October 10, 2017

Is QuarkXpress a serious contender to InDesign?

It is quite noticeable on the Internet that the dislike of Adobe's subscription policy (some even call it prisonware) is increasing. In spite of the comprehensiveness of the collaborating programs in Adobe's suit, many DTP-ers are looking for alternatives to continue their work. At first glance it seems there aren't many serious competitors to InDesign, at least not ones that are similarly feature rich. But for users to be driven to consider a switch to an other program, because they feel plundered, in spite of the magnificent features of InDesign, indicates that something is wrong with the capacity to make proper decisions in Adobe's management (although the bloke that persuaded them to do it, most likely reached his target with a rousing fanfare - Subscriptions to Adobe’s popular Creative Cloud software have powered a 44 percent increase in revenue since 2013...). Users have to overcome a steep learning curve in order to be able to work with an alternative program and have to convert a number of their documents that they created in InDesign. But the time, effort and money that it costs, does not seem to stop many from looking for alternatives nevertheless. That should ring some bells at Adobe, but I assume they think that their industry leader position prevents them from losing too many users, which they believe will be more than compensated by the revenues resulting from their grippingly expensive subscription policy.

An other flaw that InDesign has, is that it is incapable of integrating SQL data, which would be a very useful function for a lot of companies (that must print labels or other printed docs that often recur, requiring change). There are rather expensive and not 100% properly working third party plug-ins to solve this problem (somewhat), but on top of Adobe's already expensive program this would put off many users that would have potential use for it. A simple program like Microsoft Word handles SQL data without a plug-in a lot better than InDesign.

In the past Aldus PageMaker was a program that re-invented the art of Desktop Publishing. It became available for Macintosh computers in 1985 and for Windows machines in 1987. No contending program was able to match its features. In 1994 PageMaker was bought by Adobe. Its latest release was version 7.0 that was launched in 2001.

Before that time an other DTP-program, named QuarkXpress had conquered the DTP market, because it had many more functions than PageMaker. QuarkXpress 4.0 made that company grow so fast that Quark intended to buy Adobe. The latter averted the take over and developed InDesign that was based on Shuksan or K2 that Aldus had already began to develop in the time it was bought by Adobe. That eventually resulted in Adobe issuing InDesign. This program rapidly gained Adobe a leading position in the DTP realm, which it has been able to expand over time.

But Adobe's subscription model forces users to pay indefinitely for the right to use its programs. Its monopoly on the market probably prompted the company to make such a choice, thinking that professional users in Desktop Publishing would have no choice but to use InDesign. I am not on some type of crusade against Adobe, but I just feel it is exploiting its market position. Their suit is excellent and its programs work together in a great way. However, expecting users to endlessly pay for programs instead of buying a license and allowing users to decide to upgrade when they feel it is necessary, is not good business conduct.

An other contender, Microsoft's Publisher, is not taken seriously by professionals due to its lack of advanced features, while FrameMaker - suited to create large, structured documents - purchased from Frame by Adobe in 1995, used mainly in big business environments where less fancy lay-out features are required. FrameMaker is commonly used for database publishing, which is a specialized trade. It reads ODBC / SQL / XML objects and links them in documents automatically, so whenever the information in the database is changed, they are applied in the document instantly. It is a tool particularly useful for companies that continuously need to process large amounts of data, to which DTP-specialists have to do few or no editing at all. Airliners for example, quarterly receive approximately 150,000 pages that update the manual for a specific large type of aircraft. These include legacy data (bitmaps) and editable data. FrameMaker is therefore almost never used as a single program production platform; many other programs are involved in the update process - database shells, programs for vectorizing bitmaps (rasters), OCR etc.

Open source Lyx that is a shell based on Latex typesetting that does not follow the WYSIWYG principle that has become the standard in the DTP world. It is predominantly used in academic circles and is perfectly capable of creating and integrating (editable) complex mathematical formulae in documents, but it does not attract many users outside of its niche and does not seem to attempt to do so. It is not created to do general publishing, but is very good at composing large, structured documents.

A great DTP program that once adorned the business of lay-out enhancing artists is Ventura that was bought by Corel in 1993. Ventura had been around from the pre-Windows era, running on DOS. Its transition to Windows was excellent. Renown for the way it handled styles and its magnificent interface, it slowly dissolved into oblivion after Corel didn't bother to give it some TLC. It might have earned them tons of money, but apparently the Corel company had other priorities. Some of its functionality found its way into their flagship CorelDRAW, but that is not a specialist DTP program. A missed opportunity I think.

Finally Scribus is also an open source DTP program which interface resembles word processing applications at first glance. I've tried to use it, but I find it difficult to find the features that would allow it to properly function as a professional DTP program. My biggest objection against Scribus is the fact that it can not properly anchor images in text fields; this is a major requirement in professional DTP-programs and this flaw should urgently be addressed before it can considered to be a serious contender in the publishing realm. Another problem is the fact that native tables can't be configured and edited properly, which especially is a shortcoming for people that have specialized in making technical and commercial documentation. Perhaps it's just me having no feeling with Scribus User Interface, because it excels at hiding key functions very well. I think it is an admirable project and have a lot of respect for programmers that work on open source projects, but key features must be added to this program, before professionals will consider to use it. But for the time being, I am trying to familiarize myself with QuarkXpress to create DTP documents.

So, is QuarkXpress a good alternative to InDesign? It probably is, but its UI is entirely different and it requires a lot of effort for users accustomed to InDesign to create documents of similar complexity and appearance. While in the process of learning QuarkXpress I intensively explored the program's user forum and Youtube to find out where the functions are and how they work. InDesign users may find QuarkXpress' UI not logical in a number of respects. Some functions, like anchoring an image inside a text box, require cut and paste instead of being available as a dedicated function that is easy to find in the menus or by right clicking. In addition anchoring images requires a specific sequence of actions for it to work properly - create an image box, cut and paste it where the image should be anchored inside the text and lastly import the image in the pasted box. After that fiddling with inserts and tabs is necessary to position the runaround text. The image box consequently starts to behave as text..., eventhough some (but not all) of the image properties remain editable.

I'm not saying InDesign's anchoring function is flawless, but it is more intuitive, is less difficult to find (because it is in a logical position in the menus), faster to accomplish and edit, while significantly less tedious and more flexible for users to work with. And what is more: it bloody works! I mention this feature specifically, because it is a crucial function for those creating and editing long documents, especially if items or pages have to be inserted in the beginning of a document. Note: No one seems to dig deep in to core of this fundamental DTP-function in the QuarkXpress forum and Youtube, I suspect because it is a shortcoming so far not addressed. Five paragraphs below this one I refer to problems with legacy functions that developers must deal with in order to maintain UI logic and accessibility of functions, without confusing existing users of a program. It may be the root of this problem in QuarkXpress.

An other example, for call-out creation and editing, Quark placed that function in the Item menu, while related functions are in the EditStyle and Window menus. Why not combine them all in one place or make them accessible in one dialogue box? It all works when properly applied, but users shouldn't have to do exhaustive digging in the menu structure to get the job done. It feels more like a workaround instead of a dedicated function. I'm aware of the fact that veteran QuarkXpress users may shrug their shoulders over my remarks, but if QuarkXpress aims to expand its audience, then something should be done about these things, because they are oddities that all new users (that aim to switch from InDesign for example) run into.

InDesign has a wealth of filters that allow images to be transparent with a number of properties, including fading transparency that can be applied instantly. These are not available as dedicated functions in QuarkXpress and require more clicks after users have figured out where to find the functions and how they work. Editing in photo / bitmap editing programs can sometimes not be avoided, because it can't be done in QuarkXpress; editing of fading transparency of images or boxes at an angle of choice for example. Also creating interactive documents in QuarkXpress forces users to look for functions that are not user friendly or simply non-existing. In view of this, I think the QuarkXpress forum is lacking in proper assistance and there aren't many video clips on Youtube that shed an efficient light on complex DTP matters either. That means that users that want to make the switch from InDesign to QuarkXpress have to figure out these things by themselves. That is a shame really, since many DTP-ers simply do not have the time to discover these functionalities. It is a situation that the people at QuarkXpress have to seriously consider, especially now that there is a lot of annoyance among DTP-ers with regard to Adobe's subscription policies, urging them to find usable alternatives. QuarkXpress puts a lot of emphasis on persuading users to opt for their less expensive licensing policy, but neglects making a greater effort of improving their program's UI and functionality, while leaving their support section with a lack of support.

Meanwhile, rumours have it that Serif, that also developed Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer, is in the process of creating a DTP program as well - Affinity Publisher. Date of issue has been delayed several times, but in view of Affinity Photo's and Affinity Designer's most outstanding capabilities, expecting that their future DTP program may have similarly magnificent features is probably not far off the mark. The current situation in the DTP market should force Adobe and QuarkXpress to reconsider their chosen paths; Adobe might rethink if its subscription policy may have been an unfortunate decision, capable of harming Adobe's market share in the long run and QuarkXpress should probably do some work on its UI and extend its user support.

It isn't a disgraceful thing for QuarkXpress to mimic the useful parts of Adobe's UI - the Corel suit allows users to chose between several interfaces, which means it is feasible for programmers to achieve such a feat. Most importantly: it makes switching from Adobe to QuarkXpress much easier. If Adobe and QuarkXpress miss the boat in the departments indicated, Serif may pass them both in the near future, especially since the combination of Affinity Photo, Designer and Publisher would make their suit quite complete. Perhaps adding a webdesign program would be the cherry on the cake.

Affinity's advantage over both InDesign and QuarkXpress, is that Serif has no need to consider legacy functionality - it can do things right from scratch and it has no legacy tool functions to take into account (unless it is going to transform its Serif Plus DTP-program into Affinity Publisher...). A lack of legacy functions to consider, tends to make programs easier, faster and cheaper to develop, resulting in a more user friendly UI that requires less clicks and endless plunging into menus. Serif has shown to be well capable of doing exactly that with Affinity Photo and Designer. This observation may have the ability to cause Adobe and QuarkXpress to worry, because they're basically stuck with modifying legacy functionaly.

In addition Affinity's low price policy may tempt users, companies and print shops to (re)calculate their (long term) operational costs, which may not lead to conclusions that are favorable for Adobe and QuarkXpress, provided that Serif will be able to manage its programs' pre-press compatibility with existing hardware in a way that will not force print shops to make investments necessary to make proper prints that require much time to complete. I will most certainly keep an eye on Serif's progress with regard to the development of Affinity Publisher and write about it once they have issued the program.

Update February 2019

Since a couple of months ago Serif issued a number of the beta versions of Affinity Publisher and although it is not a finished product yet, it looks very promising. What jumps out is the interface that is very intuitive and is already prepared (but not yet functioning) to integrate with Affinity Photo and Designer. Bearing in mind that Serif has the necessary experience with DTP (the excellent PagePlus program) I don't doubt that they will be able to bring Publisher up to speed within a reasonable amount of time. They have stated that they will not use the unaltered code of PagePlus, but build Publisher from the ground up, making it meet the most modern requirements and prevent their team of developers from having to work-around / work with legacy code, which generally tends to make programs slow and / or bloated (and / or even buggy).