Tim Gill: Requiem for a heavyweight

The departure of Quark's founder signals a sea change in the publishing industry.

For the publishing industry, the news that Quark Inc. founder, Chairman, and Chief Technology Officer Tim Gill has left the company to pursue philanthropy is more than the story of a high-profile developer and technology expert looking for a change of avocation.

Given the details of Gill's rather extraordinary story, there's plenty of temptation to read symbolic value into this change of management: a small but tell-tale sign that the publishing market is changing profoundly.

More than any other single programmer, Tim Gill shaped the desktop publishing market in his own image. In the late '80s, Gill's signature creation -- the page-layout application QuarkXPress -- was the program that let the infantile DTP market scale the heights of professional publishing.

Beginning its life as a fancy word processor for the Apple IIGS, XPress ultimately became the absolute standard in professional page layout -- an act nobody even contemplated following for many years.

And unlike most other programs, XPress was the work of just two men: Tim Gill, the technical mind (who recently introduced himself to an audience of publishing professionals this way: "I'm the nerd. I do the nerd stuff") and Quark CEO Fred Ebrahimi, the businessman.

Together, they made XPress; they toured the world, listening to professional publishers, writing down their needs and desires in order to provide a program that could really hold up in a professional production environment. And they succeeded in claiming something like a 90 percent share of the market.

And while this is an industry where everyone dreams of his own IPO, Gill and Ebrahimi maintained Quark as their own personal private venture. Until Gill's divestment and departure, ownership of Quark was divided equally between Ebrahimi and Gill. (The company has been mum about whether Ebrahimi or some other buyer or buyers purchased Gill's share.)

The story sounds rather idyllic so far, but it also has its decidedly darker side.

Quark has a reputation of being hard to deal with. Few companies have drawn as much ire from their most faithful clients for high upgrade prices and insufficient support.

And few companies have tried as hard to get out of their initial niche -- without ever fully managing to do so.

Gill's other brainchild, QuarkImmedia (an extension intended to turn XPress into a multimedia-development system), failed in the market despite its strengths. Immedia was a victim of the Internet explosion, which turned the once-hyped market for CD-ROM creation into a minuscule niche totally controlled by Macromedia Director.

Quark's ill-fated acquisition of mTropolis and its parent company, mFactory, went down in the annals of the emerging multimedia market as a great waste of an excellent program that couldn't find a market.

The company was somewhat luckier with Quark Publishing System, an editorial system that is used to produce magazines such as Time. Meanwhile, the company has been working hard on a number of technologies and programs intended to extend XPress' reach into vertical market segments such as packaging and catalog publishing.

But the market is changing, and Gill's departure rings like the acknowledgment that publishing will never be the same.

The future belongs to client-server publishing setups, to multichannel publishing systems and structured data. It will be a long and complex transition, but it is already underway. And on the page-layout side, Quark is now in the difficult situation of an aging market leader that would need a complete rewrite far beyond the scope of any software upgrade.

Not unlike Lotus 1-2-3 in its day, XPress is best at doing what it does well -- but Quark has to face the fact that the market is moving on.

As for Tim Gill, one can only appreciate his decision to put all his energies into something much more essential to fundamental human values than software development. That doesn't hide the fact that the publishing and software industry is witnessing the departure of one of its brightest minds.

Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies. For the publishing industry, the news that Quark Inc. founder, Chairman, and Chief Technology Officer Tim Gill has left the company to pursue philanthropy is more than the story of a high-profile developer and technology expert looking for a change of avocation.

Given the details of Gill's rather extraordinary story, there's plenty of temptation to read symbolic value into this change of management: a small but tell-tale sign that the publishing market is changing profoundly.

More than any other single programmer, Tim Gill shaped the desktop publishing market in his own image. In the late '80s, Gill's signature creation -- the page-layout application QuarkXPress -- was the program that let the infantile DTP market scale the heights of professional publishing.

Beginning its life as a fancy word processor for the Apple IIGS, XPress ultimately became the absolute standard in professional page layout -- an act nobody even contemplated following for many years.

And unlike most other programs, XPress was the work of just two men: Tim Gill, the technical mind (who recently introduced himself to an audience of publishing professionals this way: "I'm the nerd. I do the nerd stuff") and Quark CEO Fred Ebrahimi, the businessman.

Together, they made XPress; they toured the world, listening to professional publishers, writing down their needs and desires in order to provide a program that could really hold up in a professional production environment. And they succeeded in claiming something like a 90 percent share of the market.

And while this is an industry where everyone dreams of his own IPO, Gill and Ebrahimi maintained Quark as their own personal private venture. Until Gill's divestment and departure, ownership of Quark was divided equally between Ebrahimi and Gill. (The company has been mum about whether Ebrahimi or some other buyer or buyers purchased Gill's share.)

The story sounds rather idyllic so far, but it also has its decidedly darker side.

Quark has a reputation of being hard to deal with. Few companies have drawn as much ire from their most faithful clients for high upgrade prices and insufficient support.

And few companies have tried as hard to get out of their initial niche -- without ever fully managing to do so.

Gill's other brainchild, QuarkImmedia (an extension intended to turn XPress into a multimedia-development system), failed in the market despite its strengths. Immedia was a victim of the Internet explosion, which turned the once-hyped market for CD-ROM creation into a minuscule niche totally controlled by Macromedia Director.

Quark's ill-fated acquisition of mTropolis and its parent company, mFactory, went down in the annals of the emerging multimedia market as a great waste of an excellent program that couldn't find a market.

The company was somewhat luckier with Quark Publishing System, an editorial system that is used to produce magazines such as Time. Meanwhile, the company has been working hard on a number of technologies and programs intended to extend XPress' reach into vertical market segments such as packaging and catalog publishing.

But the market is changing, and Gill's departure rings like the acknowledgment that publishing will never be the same.

The future belongs to client-server publishing setups, to multichannel publishing systems and structured data. It will be a long and complex transition, but it is already underway. And on the page-layout side, Quark is now in the difficult situation of an aging market leader that would need a complete rewrite far beyond the scope of any software upgrade.

Not unlike Lotus 1-2-3 in its day, XPress is best at doing what it does well -- but Quark has to face the fact that the market is moving on.

As for Tim Gill, one can only appreciate his decision to put all his energies into something much more essential to fundamental human values than software development. That doesn't hide the fact that the publishing and software industry is witnessing the departure of one of its brightest minds.

Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies.