a leaf out of their arch rival's book and learn from the new flexibility and power shown by the programs in Microsoft Office. It used to be that when you moved from your word processor to your DTP or graphics program you felt that you were stepping up in power, but now there is a definite step-down effect. When moving from Word in particular, you instantly lose a whole host of still relevant features such as outlining, multiple undo, autocorrect, table editing, automatic indexing and background spell checking.

Hopefully the main publishing programs will take up the challenge and offer similar features soon, but if not there is a strong possibility of a Microsoft take-over similar to those that have already happened in the fields of word processing, spreadsheet and database management. Given this, it seems a good time to take a look at what Microsoft currently offers the serious publisher and to see if any patterns can be made out for the future.

Publisher

The most obvious candidate to look at is Publisher. I have to admit that in the past I haven't paid the program too much attention, but after a press briefing on Office 97 I thought I better have another look. The briefing made three important claims: that Publisher 97 was going to be far more integrated with Office; that it would become a centre of Web publishing; and that it would develop its professional printing capabilities. This sounded ideal: a natural extension of the Office suite that would encompass electronic and paper publishing.

On first loading the program, there was a slight feeling of anti-climax with the interface still too friendly to inspire confidence - OK I'm a professional snob - but two features did stand out. Publisher can load Office files directly from its Open dialog and Word itself is used as the text editor. If this worked as I hoped then the step-down effect would be entirely avoided. I could prepare the text and most of the formatting in Word, use Publisher for adding the necessary design finesse and then still use Word for any editing changes.

First signs were good with the simple test Word document not only importing all the paragraph formatting and styles, but also the double column layout. Closer inspection, however, showed that the margins and gutters were completely different to the original and that, in any case, from the second page on the publication had unilaterally reverted to a single column layout. Opening a more serious 2Mb test file proved even more disappointing with all the inline graphics and tables piling up on each other on the first page. In fact Adobe's PageMaker makes a far better job of importing the document than Microsoft does with its own file format.

At least the imported file could still be edited with Word from within Publisher. To begin with I was again impressed. Being able to reorder a long document using outline view, to check its grammar, or to use the thesaurus represents seriously attractive power. Again though, more investigation proved disappointing. Creating a table with Word 97's excellent new table painter tool is possible, for example, but when you return to Publisher all the latest features, like joined vertical cells, have been lost. Also for shorter documents and basic editing the need to open the file in Word is overkill and a bit of a drag.

Publisher's new Web features are well integrated, as you would expect from Microsoft. Users can select a Home Page wizard to help create an attractive multiple page web site right down to the best-viewed-with-Internet-Explorer logo. All very easy. Alternatively, with existing publications, the user can turn text or graphics into hypertext links and then simply choose the Create Web Site From Current Publication command from the File menu. Once done, the pages can be automatically previewed in your browser.

First impressions were very positive. The layout produced with the Wizard was more than good enough for a first home page. The results from converting an existing newsletter were even better with the columnar format, gradient fills and both vector and bitmap pictures brought through perfectly. Even the different typefaces were correct which fortunately made me suspicious. The entire page had been rendered as a 160k GIF graphic! This would not have been a popular download.

This conversion to bitmap certainly isn't inevitable - it turned out it had happened because my layout involved overlapping frames - but it still highlights the problems with using Publisher as a Web page creator. With little feedback, no site management and no direct HTML editing, there is no possibility of fine tuning your work. In most cases Publisher's defaults will prove more than adequate, but if the end results aren't what you wanted there is little you can do about it apart from turn to a dedicated HTML authoring package.

Electronic publishing is increasingly important, but any DTP package is still going to be primarily judged on its output to paper. In terms of layout power Publisher is not exactly exciting, for example there are no options for vertical justification, irregular frames or graphics anchored to text. Also there are some bizarre interface features with leading, for example, measured in "spaces", which Microsoft helpfully explains "depends on the size of the font". Even so, with all the help available, it is certainly possible to produce a basic newsletter or brochure design.

Publisher's Inability to Publish

The real test though is to successfully get your design printed commercially. At first sight, this seems to be well catered for with the File menu's Outside Print dialog. This offers black and white, spot or full colour print all of which are based on using a Microsoft supplied Postscript printer driver. As you would expect from Microsoft there are some nice usability features. If you have selected a spot colour, for example, you are automatically given a range of relevant tints and graduated effects whenever you go to apply a fill.

Against this though, the choice of spot colour model is frankly pathetic, chosen from a meagre selection of thirty pre-set, on-screen colours. This is completely bizarre with no support for the various matching models, most obviously Pantone, which must be the standard for 95% of all spot colour work. Looking through the manual doesn't help much with brain-dead suggestions such as "find out if your printers only print certain colours on specific days." You begin to wonder how Microsoft ever manages to output its own manuals.

Spot colour handling is lame, but it turns out that full colour handling is virtually non-existent. There is a full colour option on the Outside Print dialog but it is qualified as being for "colour printers of less than 1200dpi". Initially I didn't grasp what this meant at all and continued to explore to see how well the program coped with colour separations. Eventually it began to dawn on me that that it simply doesn't. External full colour printing is only an option to single-pass digital printers such as colour lasers.

Of course Microsoft would say that it is simply protecting its users from the complexities of pre-press, but that's just not convincing. A program called "Publisher" should be able to produce process output or, at the very least, explain honestly that it can't. Instead both Publisher's interface and its manual have been deliberately designed to obscure this huge area of weakness. It's no coincidence that an otherwise comprehensive manual and help file both manage to avoid even mentioning the terms "Pantone" or "process colour".

Being able to commercially output work is not an optional extra for a serious DTP program and Publisher is simply not up to it. It is significant that the user is strongly steered towards the first option on the Outside Print dialog, "I've decided not to use a commercial printing service, thanks." Well that certainly does make things a lot easier, but surely it should be Microsoft thanking the user rather than the other way around!

Overall then the promise is there, but Publisher 97 certainly doesn't deliver on the extravagant claims being made for it. The integration with Office and Word-based text editing is a mixed bag. Having seen the potential, I want the power, but the current Publisher implementation isn't adequate. Likewise, while the new Web features can produce impressive results, unless everything works perfectly first time your options are limited. The final nail in the coffin is the lack of commercial print output. When this comes in a package that doesn't come near the new Office interface - no multiple undo, MDI, customisation or Visual Basic programming - it's clear that the attempt to push Publisher as the new centre of Office publishing is a major con.

What About Word?

At this stage it looks like the dream of a truly modern, high end, Office-style, web and paper-based publisher is as far off as ever and that I'll just have to accept the step-down effect when turning from Word to the final DTP or Web outputting program. The alternative, of course, is to turn the question around and instead see if Word itself can fit the criteria for the ideal publishing program. How does Word 97 shape up if we ask the same questions of it as we did of Publisher? Obviously, in terms of Office integration and the all-important text handling, Word has unbeatable advantages, but what about the design and output options for both electronic and paper-based publishing?

In fact, in terms of electronic distribution, Word could always claim to be the world's most important publishing program. After all the *.doc file is effectively the most common exchange standard after ASCII. Word 97 though takes things far further. As with Publisher, the new power is primarily accessed through a Save As HTML option under the File menu. This automatically converts the text into HTML and any placed graphics into GIFs or JPGs. The huge difference is that the file remains open and can continue to be edited. The menus and toolbars reflect the new HTML status with the options for inserting footnotes and index markers replaced by new commands for inserting rules and background sounds.

Word 97 is by no means perfect as an HTML author, for example, after conversion its own heading styles were formatted but not tagged correctly. Other limitations, such as the inability to handle frames or multiple page sites, mean that the professional web page creator is going to have to look elsewhere. Crucially, though, it is possible to view and edit the HTML source code directly to see and sort out any mistakes and all from within an environment that still offers advanced features like background spell and grammar checking.

Even more important for the future is the new ability built into Explorer 3 to open Word *.doc files directly. At first this a rather bizarre experience, but essentially the only difference to opening the file within Word itself is the presence of the Explorer button bar and the addition of its Go and Favorites menus. Otherwise all the usual functioning of Word is there from its usual menus and toolbars. The potential benefits are huge. For the reader the text is easily browsable and searchable and also fully formatted and ready to be printed or edited. For the producer there is the invaluable advantage that files do not have to be specially authored, just made available.

With this two pronged attack, it's difficult to see how Word can fail to become the most important Web-based publishing program. This is especially so when you throw in the tight integration with FrontPage and the ability to embed ActiveX controls to add interactivity - owning the browser doesn't do any harm either. But what about Word 97's paper-based publishing power? Has this been upgraded to the same extent?

Near DTP?

In the past Microsoft promoted Word quite heavily on its "near-DTP" features, but more recently - and effectively since the launch of Publisher - this side of things has gone comparatively quiet. The accepted wisdom is that there is an unbridgeable gulf between word processing and DTP. After all there is a huge difference between a letter and a newsletter, between text flowing automatically from top to bottom within a document's margins and text and graphics positioned anywhere on the page to create the most effective design.

This is all true, but most users have little idea of just how advanced Word can be in these areas. There are two major hurdles to jump. The first is the realisation that Page Layout view is not just a quick print preview to make sure that you have the right number of columns and that all the text is fitting on the page. Instead it is a fully editable view in which all the commands are available from the menus and button bars just as they are in Normal view. If your system is up to it, there is no reason why you shouldn't always run Word in a DTP-style WYSIWYG layout view.

The second realisation is that Word can indeed place text and graphics anywhere on the page. In fact the control of text blocks is now comprehensive with exact positioning and sizing and, in Word 97, the crucial new ability to link text boxes so that copy can flow anywhere you want on the page. The control of imported images is even more impressive. Pictures can be accurately sized, positioned, cropped, their contrast and brightness can be changed and their text wrap set automatically or interactively. When you add in the improved Word Art for creating logos and text effects and the new AutoShapes that allow the creation of advanced 3D objects complete with realistic shading, there really is no reason to think of Word as just a text editor.

Of course there are limitations, most obviously the fact that text frames cannot be set to have multiple columns, but the same criticism can be - and is - levelled at market leader PageMaker. In the final analysis, more or less any layout that could be produced with Publisher or PageMaker could also be produced with Word. In fact, thanks to features like movable pictures and text boxes anchored to flowing copy, many publications such as manuals and reports would in fact be far easier to produce in Word.

In-built limitations

Saying that you could produce such publications within Word, however, doesn't mean that you would want to - at least not as the program currently stands. To a large extent this comes down to superficial, interface-based features. Easier access to the style settings, for example, and a new paragraph dialog that made it clear that leading can be set to fractions of a point, would both help design freedom. More importantly, there are a number of idiosyncracies that - perish the thought - could almost have been designed to put users off DTP-style work. Changing from page layout to normal view, for example, dumps the user back at the top of the document rather than where they were editing. More fundamentally any text placed in text boxes is mysteriously unavailable for editing in any view apart from page layout.

Since these problems would probably have taken Microsoft's programmers an afternoon to sort out, the question has to be asked why weren't they? Microsoft could claim that it is protecting the user from unnecessary overload, but again this isn't convincing. Microsoft certainly hasn't put the same amount of effort into improving Word's paper-based publishing as it has into its electronic publishing and virtually no effort at all into letting users know about, and access, the considerable power that is there.

With Publisher, Microsoft seems to be deliberately hiding the program's failings, while with Word it seems to be deliberately limiting the program's potential. I might be being cynical, but whose interests are best served by encouraging users to buy another piece of software when they already have one that could actually be far more capable?

So where does all this leave us? Well certainly Publisher has failed to live up to the claims made for it. Word, on the other hand, has - almost - stepped in to take up the role of modern, Office-style program seamlessly integrating electronic and paper-based publishing. Ultimately, however, the lack of spot colour or CMYK process output still remains to rule the program out for anything but digital print. In the medium term this will undoubtedly prove to be a huge market, but for the moment it leaves us back to square one. To produce professional separated output we'll just have to live with the step-down effect until the market leaders learn from Microsoft or, maybe, vice versa.

Tom Arah

June 97


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