Microsoft Publisher best choice for small business

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #630 November 20-26, 2001, The High Tech Office column

Last week, we started looking at a pair of newly revised desktop publishing programs aimed at nonprofessional business users who still need to produce sophisticated layouts. Adobe's PageMaker 7.0 tries to reposition this once high-end product for the rest of us. In doing so, it offers high-end features with a complex interface and less help than many nonprofessional users will need.

Microsoft Publisher never claimed to be for graphics professionals. A decade ago, it was the first Microsoft program to feature helpful wizards; its paper airplane wizard is evidence that somebody at Microsoft has a sense of humour. The newest version, Publisher 2002, fits in with Microsoft's new Office XP and plays nice with the latest versions of Word and Excel.

An improved mail-merge is based on Word's, and Publisher can apply design and colour schemes to imported Word documents. Like Office XP, the new version of Publisher includes Microsoft's anti-piracy product activation. And like Office XP (and unlike PageMaker), it's Windows-only.

Publisher shares other Office XP features such as taskpanes, smarttags, autocorrect and the multiple-item clipboard. Unfortunately, those features don't always work the same way they do in its Office teammates. For example, if you find Word XP's auto-numbering annoying, a smarttag lets you turn it off. Not so in Publisher.

Formerly, Publisher was bundled with the Office Small Business Edition. That package is no longer available for retail sale, though it is still offered as part of the software bundle with some new computers. Publisher remains available as a stand-alone package. Its pricing, around $175, is decidedly more user-friendly than Adobe PageMaker's.

Each version of Publisher has added more features to simplify design for nondesigners. The original wizards have been expanded and joined by hosts of templates, colour schemes and ready-to-use layouts. New to the 2002 edition are font schemes, which are sets of fonts predesigned to look good together. Also new are 15 master sets, providing themes that can give a variety of business documents a common look and feel. They look surprisingly attractive for such canned designs. Throughout, thumbnails do a good job of showing how documents will look before you click to apply changes.

This version promises improved output for commercial printing, but if you need to produce output for a professional service bureau, this isn't the program to use. Few service bureaus support Publisher files and the program doesn't output to PDF or Postscript, the formats most service bureaus are accustomed to using.

Also questionable is Publisher's improved ability to save designs as Web-friendly HTML. New is the ability to re-open those files back into Publisher to update their contents. In order to keep these Web pages Publisher-compatible, they are bloated with Publisher-specific code, resulting in files that are too large for quick online use. And the results are better viewed with Microsoft's Internet Explorer than with Netscape Navigator.

Nicer is the ability to save all or part of a page as a graphic. This means you can use Publisher to create a fancy logo or headline and save it as a graphic for use elsewhere, perhaps in a Web page. Also welcome, though long overdue, Publisher 2002 finally includes a print preview feature. And finally, users can open multiple documents at one time, simplifying reusing text or graphics or just comparing files.

(A Publisher secret: the F9 key instantly switches between whole-page and actual-sized page views.)

Graphics professionals may sneer and Publisher 2002 fails to keep its promises for commercial printing or Web design. Its low price and wealth of user-friendly features, however, keep it the best choice for home and small-business users needing to produce their own layouts. Just don't forget to use that F9 key.

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