Acrobat v Immedia - The Future of Publishing?

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Technologies for publishing to paper and screen

Acrobat straddles print and screen

First of all welcome to a new section devoted to publishing in all its forms. As always at the start of any venture it's a good idea to define terms, if only to let you know the sort of subjects you can expect to see covered. Every writer's favourite article-opener, turning to the dictionary, helps pin things down slightly. The Concise Oxford defines "publish" as "to make generally known" or to "promulgate." It's still vague, but it's clear that at its heart lies a simple function: the communication of information.

When applied to the computer context, the term clearly covers a huge range of applications. At the core are the desktop and professional publishing packages that have largely taken over the work of the traditional printing industry. Overlapping on one side are the less page-orientated fields of graphics and multimedia and, on the other, all those office applications, particularly word processors, that are used primarily for transmitting information. Finally, and relevant to all these areas, is the new field of electronic publishing most obviously the Inter/intranet.

What this means in practice is that I'll be covering just about anything and everything from page layout to HTML, mail merging to photosetting, form design to grammar checking, font editing to clipart, help-file creation to Postscript, print utilities to writing aids, word processing to full colour publishing. Whether it's designed for paper, disk, CD-Rom or the net, if it's to do with the transfer of information, I'll try and cover it in this section.

Quark v Adobe

I appreciate that as a mission statement this might seem far-reaching, even grandiose, but it's not just me that's being greedy and dreaming of world domination. In the last month - presumably timed to coincide with the launch of the new Real World Publishing section - both of the industry's major players, Quark and Adobe, have announced new technologies which each believes will allow it to dominate the world of computer-based publishing.

Before considering these in detail, it's useful to have a look at the general state of play. So far both QuarkXpress and Adobe PageMaker have survived the DTP wars largely by matching each other blow for blow, feature for feature. Each program has its own formula for producing its end results, each with its fanatical adherents; but ultimately these end results are more or less identical. From press release to full colour magazine to book, if you want to produce it you can, and the all-important customer will not be able to tell which program you used to do it.

What this means is that the print-based publishing revolution is more or less complete. Few users are going to change the package they are familiar with because another offers precision to ten thousandth of a point rather than a thousandth - especially when they know that the next version of their existing program will almost certainly offer it to a millionth. In terms of print, both Quark and Adobe have reached a kind of stalemate, but that does not mean that each has given up on the search for that elusive knockout punch. The obvious area they have both turned to is the new and explosively expanding field of electronic publishing.

Acrobat 2

So far, Adobe's PageMaker 6 has been the only publishing program to begin a serious push towards electronic formats. Naturally the main solution they are offering is their own Acrobat portable document format, PDF. The beauty of these files is that they are as simple to create as printed output. All you have to do is to select the Create Adobe PDF plug-in from the File menu, check a few options and then click OK. PageMaker does everything else, creating a file, passing it to the Acrobat Distiller program for conversion, and loading the resulting electronic replica of your printed output into the Reader program.

In fact you do not even have to use the plug-in at all. Adobe naturally try to tie the creation of PDFs to their own products, but in fact the Acrobat Distiller program can convert the output from any application. Simply select a Postscript driver - you do not have to own the printer itself - write your output to disk and then load the resulting file into Distiller. This grounding in the long-established Postscript printing language is the source of Acrobat's three huge strengths: its cross-platform and cross-application universality, the ease with which files are created and the quality of its output.

With such benefits it's only surprising that Acrobat has not become the universal exchange format originally predicted. Most users have probably come across PDFs, but normally only when installing new software from CD-Rom. With the general move to online documentation, Acrobat files have been seized on as the ideal medium for the distribution of high quality manuals - or offloading the printing costs onto the customer if you want to be cynical.

As I see it, there are two main limitations that have prevented a wider take-up. The first is the unavoidable problem of moving from a portrait-orientation page to a landscape-orientation screen. Although Acrobat allows zooming, bookmarking, searching and the use of article threads, there's no getting away from the fact that people prefer reading on paper. If it is loaded at all, the Reader software rarely lives up to its name and tends to be used simply for printing. If users are to read on-screen they need the incentive of less static, more information-rich content.

The second problem is that of delivery. The real attraction of electronic publishing has to be the size of its potential market and its instant distribution system - in other words the Internet. Acrobat files might allow you to impress your customers with your corporate typeface and high production values, but only if they seek them out, have the viewer installed and are willing to spend the time and money downloading them. HTML-based web pages are horrendously limited in terms of design control, but they do get the basic information over quickly and on demand.

QuarkImmedia

These are clearly considerations that Adobe's great rival Quark have been thinking of, and working on, during the recent period of apparent inactivity. The solution they have arrived at, and now announced to the world, is a new technology, previously codenamed Orion, but now called QuarkImmedia. Unfortunately that's all it is at present, an announcement, but the pressure to satisfy - or at least pacify - their high-end customers has forced them into revealing their hand before the code is finalized.

Essentially QuarkImmedia is intended to fuse the worlds of design and multimedia through the use of a new electronic publishing format. Typographically exact layouts will no longer be static page-based publications, but fully interactive presentations. Clicking on a picture box will start a background sound, an animation, or a video; clicking on an item of text or button will take you a new screen or change the current layout.

The beauty is that for Quark users the revolution will be evolutionary, based on a new add-on, the QuarkImmedia Design Tool. This will be a separate product, but working within QuarkXPress 3.32 or later via the Xtensions interface. With the Design Tool, adding sounds or QuickTime 2.1 videos will be a simple case of dropping them into a layout, while an in-built paint module will allow the creation of multi-state buttons or animation sequences. Controlling everything will be a scripting language with precise management over all effects, for example over the masks or transitions that will be implemented when the user selects a button or "hot spot".

The resulting presentations will be displayed and printed with the freely distributable QuarkImmedia Viewer. In practice this will be a fully interactive counterpart to Acrobat Reader, but with two other major advantages. First, it will be possible to embed the Viewer into a presentation to turn the project into a standalone application. This will add up to 700k to the size of the file, but opens up the huge market of technophobes who are more or less happy to double click on a file, but terrified at the thought of installing a program.

Second, and most importantly, QuarkImmedia presentations will be accessible over the net by those users who have installed the Viewer. The Viewer is not integrated into existing browsers, but has its own TCP/IP capabilities to act as a browser in its own right. To speed up access, users will not have to download a whole project to view it. While they are reading the text, animations and videos will be downloading in the background, ready for playing when selected. Sound will be available in real-time using a streaming technology similar to the RealAudio standard.

QuarkImmedia promises to solve the two problems of static pages and net-delivery at a stroke. Suddenly an exciting future opens up of online information. Just imagine the constantly updated net version of PC Pro. Click on the contents page and be taken to the article you're interested in, click on the title and hear whether its worth reading, click on the screen-shot and see an animated walk-through, click on an advert and jump to the manufacturer's home page. Just about everything will be interactive, but if you prefer you can always print off a copy for reading in bed or leaving on your coffee table.

This is undoubtedly the way forward for publishing in general and interactive publishing has the potential to dwarf the achievements of paper-based DTP. Because of Quark's large installed base in the high-end graphic design camp it has a better chance than most of seizing the initiative. Virtually all the designers I know are itching to make the move into multimedia, but have so far been put off by the complexity, poor typography and alien time-based metaphor of current market leaders. By evolving DTP layout into page-based multimedia, Quark will allow their users to easily and organically develop the new skills needed to repackage their existing work.

In a way QuarkImmedia sounds too good to be true and, unfortunately, reading between the lines of the press release and white paper does soon reveal some potential problems, particularly regarding the net. Caveats like, "At this time, due to bandwidth limitations, you have to plan and design projects for the Internet carefully. However Quark firmly believes that bandwidth will increase over the next 18 to 20 months" sound ominously like "forget it". Obviously graphics and video-heavy publications are bound to be fairly large, but Quark's constant talk of ISDN and cable modems suggests that the system as it stands will be largely unworkable.

Rasterizing

One item which definitely sounds the alarm bells on this front is the hidden-away fact that all projects are rasterized. Quark makes little of this, even claiming it as an advantage because it allows text to be anti-aliased, but this is definitely disingenuous. I can see why Quark would be attracted to the idea as it instantly bypasses the problems of displaying fonts on different systems, but it is an amazingly short-term solution as downloading a page of graphics will always be slower than downloading a page of text. Not having seen how the system works in practice I can't get fully on my high horse, but no wonder Quark are looking forward to greater bandwidth if each page is essentially a graphic.

This would be bad enough on size-time grounds, but rasterizing pages also goes against the whole point of publishing: the transfer of information. Two of the fundamental benefits of electronic publishing are that this information can be easily archived and remains ready to be used in other projects. QuarkImmedia will allow certain sections of text to kept as editable, searchable and indexable but since this will be displayed in the system font, the default is to bitmap all text. Of course as soon as this is done all the textual information is lost.

For the primary intended use of magazine-style production this might not be such a problem, but it rules out QuarkImmedia for wider use as a high end format for the distribution and storage of information. It is a clear sign that Quark are not trying to create a new industry-wide standard, but rather to carve out their own proprietary niche. This is emphasized by the facts that only QuarkXPress will be able to create presentations and that the Viewer will only be available for the Mac and Windows platforms. Even worse, Quark have again revealed their Mac bias as the Design Tool will originally only be available on that platform, with a Windows version not expected until early next year.

No doubt, if they can get QuarkImmedia to the market in the near future, Quark will be able to persuade their existing Mac users to embrace the new format. In the long term however, I am not so convinced that they will be able to gain the new users needed to reach the critical mass essential to capturing the net. The lesson of computing, taught over and over again, is that no single company can survive on its own. To thrive even the biggest players must always try and widen their base as far as possible and open up their standards to others; they might prefer not to, but their customers will demand it. At the moment, Quark may dismiss HTML as a "short term solution", but they are seriously underestimating the breadth, speed and point of developments if they think they can wait 20 months for bandwidth to develop enough for them to step in and take over.

Acrobat 3

Immediate proof that the industry will not wait to fit itself around Quark's plans, comes with the announcement from Adobe of a new, net-centred release of Acrobat. In particular, developing on their existing Amber add-on, Acrobat 3 will now support both the Netscape Plug-in API and the Microsoft ActiveX specification so that it will be possible to view, search and download PDFs from within either Navigator or Explorer or any other compatible browser.

In terms of the size-quality trade-off that is so crucial to successful net use, Acrobat already has a huge advantage. With Adobe's background in fonts, the problem of displaying typefaces on different systems has already been solved allowing fonts to be embedded into a file without the need to resort to bitmapping. This means that typographically correct, text-only files can be relatively small, which with the new net access means that HTML itself might be under threat. Not only are the design limitations of HTML removed at a stroke but, thanks to Distiller, the need for separate Web page design applications also disappear. If you want to put your spreadsheet or Corel Draw poster on the Web, simply print it to a postscript file and load it into Distiller.

Of course the full benefits of Acrobat are seen with complex, high design, multiple page publications complete with graphics, but this is where file sizes inevitably explode. Adobe have brought in two major features that help lessen the problem. Page-on-demand means it will be possible to download individual pages rather than having to download the whole project. Progressive rendering is even more promising, as it will allow the straight text to appear first, then graphics to be downloaded and finally, if embedded, the actual fonts to be rendered.

When you remember that Acrobat is supported across a far wider base, including Sun and OS2, and that any application on these platforms can produce its files, it is certain that take-up will be far wider than for QuarkImmedia. Other advantages include the fact that all text remains editable and indexable so that PDFs become the natural choice for a searchable basis of an Intranet. Using Adobe Capture it is even possible to automatically convert printed material into PDFs, so that all existing material can be easily brought into a company's Acrobat base.

The New World Order?

With the announcements of QuarkImmedia and Acrobat 3 the shape of electronic publishing becomes considerably clearer. Interestingly it seems, at least for the immediate future, that the new world order will be very much a return to the old. At the bottom of the heap will be the business applications used for quickly shifting information and based on the limited but universal HTML. Above that, crossing over between this world and the world of design, will be the more office-orientated programs like PageMaker based on Acrobat. Finally at the top of the pile will be the studio-based, information-rich, multimedia productions of QuarkXPress and QuarkImmedia.

In the long term though - or more likely the medium term - the same push from below that occurred in page design will happen in electronic publishing. How this will develop is already becoming apparent with Acrobat 3's new support for dynamic controls preparing for Adobe's own multimedia developments. Meanwhile of course, HTML itself is developing at breakneck pace with the coming support for styles and the unlimited potential of Java.

No one can predict the way things will go, except to say that there are exciting times ahead. What can be safely said is that the imminent launches of both QuarkImmedia and Acrobat 3 will represent a watershed in the world of publishing. After a period of apparent deadlock, both major players are coming out fighting, aware that they must grab a large part of the new electronic medium if they are to survive. To achieve this both companies have made a major shift in orientation from the page to the screen and from paper to the net. It is a shift that will affect all publishing professionals and ultimately all desktops, but at last this power is being put in our hands.

More information on QuarkImmedia can be found at www.quark.com and on Acrobat 3 at www.adobe.com.

Tom Arah

October 96


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