WINDOWS SHOW: Presentation perfect

A new breed of presentation packages can make life easier as well as more exciting. Guy Clapperton takes a look

A new breed of presentation packages can make life easier as well as

more exciting. Guy Clapperton takes a look



This year’s Windows Show promises to be as hectic as ever. It’s a great

place to look at new software, but when it comes to something as

subjective as presentations, it’s worth planning ahead and thinking

about what you’re really after.



Today’s offerings in computerised presentations can be divided into two

camps: first there are those packages that will make an excellent job of

putting together a corporate presentation but which emulate the

techniques that graphics specialists were employing to produce slides

years before the advent of the personal computer.



Perhaps more interestingly, however, multimedia authoring is starting to

push into the same area. Unlike their more traditional predecessors, it

would be fair to say that the newer packages are capable of doing things

that were not being done prior to the invention of the computer. The

best analogy is probably with the early days of television: at first,

plays were performed and the broadcaster pointed a camera at them that

did not move. Only later did the flexibility of TV as a medium in its

own right, rather than as an imitator of the theatre, become apparent.

That’s the stage computer presentations are about to reach.



The more traditional packages can be categorised in two ways. One forms

part of an overall office package - Microsoft PowerPoint is part of

Microsoft Office while there are systems in the same niche from Lotus

(now part of IBM) and WordPerfect (about to be subsumed into Claris).

The other is the standalone graphics package, of which there are

precious few in the business market; Software Publishing Corp’s Harvard

Graphics for Windows is among the last of any note, as is MicroGrafx’s

ABC Flowcharter. A third category, the ‘retail’ package available for

under a tenner from a high street outlet, exists but is outside the

remit of the professional creator.



The objective of any presentation package is to allow the user to

convert raw data into a form that tells its own story. A good one should

do this in such a way that the user doesn’t have to be an expert to

operate it, but can produce a professional-looking slideshow or document

at the end of it. This will be true of all of the market-leading

presentation packages, most of which will have Wizards or similar help

functions to guide the user through the process. These are important to

watch when selecting a program to buy, as is the interoperability with

other programs - it is perfectly conceivable that at some stage the user

will want to create a chart with a view to importing it into a larger

presentation.



Most packages will be able to cope with that - it would be difficult to

get stuck with one that didn’t. However, others have their own

individual strengths. Claris Impact, for example, majors on automated

flowchart shapes, with tools to allow the user to drag connectors and

shapes in any direction, while Vision’s spreadsheet feel allows for

better control over objects. Harvard ChartXL contains a formula

visualiser that enables the user to generate charts from complex

formulae, Quattro Pro’s Graph Gallery allows for varied use of colour

and Deltagraph’s chart gallery contains a lot of chart templates.



It should not be forgotten that spreadsheets contain elements of

charting within them, sometimes powerfully so. Combined with the number

manipulation available on a spreadsheet, this will be all some users

will require.



As a standalone product, Harvard Graphics is among the most powerful

available, and version 4.0 for Windows 95 enables the user to create a

slide using three on-screen views, a feature it shares in common with

most programs. Where Harvard scores is by having context-sensitive

advisors that come up in a window on the right of the slide being

edited. The information in these divides into Quick Tips on how to do

basic tasks, design tips on how to prettify presentations and a check

design feature that looks for commonly committed errors. A 3-D preview

feature is still in its infancy, and 12 pre-designed presentations are

resident in the software - although Lotus Freelance Graphics boasts 30.



Micrografx’s ABC Flowcharter 6.0 is best suited to the larger

organisational flowchart and produces schematics and network diagrams

comparatively easily. It offers a good selection of shape palettes for

those who require them and its edit/select menu enables multiple shapes

of the same name to be selected and altered at the same time. The

package imports files in various formats and has a variety of Wizards

for the inexperienced user, in place of the predesigned templates used

in Harvard.



Of the packages available as part of an office suite, it is worth

evaluating Microsoft Powerpoint and Lotus Freelance. The Microsoft

product has 150 templates to work with, while Lotus offers 125 - enough

for anyone. Context-sensitive help is excellent in these and all the

major programs.



Most packages at the moment will support multimedia, but Gold Disk’s

Astound appears to be leading this field at the moment. This is easy to

use and encourages the user to include audio and video clips into a

presentation as well as animation, which is supported by most of the

current packages. Given that increasing amounts of presentations will be

downloadable rather than given in person as the technology to do so

becomes more widespread, or sent out on CD-ROM, this is undoubtedly the

way all programs will evolve given time. They have started this change

already and the ones designed for Windows 95 are particularly strong on

multimedia, although, at the moment, Harvard allows only one piece of

background music and its built-in video application is cumbersome.



At the basic end, these packages are doing much to replace the older end

of the computer-aided design (CAD) market, since they can handle simple

technical drawing functions. This means exhibition designers, for

example, could map out their floor plans as well as create their slide

shows and reports using the same system. However, it is worth looking at

the higher-end packages as well. A lot of the standard charting packages

have their capabilities duplicated by the more sophisticated spreadsheet

programs, and will date badly as a result. But multimedia authoring

actually changes the nature of the presentation being done at the time.



Illustrious Illumination



Illuminatus is one of the new generation of presentation packages -

those that do more than duplicate a slide show with some extra bells and

whistles. It uses multimedia authoring to present information in

whatever format you like: text, sound, still and moving pictures - even

launching other applications such as spreadsheets from within a

presentation.



Digital Workshop, publisher of Illuminatus, claims you can produce your

first multimedia presentation in minutes - and you can. But it’s a

dangerous game; just as in the early days of desk-top publishing,

putting these tools into the hands of folk with no design experience is

likely to produce some hideously ugly monsters. Best to stick to some of

the templates and samples provided in the package on CD-ROM, at least

until you’ve gained experience.



When you first open Illuminatus, you’re given the choice of opening an

existing ‘publication’, starting a new one from a template, or starting

from scratch. Starting from scratch gives you a blank screen, to which

you can add as many ‘pages’ as you like. Moving into page editing mode,

you’ll find two main tools, for adding buttons and frames.



Buttons move you around the publication, launch applications etc, while

frames contain information - text, perhaps, or a movie clip that plays

when you click on it. It takes a while for the beginner to understand

that pages aren’t sequential - you can jump from one to another



Once you’ve mastered the basics, the software really is impressively

simple - the basic programme can be compressed onto one floppy disk -

but the real donkey work will come in assembling your material. Here

there are no short cuts, and you’d be surprised how tedious a multimedia

presentation can be when the media’s not very multi nor very

interesting. If you’re prepared to put in the work, or you already have

a nice collection of images to use (the package comes with a CD-ROM full

of useful ones), there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be producing

competent stuff in a few hours. As with most projects of this type, a

couple of hours planning with paper and pencil can save a couple of days

in front of the screen.



But it’s after the presentation that the real advantage kicks in: you

can leave it with the client on a disk so they can look through it at

leisure, seeing only the information that’s wanted. There’s an add-on

package to convert Illuminatus documents to HTML format for publication

on the Internet, so it’s possible to have one corporate presentation

that can be delivered personally, mailed out or accessed on the World

Wide Web.



Digital Workshop are on 01295 258335.



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