OSX — Quark’s Saving Grace?

April 1st, 2004 DG, Software, Tech

Xpress 6.0 is Quark’s first serious update in almost a decade, and the first version optimised for Mac OSX.

Like pornography to the World Wide Web, Quark Xpress is the Macintosh’s dirty little secret.

The most advanced technologies everybody loves about the web — from e-commerce to online identity verification — were all developed by online sex merchants. Likewise, Quark produced the first and (at one time) best tool for straightforward page layout that capitalised on the new possibilities of desktop publishing. Between them, Quark and Apple overturned the world of design, prepress and printing on the back of technologies like Postscript.

Nowadays, nobody likes to admit that Quark still has a strong hold over the entire Mac and design market. Flashier, more vocal developers like Adobe have been friendlier to Apple during the overhaul of their image and made the most of their beautiful new UNIX-based OS while Quark sat back and stubbornly refused to give any real incentive to the millions still using Quark 3 or 4 to move up from Mac OS 8 or 9.

Apple certainly won’t want to admit that a large part of their livelihood still lies in Quark’s hands (which might explain their strong push since the days of the original iMac to get Macs into the hands of home users as well as design professionals). It’s true that huge numbers of major publishing houses have already dumped Xpress for InDesign, but tens of thousands more still saw no reason to shell out for OSX while the application they spent 75% of their time in wasn’t supported.

Now, after version 5 failed to destabilise the competitors chipping away at Quark’s market share, Xpress 6 offers more changes than we’ve ever seen, not the least of which is its native home in OSX. But will they be enough to convince people to stay (or return) to the once-ubiquitous software?

The Online Gamble

Quark’s web design capability was built into version 5 — too late to compete with more established applications like Frontpage and Dreamweaver that had the web design market stitched up.

To convince anyone to use their web design function, Quark had to come up with something as good or better. The philosophy seems to have been to make Xpress an entire design solution — for on and offline. The problem is that print designers who’ve made the jump know the standard terms and workflows other applications have spent six or eight years establishing, and Xpress 6 doesn’t follow them.

It’s a problem because migrating back to Xpress to design your web pages means a new learning curve. The theory of laying out a page with Quark’s familiar tools and then turning it into a web page is great, but to apply the functionality means relearning things you already know from using other WYSIWIG HTML editors.

To make matters worse, the look and feel of Xpress’ web design function is clumsy and clunky. The options to set up a new page 9with background colours etc in pace) are far too basic, and if you’re using images that have already been prepared, trying to match their colours is nearly impossible because Quark uses a different colour engine from every other application on your computer.

You’re meant to dive straight in and start building your page from the word go — no creating a site folder and clearly marking out your site hierarchy. It also doesn’t apply any of the constraints a good HTML editor should — letting you use any number of fonts as if it’s a print design, despite the limited text display capabilities of the average web browser.

You export a page once you’re finished it, and Quark gives you a simplistic site folder with your page and images, making no allowances if you have to change the folder hierarchy and link paths later (something Dreamweaver — for example — is very precise about maintaining).

Overall, it’s as if Quark licensed an old copy of Hot Dog and whacked it in the Xtensions folder without really knowing much about web design. Either that, or they assumed print designers have no experience with the better-known HTML editors and their product shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge. In any case, it’s so basic it ignores many of the most simple web functionalities you can’t afford not to know.

The one upside is that you use the same text and image box tools you do when designing for print, a nice change as most HTML editors can’t give you the control down to the last pixel you’re used to as a print designer. So at a pinch, it’d be fine for constructing roughs of very basic one or two page sites, but you’ll have to use a more serious web application for fine tuning.

Learning a New Language

Now part of Xpress 6 (under version 5, it was an Xtension you had to buy separately), avenue.quark is another component of future proofing Quark seems to be partly banking on. Its relevance today is open to question though, and will depend on your work environment.

The theory behind it is that you can take content you’re given for a layout and export it as XML to apply to another project. In the professional field, it assumes that the print designer and web designer (or their departments) will be one in the same — a rare occurrence in a large organisation.

The first problem is that a company or studio of the size that needs a content sharing solution will probably already have one. Secondly, the ability to export and use XML is future proofing for a very distant future. In high-end IT environments, XML is probably used quite widely, but in an office full of designers, sharing content is still done by emailing word processing documents and applying styles to text directly in Xpress (the reason for desktop publishing software to start with).

But the biggest hurdle Quark faces is the nature of XML itself. If you’ve used it and know what you’re doing, you might make use of it in a one-man studio without an established and expensive content sharing workflow. Most designers keen to learn avenue.quark, however, will get ten pages into the 100-plus page PDF explaining it and need an aspirin.

The people who use Xpress — overwhelmingly 1990’s-era print designers — speak the language of CMYK values, facing pages and linking text boxes. XML is like the first time you ever looked at the code of a HMTL document and reeled in horror, wondering how you’d ever decipher such hieroglyphics.

As such, avenue.quark’s only real fans will be people sent on long and expensive courses to learn it by generous employers or those with such rich clients they have enough spare time (in other words, almost none).

From Strength to Strength

The good news is all in Xpress 6’s print design environment. Using the same advantage as when InDesign was first released with a flourish, their trump card is familiarity. Many of us have been using Xpress since the days of Mac OS 7, and few smaller operators are willing or able to invest the time (or training money) to learn a new application from scratch.

The program you’re familiar with now looks gorgeous under OSX’s Quartz graphics engine — buttons, palettes and windows you know and love are given vibrant new life. Apple were asked if they’ve kept figures of the number of people who’ve upgraded to OSX since Xpress 6 was released (and claimed not to) but it’ll be interesting to see if huge numbers of people have now made the jump for that reason — or plan to.

There’s one downside to Xpress’ new home in OSX. You’ve been using F10 to bring up the page layout, F11 for the style sheets and F12 for the colours for years. If you run Panther (OS 10.3), they’re the keys assigned to Expose, Mac’s new trick to clear the desktop at the press of a button. To our mind the question ‘which one are we more used to using’ was an no-brainer — Expose now lives at F1, F2 and F3. But several little things like that now conflict with years-long patterns in your mind and adjustments will be necessary — be they technical or mental.

All Encompassing Design

In line with the philosophy of using Xpress for all your design projects (the reason for the web design functionality and the inclusion of avenue.quark), Quark have cleverly embraced the need to have several designs in the one project by allowing you to collect them all in one document.

Handy tabs at the bottom of the screen lead to your web page design, brochure, stationery, seminar invites or product catalogue, keeping the whole design project or family into one Xpress file. It’s not only great not to have to open six documents to update something across the board, Every layout in a project shares attributes like colours or style sheets so there’s no need to append them.

Smart Updating

Another handy reason to collect every design into one file is a great feature called synchronised text. Simply put any box of text into the synchronised text palette and give it a name. Draw a text box in any number of new layouts (or elsewhere in the same one) and drag the synchronised text story in the palette into the box.

Anytime you change it anywhere throughout your project, it updates every other instance of it. Unfortunately you can only save the contents of an entire text box as synchronised text; the applications of assigning a single line or word as synchronised text are endless if you design price lists or documents with a lot of small text variables.

Turning the Tables

In another long overdue addition, Xpress also offers support for tables, and in a saving grace, it treats them the same as most other major applications. You can either draw a table and fill it with your data or convert tab-delimited text into a ready-made table, so while you can’t import data straight from a spreadsheet, you can at least export the text from one and convert it in Xpress in a single step.

It really only suits smaller tables though — big ones start to get very memory-intensive and if you don’t want the frustration of waiting for long seconds every time you need to move or adjust a table, you’ll have to revert to an old method like drawing one in your vector drawing software and importing it as a picture.

A New Flight Pattern

Infuriatingly, even despite being the most obvious end-of-job task, one that’s been an integral component of InDesign from day one, Quark still has no combined preflighting and collecting tool built in. Maybe they have shares in Extensis or Markzware (owners of Flightcheck and Preflight Pro) or Magpie (that great old Hunt and Gather utility).

To Xpress’ credit, the Collect for Output feature finally collects your fonts, but it’s still half the job without preflighting and does Quark a serious disservice when it’s one of the most basic functions among their competition.

Is It Worth It?

This is the most sweeping improvement to Xpress that Quark have offered in almost 10 years since Xpress 4 took over from 3.32. Plenty of very handy new features like unlimited undos make a very welcome addition to a familiar toolset and go some of the way to redeeming Quark for their stubbornness in ignoring designers’ wishlists for years.

If they dropped the clumsy web design add-ons that aren’t their area of expertise and halved the box price, Xpress would have the best chance of regaining ground lost to InDesign and being a universally loved product again.

Price & Availability

The full version of Quark Xpress Passport 6 is $3,495. If you’re upgrading from version 5, it’s $715. From version 4, $1,440 and from version 3, $1,850. See www.quark.com for features and specifications information. Quark’s Australian distributor, Modulo Systems, can be found at www.modulosystems.com.au or contacted on either 02 9387 5300 or 1800 700 330.

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