COMMENTARY--It really feels like the good old days of the personal computer again, when the industry was constantly rocked by breakthrough software launches and competing products leapfrogging each other in a frenzied race to dominate this or that emerging market. Case in point, Adobe recently released InDesign 2.0, closely followed by the long-delayed release of QuarkXPress 5.0, a first major upgrade to the leading page layout tool in several years.
In today's software business where all standards were established a long time ago, and where the disappearance of a paper-clip character from a major office productivity suite constitutes exciting news, InDesign 2.0 and QuarkXPress 5.0 are both pretty significant announcements.
For the publishing industry, this creates an interesting situation. The page-layout market has been dormant for many years now. Professional publishers had standardized on QuarkXPress in the early 1990s. Ever since, the program from the Denver-based company has been pretty much the only game in town for design-driven page layout. In fact, even Quark itself had problems to get its installed base to move up to the most recent version.
InDesign was released more than two years ago with a memorable marketing blitz, and version 1.0 was soon followed by an intermediary upgrade of the program. The initial market reaction was tepid: hardly surprising in a deadline driven industry which already has a tool which performs adequately. InDesign, in its first incarnation, offered some interesting features such as significantly improved typographic control, layers and tight integration with other Adobe products such as Photoshop, but it was not a quantum leap in functionality over Xpress. In addition it had significantly higher hardware requirements than QuarkXPress, as well as some real performance issues and printing problems.
A new departure in page layout software?
InDesign 1.x was essentially at feature parity with QuarkXPress, exceeding its rival in a few areas such as typography and layers, and falling short in some smaller points. InDesign 2.0, on the other hand, is the first page layout application to significantly enhance the basic tool-set of the designer. The most spectacular new feature is of course support for transparency, a first in a page-layout application, and one that should get more than a polite interest from designers.
There is also a flurry of other new features in InDesign 2.0, ranging from a rich table-feature and XML support to enhanced typographic functionality and tight integration between InDesign and Adobe's flagship products Photoshop and Illustrator.
QuarkXPress 5.0, on the other hand, is enhancing its tool-set with its own implementation of a table tool, layers (which were already present in version 1.0 of InDesign), and a new HTML mode allowing users to create Web-pages with QuarkXPress, to name but a few new features.
Where is publishing going?
There can be no doubt that InDesign 2.0 brings some unique features to the design and publishing process. Short of high-end composition systems, it offers by far the best typographic control and composition of any page layout program on the market, and its transparency features are so essential that one is amazed how long designers had to live without it. Not to be neglected: InDesign 2.0 runs natively on MacOS X--an important aspect in a market where Apple's computers are continuing to be overwhelmingly popular.
XPress, on the other hand, is as much a standard in publishing as Microsoft Word or Excel in office computing. It has an extremely loyal user base, and, more importantly, it has proven over and over again that it is a reliable and efficient production tool, a claim on which InDesign still has to prove its abilities.
The publishing industry is of course already busy analyzing the new situation. Will Adobe manage to gather significant market share with the new release, or will the natural inertia of users, combined with a difficult economic situation stop designers and publishers from switching?
A complex situation
The situation, however, is a bit more complicated. It's true, XPress is an established standard. It's true, users don't change tools just for a few cool features. However, that logic obviously applies as much to an upgrade to XPress 5.0 as it does to a move to InDesign. In other words, users do NOT want to change tools, period. It took Quark years to get the majority of its installed base to move to version 4.x (and quite a significant number of publications are still produced on QuarkXPress 3.x). Convincing them to switch to version 5 could prove to be quite a challenge for the company.
The reality of the long-anticipated XPress-InDesign face-off is that most users or IT managers never really took InDesign 1.0 into consideration. Few professionals in a production environment would abandon a proven solution for a 1.0 product; it was quite clear at the time that everybody in the field was waiting to see how the newcomer would mature before giving it some serious thought. What made it worse for Adobe was that users had the choice between taking the risk of changing tools--or not changing anything at all in their work habit. And since Quark had started showing XPress 5.0 literally the day Adobe announced InDesign 1.0, it was hardly surprising that most publishers and designers took a wait-and-see approach.
Today, however, the situation is different: whatever publishers do, they will have to move on and change tools. Sticking with XPress 4.x will still do for some time, but sooner or later they will have to migrate, either by upgrading to XPress 5, or by moving to InDesign 2.0
X marks the spot
And then there is the X factor. So far, adoption of Apple's new operating system has been slow among professional publishers, but there can be little doubt that the unix-based MacOS X will take over in due course. The main inhibiting factor so far was of course lack of native software, but this is starting to change: Microsoft has shipped Office X, Adobe Illustrator and InDesign are now available on MacOS X, and Photoshop should follow in the next six months. Quark has said that XPress will run natively on MacOS X come version 5.1, but has not announced a delivery date for the upgrade.
All in all, the situation has a lot of potential for Adobe. The company has a very good track record in the publishing and design community, and it can offer a kind of integration between its tools Quark simply can not match. And while users generally gave InDesign 1.0 a cool reception, IT managers in publishing houses all over the world were already looking at the program with considerable interest. As Roland Klose of german news magazine Der Spiegel put it when Adobe released the first version of the page layout program, "We are not in hurry--but InDesign is the next step." That is an attitude encountered frequently, especially in the magazine and newspaper business.
It looks as if the months ahead are going to interesting for the publishing industry. It will be interesting to see what users make of the situation, now that both programs are available. Version 2.0 has enough potential to get InDesign some market share--provided the program also delivers in a deadline driven production environment. And in that respect, the publishing industry is a tough crowd to please.
Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies.