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Mail merge is a feature within most data processing applications that enables users to send a similar letter or document to multiple recipients. It enables connecting a single form template with a data source that contains information about the recipient’s name, address and other predefined and supported data.
Mail merge primarily automates the process of sending bulk mail to customers, subscribers or general individuals.
Mail merge works with two documents, the data file and the letter template. The data file includes the information of the recipients to whom the letter is to be sent. This file can be a spreadsheet or database file containing separate fields for each different type of information to be merged within the letter.
The second file is the word document or the letter template. The recipients' information on the letter template is kept empty. When the mail merge process is initiated, the recipients' data from the spreadsheet or database data file is fetched and placed within the empty field in the letter, one by one, until all letters are created.
In looking at how mail merge has been used over the years, it’s important to point out that the mail merge feature was pioneered well before the advent of the “visual dashboard” and various forms of data visualization and automation that we have today.
The feature itself resembles what a particular “app” might do in today’s software environment. For example, this functionality could easily be built into a smartphone app, or even offered over a client/server communication through a web browser.
Although mail merge has been a popular feature in successive versions of document processing software packages, it may soon be as obsolete as the old “Print Shop” software of the early PC days, or the dot-matrix printer that was so often used to generate mail merge and Print Shop documents.
A prime example of this change is the evolution of Microsoft Word, the dominant word processing software on the market. In newer versions of the Microsoft cloud-based Office 365 software suite, the mail merge feature is deprecated, which means that it slated for eventual obsolescence. Deprecated features may still be used, but are tagged for end-of-life scenarios.
To replace the mail merge feature in Microsoft Word, Microsoft has created the ability to deliver server-side document generation with Word and Excel templates. Users are urged by Microsoft to create manual workflow rules to do what a mail merge previously would have done.
This type of feature deprecation accompanies the move of the MS Office suite, as well as other software, from a machine-native environment to the cloud. Modern Office 365 subscriptions offer web-delivered office software in which more and more features are being delivered on the server side, rather than at the endpoint or on the customer’s own machine.
This raises all sorts of questions in the user community about the pros and cons of web-delivered features – one trade-off is that while on-demand web-delivered cloud software is more versatile in some ways, having features like mail merge done on the server side may mean that the user has to surrender more of their personal information to the vendor than they would otherwise have to do if they were using software products off-line on their own on-site machines.