Microsoft Publisher 2003

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New designs, projects and output options boost Publisher's office-based publishing.

Back in 1991 the first version of Publisher stood out from the crowd for its wizard-driven design. Twelve years later it's this automated approach that still distinguishes its eighth release.

Nowadays wizards are less apparent as all templates and automated features such as colour and font schemes are handled through the ever-present task pane. This has been redesigned with a new simplified Start panel offering drill-down access to project types split into print, web and themed sets. Another ten co-ordinated and attractive master sets have been added making a total of 45. New project types have also been added including personal stationery sets, DVD and CD cases. The range of greetings cards and invitations has also been seriously expanded producing more than a million possible - though not necessarily desirable - combinations of different verses, layouts, colours and designs. And, if that's not enough, Publisher 2003 will also offer access to further downloadable projects over time.

Publisher 2003 offers a range of new designs - including e-mail.

In terms of new design power, Publisher 2003 offers a number of new features inspired by Word. The changes are partly cosmetic, such as the rationalization of former dialogs into more familiar Format > Paragraph and Bullets and Numbering commands, but there's also more control over line and paragraph breaks, such as the crucial widow and orphan control. Publisher 2003's new task-pane based Find and Replace command has also been revamped to work across multiple stories.

Catching up with Word is hardly pushing back the boundaries of DTP, but Publisher 2003 does add some advanced design capabilities of its own. By setting up baseline guides it's now possible to ensure that text aligns across columns. You can also add empty picture frames and select objects behind text boxes, two minor changes that make a big practical difference. The most welcome advances are the support for multiple master page backgrounds and the ability to drag and drop the page icons on the status bar to reorder your publication.

Publisher 2003 also moves into two entirely new areas of design. The first is data-driven publications. This uses the new Catalog Merge command to combine pictures and text from a data source to produce anything from an address book or directory through to a product catalogue. The second is e-mail publications. Publisher 2003 offers six different HTML-based e-mail publication types matching each of the 45 master styles. Used sensibly and in moderation this could be a great publishing tool; more realistically, it's time to prepare yourself for yet more download-heavy spam.

Improved DTP features include better control over images and pages.

Publisher 2003 opens a new front with its e-mail capabilities, but it's still primarily going to be judged on its print and Web output. In terms of print, Publisher has always been happy producing internal documents, but has found it hard to step up to the greater demands of commercial print. This latest release again makes moves in the right direction with an enhanced Design Checker to spot potential problems, an improved Graphics Manager task pane for checking embedded graphics, the ability to convert from spot colour to process and vice versa and to convert RGB colours to CMYK. Most important of all, it can create CMYK composite PostScript files ready for colour separation. The obvious and telling omission is the inability to output to Acrobat PDF which is the standard for simple and reliable commercial output.

In terms of Web design and output, this is one area where Publisher scores over all other design packages with its comprehensive dedicated tools and ability to re-purpose print publications. New capabilities include the new Web Site Builder wizard which lets you specify what you want your site to do and then sets up the pages to help you achieve it. Using the Insert > Page command you can always add extra pages such as calendars, employee lists, FAQs and so on as needs dictate. Further improvements include more control over navigation bars, the ability to quickly name your pages and support for incremental uploading so only those pages that have been changed need to be posted to your server.

Publisher can produce surprisingly impressive web results but it's important to recognize its limitations. In particular the publication-based approach is only suited to sites with a dozen or so pages and there's no direct HTML control. You can see why if you take a look at the code that Publisher produces as the HTML tags are few and far between lurking amongst reams of application-specific XML. The pages will display correctly in Internet Explorer but it goes against the whole spirit of the streamlined and HTML-based Web.

It's typical of Publisher as a whole. With its off-the-shelf approach you can produce impressive in-house results quickly but when it comes to professional print and web design you're better looking elsewhere.






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Tom Arah

May 2003

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