By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2004-09-06 Print this article Print

Wolfram Inc.s Publicon 1.0 offers electronic wordsmiths a novel environment for creating and sharing complex documents and for building customized documentation tools.

Publicon, which is available only by download at a list price of $149, is affordable and approachable—although, as yet, decidedly unpolished. Its offered initially for Windows and Mac OS X, with a Linux version on the way.

We suspect that Publicons designers aspire to reinvent the word processor, unburdened by the conventions of the printed page or even by the paragraph-based document model thats familiar to almost every PC user.

In eWEEK Labs tests, Publicon proved a promising alternative for those who are poorly served by conventional text editors, desktop publishing applications or cryptic typesetting languages. Writing in Publicon combines the interactive immediacy of a WYSIWYG tool, the precisely formatted formulas and graphics of a technical authoring system, and some of the data-handling and cross-referencing capabilities a user might otherwise have to seek in a report writer or document management product.

Early adopters will have to contend, however, with an incomplete feature set and with inconsistent implementation of basic capabilities such as Undo.

Its essential to grasp the fundamentals of Publicon before grappling with its tricky details. A Publicon document in its rich-text editing window looks like any other authoring project in progress, but its internal structure is not a flat series of paragraphs. Instead, Publicon maintains a tree of content cells that can hold text, formulas, graphics or hierarchies of subcells.

Cell boundaries and hierarchies are indicated by nested brackets along the right-hand edge of a document window. Collections of cells can easily be collapsed or expanded by menu commands or by mouse/keyboard shortcuts for ease of document review and navigation. We found this less cumbersome than the switching between normal and outline modes weve seen in tools such as Microsoft Corp.s Word.

A click of a button inserts a table, not merely as a grid of empty boxes but as a collection of subcells with a title, column headers, body data, and a placeholder for notes or explanations.

In the manner of the best tools, Publicon can be used to build its own extensions. The default palettes for document construction and formatting commands are themselves generated from Publicon documents, provided as examples with the product.

The 1.0 version unveiled last month suffers from surprising omissions of basic features, as obvious as Publicons current absence of a word-count command or its lack of vertical merging of table cells. Many operations could not be reversed by Undo, and speed in operations such as file export or graphics import was disappointing compared with such rivals as Word.

Nonetheless, technical professionals will relish Publicons tools for creating and searching mathematical and chemical formula notations. Academics, lawyers, researchers and others will benefit from its ease of including citations, cross-references and other complex document elements.

We hope to see Publicons open, extensible architecture reflected in rapid refinement of the basic product as well as in a wide range of customized applications.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

Check out eWEEK.coms Enterprise Applications Center at http://enterpriseapps.eweek.com for the latest news, reviews and analysis about productivity and business solutions.

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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