Stop the presses. Several new editions of desktop publishing software have appeared that make it easier to create impressive business documents.
Pagemaker from the Aldus Corp. and Quark Xpress from Quark Inc., the two most popular desktop publishing programs for Macintosh and Windows computers, have added powerful features for graphics professionals.
And for computer novices who have been drafted to produce the company softball team's newsletter, the Microsoft Corp.'s Publisher 2.0 for Windows is a solid hit.
Desktop publishing programs are essentially electronic pasteboards that allow computer users to design, and redesign, pages complete with text, graphics, scanned photographs, headlines and other elements of a printed page.
The simplest programs are suitable for producing everyday business documents, which are typically sent to a laser printer and perhaps later to a photocopier. The advanced programs can produce not just simple documents but annual reports and other projects that require fancy color, high-quality black-and-white printing or precision in-page design.
Microsoft, perhaps more than any other big software company, has made it a priority to create easy-to-use software. Publisher 2.0, which requires Microsoft Windows, is the best choice for people who want to become desktop publishers without beating their heads on the desk.
The first version of Publisher introduced the concept of Page Wizards, which are semiautomatic guides for producing visually appealing documents without spending hours struggling with a manual. The user simply selects an example of a snazzy-looking document from a Wizard menu, adds his or her own type and maybe a graphic or two, and the Page Wizard does the rest. Using the Wizards is not mandatory, but they come in handy for those who do not care to become publishing professionals.
The Wizards are capable of creating most types of documents found in the corporate world, from business cards and letterheads to brochures and newsletters. If the user gets stuck, Publisher also has a feature called Cue Cards, which explain how to do something.
Graphics professionals may jeer at such prefabricated documents and note that Publisher has but a fraction of the power of a program like Pagemaker or Quark Xpress. And they're right that Publisher cannot handle complex four-color separations or manipulate graphics with pixel-by-pixel control.
On the other hand, I recall poring over the manuals while attempting to make a monthly calendar using an early version of Pagemaker; it was August by the time I figured out how to create "July." With Publisher, an attractive and useful calendar emerges after a few clicks of the mouse.
Publisher 2.0 also deserves praise for another feature: Its suggested list price is $199, in contrast with $895 for Pagemaker or Quark.
Pagemaker was the first personal computer program that allowed someone with a Macintosh computer and laser printer to produce professional-looking documents. Later, Pagemaker for Windows made it possible to share files in offices where Macs and PCs coexisted. But over the years, as desktop publishing became one of the most important uses of office computers, Pagemaker was squeezed from the bottom and the top.
Even the simplest word processing programs began to offer desktop publishing for simple documents, and inexpensive new programs like Publisher appealed to the low end of the market.
At the high end, Quark Xpress won the hearts of many professional graphic artists who wanted even more control over their documents than Pagemaker offered. (Other programs, such Frame Maker and Xerox Ventura Publisher, appeal to people who need to create especially long and complex documents.)
Now, more than two years after Aldus' last major upgrade of Pagemaker, and six months after Aldus first started talking about it, version 5.0 for Microsoft Windows has arrived. A similar upgrade for Apple Macintoshes is expected soon.
Judging from prerelease versions of the software, the newest Pagemaker appears to have caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, its rivals. Pagemaker 5.0 has been made easier to use, although it's still no match in that respect for Publisher. At the same time, Pagemaker 5.0 has expanded its features to woo back the power users from Quark. The combination of more power and greater ease of use is impressive.
One gratifying feature is the ability to open two documents at once, which Quark has been able to do for some time. Earlier Pagemaker versions (including version 4.0 with its annoying opening screen that featured a picture of a yuppie), the user had to close one document before opening another. On slower computers, stowing and retrieving documents with lots of graphics can seem an interminable process.
With version 5.0 (the yuppie has been replaced by a drawing of Aldus Menutius, the 15th century Venetian printer whose first name was appropriated by the company), it is much easier to grab carefully crafted elements from one document and paste them into another.
The company says there are hundreds of new features in Pagemaker 5.0, many of them clearly to catch up with what Quark can do. A quick spin through the computer-based tutorial and the manual reveals the ability to rotate graphics in tiny increments, a Quark-style control panel that allows users to perform functions without having to go to the menus at the top of the screen, and the ability to produce four-color separations, which are necessary for re-creating photo-quality color images.
But the little things also count, and Pagemaker 5.0 eliminates a lot of the annoyances of earlier versions. One feature, for example, lines up the bottoms of adjacent columns of text, so multicolumn documents are neater. Another automatically inserts "Continued on page . . . " and "Continued from page . . . " lines when a story jumps from the cover to an inside page.
Pagemaker 5.0 retains its "story editor," a nice feature that allows the text of a document to be written and edited within Pagemaker instead of forcing the user to switch back to a word-processing program.
Quark Inc. also just upgraded its Xpress program for Macintosh computers to version 3.2. The company promises a similar upgrade for Windows machines in the next few months.
In recent years, Quark has become the top choice of many book, magazine, catalog and newspaper designers.
Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: (512) 328-8258.