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Structured XML publishing capabilities and new output options, but not the radical overhaul that FrameMaker is crying out for.

With its longstanding commitment to PageMaker and its born-again enthusiasm for InDesign it's easy to forget that Adobe actually has three DTP applications in its stable. The third option, FrameMaker, is a very different beast. Whereas PageMaker and InDesign both emphasize intensive, hands-on, print-oriented design, FrameMaker focuses on longer documents, near automatic layout and the ability to re-purpose to different output media. If your multi-platform organization is producing multiple versions of a multi-chapter document for output to multiple different media, FrameMaker is the obvious choice.

The trouble is that recently it's not just the wider public which seems to have forgotten FrameMaker - Adobe has too. Almost as soon as it bought in FrameMaker from its original developers, Adobe decided to concentrate its efforts on creating InDesign from scratch. The result has been lean pickings for FrameMaker. The first Adobe release was built on the bundling of Distiller, while the second was built on the bundling of WebWorks Publisher. Both opened up important new output options in PDF and HTML but hardly signalled a major commitment from Adobe. The discontent of users was such that Adobe was forced into the unprecedented move of denying that it had laid-off its FrameMaker development team! So has Adobe come up with enough in this release to prove its commitment?

By far the biggest disappointment in the last release was the lack of in-built XML (eXtensible Markup Language) support. According to most industry pundits, XML is the future of computing generally and of repurposing and institutional publishing in particular. XML is built on the same principle of tagging content that underpins HTML but takes the idea further by offering both more extensibility and also more programmatic rigour. In many ways the format embodies the principles of flexibility through tight control that FrameMaker represents and it's hard to think of a more natural XML publisher.

In fact FrameMaker has actually offered XML-style control for years in the form of FrameMaker+SGML. This is a high-end - and previously astronomically expensive - version of FrameMaker fine-tuned for authors producing work based on SGML (Standardized General Markup Language). SGML is the direct forerunner of XML as it was the original markup language for writing other markup languages - in fact XML is effectively a cut-down and simplified variant of SGML. Now Adobe has opened up this existing high-end power by bundling the +SGML features directly into the main FrameMaker program as a new "structured" mode (you can swap back to the vanilla "unstructured" mode under Preferences).

Structured document components are described as elements and attributes

What makes FrameMaker's new structured mode different is that it takes the existing emphasis on tight control through tagging and runs with it. Nine tenths of the work comes before you even begin a new document in the setup of what XML calls a Document Type Declaration (DTD) and what FrameMaker calls an Element Definition Document (EDD). This not only sets out what tags are available but which tags are available where and how. A <product> element for example might demand the inclusion of single <code>, <price> and <description> elements and no others. By pinning everything down absolutely FrameMaker can not only produce "well-formed" but "valid" XML - exact code that any other XML-based application, such as a browser, will be able to process absolutely reliably.

So how does structured publishing work in practice? To begin work on a structured document you can open an existing XML file with its appropriate DTD or you can convert an unstructured document based on a set of conversion rules and cues. To produce a structured document from scratch you need to create a new document and then import an EDD from another structured document or template.

Once you've associated a document with an EDD you can work on it using commands under the File and new Element menus and with three new floating palettes available from command icons above the document scrollbar. The Elements Catalog is the most important as it lists the elements which can be applied at any given time. The Attributes Editor is used when the element you are applying needs to be fine-tuned. And the Document Structure Window shows a collapsible tree-list hierarchy of elements and attributes that you are building up, as well as flagging any areas that need to be addressed to produce that all-important valid code.

The strict hierarchy of elements and attributes can be seen in the Structure View window.

As you work on your structured publication you save it to FrameMaker's own proprietary and binary FM format, so to get at the open and text-based XML (or SGML) code for browsing or further processing you have to export it. This is done with the Save As command which now provides XML as an option and you can also save the document's formatting information as a CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) file. And because the output is standards-compliant, well-formed and valid, you can convert the XML/DTD and styling information back into a FM/EDD file ready for further work. The resulting workflow is what Adobe calls "round-trip XML".

It might sound relatively straightforward - but the practicalities are anything but. This is partly intrinsic, as there is a huge gulf between producing well-formed XML and valid XML. But sadly the inherent difficulty is made far worse by the implementation. Limitations and problems abound from the restricted number of document types available, how these are set up, the confusion between XML's DTD and FrameMaker's EDD, the way elements mysteriously disappear from the Catalog and the lack of an XML preview. Worse, if you open a structured document in unstructured mode, you could entirely lose the hierarchy you've laboriously built up! Maybe I was expecting a lot but I expected native XML handling to be put at the very heart of FrameMaker. Sadly bundling a five-year-old, niche-market, SGML-based add-on doesn't mean that you are catering for today's ever-increasing demand for XML-centred workflows.

The end result is that the vast majority of users, having tried to get to grips with structured publishing, will be driven back to FrameMaker's longstanding unstructured approach. So what's new for these users? Very little in terms of the interface. Adobe is touting some Windows 2000-based accessibility improvements such as a high-contrast display option, screen reader compatibility and some new shortcuts. Essentially however, without crucial "modern" features such as a multiple undo, this remains the same old-fashioned, ugly, inefficient Unix-style interface that Adobe inherited.

In terms of new power, FrameMaker 7 includes updated import filters for the latest Microsoft Office applications and lets you automatically resize graphics in relation to their original dimensions. Native Illustrator AI files (version 9 and later) are now supported though the lack of native Photoshop PSD support is disappointing. Surprisingly advanced is the new support for SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) which Adobe is promoting as the Web vector format of the future. When printed these are automatically rasterised but when output to the Web there is the option to either convert to bitmap or to pass through the SVG code as is. As SVG is itself XML-based, this is a pointer to the all-XML publishing workflows of the future.

The most important of Adobe's file standards for design and publishing is its Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format) and FrameMaker 7 now supports both the import and export of the latest 1.4 format. Export isn't built-in as it is with InDesign but instead depends on the bundling of the latest version of Distiller. Particularly relevant is the new support this offers for tagged PDF files which enables re-flowable display on handheld devices. Another step forward, building on the PDF's existing metadata scheme, is the support for XML-based XMP (eXtensible Metadata Protocol) which offers greater control over assets - ideal for content management and for automatable workflows.

Acrobat PDF files act as an excellent middleman between the printed page and onscreen delivery but much the most efficient way of publishing electronically is directly to the Web, which currently means directly to HTML. FrameMaker offers its own limited in-built HTML export but much greater control is provided through the bundling of a new version of WebWorks Publisher Standard Edition from Quadralay. By converting tags and embedded graphics based on rules and pre-supplied templates WebWorks can take a FrameMaker document and instantly turn it into a fully working - if not fantastically exciting - browsable Web site complete with hypertext footnotes, cross references and in-built navigation.

The bundled WebWorks Publisher offers advanced repurposing.

The latest version of WebWorks also extends the formats that FrameMaker files can generate to include two PDA-based options in Microsoft's .LIT eBook (1.5 and later) and the Palm Reader formats. Significantly the program can also be used to produce well-formed XML complete with styling information in either CSS format or the XML-based XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language). For the majority of FrameMaker users this is a far easier and far more successful way to begin exploring and taking advantage of XML - which asks the question: why hasn't Adobe been developing its own system rather than buying in a cut-down third-party solution?

That's it in terms of FrameMaker's import and export capabilities, so what about its core design power? Master page handling has been given a very minor revamp with the ability to rearrange master pages in any order and to associate a master page with a specific paragraph tag or element (though I couldn't find out how). Otherwise the big news that Adobe is pushing is that there's now a checkbox in the Import>Formats dialog that allows you to select/deselect all parameters!

The new Select All button is about the limit of interface improvements!

This is ridiculous. The FrameMaker interface is prehistoric and its design capabilities haven't seen any significant new power since Adobe took over. It's almost as if the core cross-platform FrameMaker code is a blackbox that Adobe's developers are afraid to touch. Bundling Distiller, WebWorks Publisher and now the existing +SGML add-on has opened up important new output options to PDF, HTML and XML, but the program's antiquated working practices and design power have been left completely untouched, a reminder of the way things used to be in the days before Windows. Adobe needs to learn that you can't paper over the cracks for ever; at some point you need to restore, rebuild and renew.

FrameMaker's underlying principles and layout engine remain as powerful as they've always been and for institutional users looking for long technical document handling and multichannel output it remains the most flexible choice. The fact is though, that with the paradigm shift to XML-based publishing and repurposing, FrameMaker should be stronger than ever and winning new markets rather than trading on its past. Unless Adobe stops bundling and gets coding that's simply not going to happen and FrameMaker will remain a niche option - mainframe rather than mainstream.

Tom Arah

Features
4
Ease of Use
2
Value for Money
3
Overall
3

ratings out of 6

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System Requirements: Pentium, 128 Mb RAM, 200Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98/2000/Me/NT 4/XP, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

May 2002


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