Adobe PageMaker struggles to draw its own audience

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #629 November 13-19, 2001, The High Tech Office column

Only a few software applications really deserve to be known as "killer apps": products that made customers want to rush out and buy a computer in order to run them. Visicalc's spreadsheet in the late 1970s and Lotus 1-2-3 in the early 1980s drove sales to the original Apple II and IBM PC. Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator pushed computer sales in the mid-1990s.

And with its original release in 1985, Aldus PageMaker created the idea of the computer as graphics and publishing tool and saved Apple's Macintosh from its first near-death experience.

But even the purchase of Aldus by graphics powerhouse Adobe has not kept PageMaker from falling from the cutting edge, as most graphics professionals adopted Quark XPress or Adobe's new InDesign and many Windows-using home and business users turned to Microsoft Publisher. PageMaker has had only minor revisions since 1997, with Adobe adding clip art and templates and targeting it at a mid-level business market.

In a new attempt to bring the franchise back to life, PageMaker 7 looks on the surface like the last version, but offers several new features tied to Adobe's vision of network publishing.

The company sees users adapting the same content to multiple formats: print, the Web, handheld computers. Too often, content designed for one medium doesn't work well when it's moved to another platform.

By allowing users to create tagged PDF files, PageMaker tries to eliminate that problem. These Adobe Acrobat-style documents are simultaneously optimized for print, online and handheld viewing; design once, view everywhere. And yes, PageMaker creates the PDF files itself. Users do not have to purchase a separate copy of Adobe Acrobat.

A new data-merge feature makes it easier to create templates that can be easily adapted to different versions for each customer. Text, such as addresses, can be brought in from standard spreadsheet and database files, making it easier to create customized form letters or flyers.

Quark XPress documents (through version 4.1) can be opened for work in PageMaker and (not surprisingly) Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator graphics are supported. As well, the new version resolves issues that the older versions had running under Windows 2000.

PageMaker's long history brings with it both benefits and difficulties. It includes high-end printing capabilities, but comes with a steep learning curve. Forget about wizards and animated assistants and be prepared to spend time to learn to work with this one.

Adobe has included a little bit of handholding, but only for its Windows customers. They get a template browser to help manoeuvre through the collection of business-oriented templates. Unfortunately, the thumbnail pictures of the documents are too small to be of much use. As well, there's a picture palette for visually navigating the collection of professional clip art (again, it's Windows-only).

Mac-using customers also miss out on the new Microsoft Office-style toolbar included in the Windows product as well as the ability to work with Microsoft Publisher files. With its higher-end products, Adobe has done a good job of providing parity between its Windows and Mac versions. But PageMaker and Acrobat, both aimed at a mid-level business market, have left features out of the Mac packages.

Perhaps that's because a majority of high-end graphics customers work with Macs, while most business customers are PC-users. Or perhaps Adobe feels that Windows users need more handholding.

At $800 ($120 upgrade), PageMaker 7 is an expensive tool for its target business market. It includes a lot of high-end features, but may be too difficult to learn for many potential customers.

Next week, Microsoft Publisher 2002, also aimed at nonprofessionals who need to look good in print.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan