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Microsoft Publisher 2007 Review

Microsoft Office Publisher is not a major application. It lives in the desktop publishing shadows of Quark Xpress, Adobe's PageMaker, and InDesign. It's not even one of the major applications bundled into Microsoft Office - those would be Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

Publisher's second-class status is evident in the Office 2007 release: Word, Excel, and Powerpoint all share the new (if controversial) "ribbon" interface. Publisher doesn't. It still looks pretty much the same as it did its last time around in Office 2003. But that's OK because (a) those other applications are just getting some features that Publisher pioneered, and (b) when you look under the hood Publisher has gotten some improvements and upgrades, although there are a couple of things that are missing.

 

If the Office 2007 ribbon is enough to make you yearn for the return of Clippy, the Paper Clip Man, then you'll find the minimal interface changes in Publisher comforting. The most obvious difference is an intelligent reorganization of the Task Pane, helped by some of the work done on Galleries for Word and PowerPoint. It is now easier to select the basic features of your project - whether it will be a one-sided flyer or a four-page newsletter, for example. The previous version of Publisher provided a range of project templates, color schemes, and font sets (in fact, the templates are only lightly updated), but the work done on user interface design has paid off by smoothing the process for setting and resetting all the variables as you start a project.

The Content Library is the clear winner for Best New Feature. It works as a publication-independent clipboard, allowing you to save bits and pieces of text and graphics and design and pull them into other publications rather than tediously opening and closing multiple publications to collect the piece parts you need.

The Content Library is an improvement that will be appreciated by design police everywhere, because it lets professional graphics people build their own libraries of useful objects, and it can be pre-loaded and handed to design amateurs to at least start them off with a toolkit of approved text and styles. A similar new feature, "Business Information," lets you enter basic contact information, a business slogan, and a logo, and applies this to the template files - a minor but nonetheless welcome reduction in labor and the chance for error.

Not every feature is handled equally well. Publisher 2007 is smarter about printing multiple business cards on a sheet than the previous version, for example. But while you can create your own templates and add them to a "My Templates" folder that shows up when you open the program, it won't show up later when you want to change the template you've selected for a project. You have to go all the way back to Square One and create a new project to see your templates again.

Absent Friends
Publisher's second-class status left it at the back of the line for more than the ribbon UI. The new SmartArt and Chart engines are conspicuous in their absence. You can use these nifty new features by creating Word or Excel objects in a Publisher project, but they work so well in the major programs that their absence from the Publisher UI - particularly SmartArt - leaves a palpable hole in the program.

Publisher is not second-class in one sense - it is included in the five high-end versions of Office (Small Business, Professional, Ultimate, and Professional Enterprise), and omitted from the three low-end packages (Basic, Home & Student, and Standard). Microsoft is clearly positioning the product as a business tool, not just a graphic-design application.

 

Some of the new features in this version are obviously intended to promote Publisher as a tool for e-mail and Web-based marketing. These include connections to Excel or Access for doing mail merge and e-mail merge, and Business Contact Manager (which comes as part of Outlook in the Small Business, Professional, and Ultimate packages) for tracking campaign results. Mostly these feel like they've been added to convince small businesses that Publisher is a serious business tool, a value-add to the hefty price of the Office Suite and not just a let's-make-a-birthday-card toss-in.

They do point up the idea that Publisher is capable of more than just printing flyers. The program does support HTML output with an ad hoc page depth, and you can do "catalog merging" to build publications from a database. But the idea that many businesses will use it to track the performance of online marketing campaigns seems problematical. There are specialized tools and Web-based services for managing e-mail campaigns and newsletters that are probably better suited to those tasks.

It is desktop graphic design for print that is still Publisher's strong suit, particularly now that Office provides a PDF output option. It falls behind the feature set of the major Office apps in this 2007 release, but it is still a capable self-contained DTP package for producing projects a small-to-medium business might distribute electronically, print in-house, or send to a printer.

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