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The Past and Future of CorelDRAW, Illustrator and FreeHand

Tom Arah looks at the track record of the three vector giants, Corel, Adobe and Macromedia, and tries to pick a winner..

Generally speaking designers are a polite and easy-going lot and it’s very rare that I get flamed - with one notable exception. If I suggest that CorelDRAW might no longer be the best vector drawing application available and that it might be wise to consider turning to either of its two great rivals, Illustrator or FreeHand my inbox quickly fills. The usual accusations (toned down to make them printable) are that, to make such outrageous suggestions, it’s clear that I have either never used CorelDRAW or that I am in the pay of Adobe or Macromedia.

I’m happy to refute both these charges, but I have to admit that I do feel uncomfortable suggesting that it might be in users interests to shift. After all, CorelDRAW is still the drawing program I turn to most often and you only have to look at the respective feature lists to see that it offers more power than either rival. To take just the most obvious failings: Illustrator is still limited to producing single pages while FreeHand has virtually no bitmap-based functionality. The differences hit home even more when you actually load the alternatives and begin using them in earnest. Whether it’s major features, such as the lack of in-built separation previews or the little things, such as the absence of font previews, you can’t help feeling that you’re losing power and usability when you move from CorelDRAW to either Illustrator or FreeHand.

So why even consider it? The bottom line is that all hasn’t been well with Corel or its flagship application for some years now. Back in June 2003 the company was forced to put itself up for sale and the deal has been concluded that sees Corel taken off the Nasdaq and Toronto listings and into the private hands of the San Francisco-based venture capitalists, Vector Capital. They are now free to do with the company as they see fit. It’s not an announcement that has been greeted with joy by the Corel user community. The independent Corel Magazine, for example, is less than upbeat about the future and has come up with a new mission statement that emphasizes transitioning users to alternative solutions http://www.corelmag.com/mission.html

Corel’s acquisition raises questions over the future of its design applications.

So how did we get to this state and what’s the best course of action? To get a clearer picture we need to go back to the beginning. Corel was founded in 1985 by Michael Cowpland (the name “Corel” derived from an abbreviation of the COwpland REsearch Laboratory). The company specialized in providing DTP solutions and its breakthrough product was 1989’s CorelDRAW. And what gave the program its edge over competitors, such as the GEM-based Artline, was that it was written for the new graphical environment, Microsoft Windows.

The first version I used was 1990’s version 2, and it’s astonishing now to realize just how ahead of its time it was. What impressed most was the simplicity of its object handling and node editing, allied with advanced features such as bitmap, vector and fountain fill formatting and enveloping, perspective blending and even extrusion effects! Corel even included a dedicated application, CorelTRACE, for automatic conversion of existing bitmapped artwork so that everything was there in place for even the non-expert user to quickly produce high-impact end results.

Where CorelDRAW really hit the big time was 1992’s version 3. What made the difference was that the program was able to take advantage of the recent release of Windows 3.1 with its TrueType scalable font technology. This enabled Corel to dispense with its own WFN font format and to take text handling to heart. And with its combination of “artistic text”, which could be fitted to curves, richly formatted and distorted, and “paragraph text”, which supported DTP-style features such as text flow, columns and margins, whole new areas of graphic design were opened up.

CorelDRAW’s early strengths were its text handling and special effects.

More to the point, Windows 3.1 finally opened up the entire PC community to the benefits of the visual approach to computing. And, taking advantage of the newly-arrived CD-based delivery, Corel seized the new market’s imagination by coming up with the idea of an all-round graphics solution. Alongside Draw and Trace, version 3 added Chart and Show for producing business graphics and presentations and, crucially, Photo-Paint as a partner application to handle bitmaps. Throw in over 250 fonts and plenty of clipart and it’s no wonder that sales of the new CorelDRAW 3 suite exploded.

And with little or no competition, apart from the far more technical Micrografx Designer, the suite went from strength to strength based on the same pile-it-high principles: By version 5 the Draw module had added more eye-catching features such as Power Lines and Power Clips, while the suite as a whole had expanded to include font and media managers and a dedicated animation package, CorelMOVE. Moreover the cash-rich Corel had snapped up the troubled high-end DTP application Ventura and popped it in the box. It was a formidable array comprehensively straddling the entire field of design - especially when version 6 added CorelDREAM 3D based on Ray Dream’s 3D Studio. Corel had the PC-based design world at its feet with each new release treated as a major event much as Photoshop’s is today.

The future could hardly have looked brighter - but the dark clouds were gathering. The arrival of Windows 3.1 had turned Corel into a giant but it also turned the PC into a viable and attractive design platform that the Mac-based developers couldn’t ignore. And with Illustrator 4 and FreeHand 5 both Mac flagships were ported to the new environment.

Not that the invasion got off to quite the start that Illustrator and FreeHand had hoped for. Frankly the battle was a total mismatch with both new arrivals looking pathetically underpowered. The Windows Illustrator 4 was especially embarrassing as it only offered a portion of the equivalent Mac version’s functionality and even that would have represented at most a quarter of Draw’s functionality and a tenth of the suite’s as a whole! When the Windows Illustrator 5 failed to materialize it looked like Adobe had accepted defeat.

However the PC market was too important to give up without a fight and Adobe regrouped and eventually returned to the new Windows 95 platform with Illustrator 7. Still there was no comparison to CorelDRAW’s overall power, but in many ways this was now perceived as a strength. Where Corel seemed addicted to adding every feature it could think of and any new application that it could snap up, Illustrator just concentrated on the core task of vector drawing.

Adobe Illustrator’s main attraction was its concentration on the core task of PostScript-friendly vector drawing.

And crucially it targeted the professional market. One of the inevitable side-effects of Corel’s bloating was a demand for system resources and a tendency to crash. Even worse was the huge number of bugs. Corel worked to a yearly product cycle designed to coincide with its AGM, and that just didn’t provide enough time to eradicate problems. Or to ensure that the control offered to the end user was completely comprehensive. The feeling grew that Corel was happy to slap in new functionality whether it was ready or not.

This slapdash approach is anathema for professional users and especially for professional designers whose job is to produce commercial full-colour print. Here an undocumented limitation or bug can lead to missed deadlines or even wasted print-runs so it’s far more important that functionality is rock-solid than creatively exciting. And here Illustrator scored heavily precisely by avoiding the features such as transparency and pixel-based effects that helped give Draw’s work its impact. Ultimately Illustrator’s killer weapon was that it was designed from the ground-up to work with Adobe’s PostScript language which underpins the publishing industry. So much so that in many ways Illustrator can best be seen as a visual EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) file editor, which is exactly how Adobe had conceived of it way back in 1988.

Illustrator had another trick up its sleeve. You might not get anything else in the box, not even any clipart, but you did get tight integration with Adobe’s other applications. With Illustrator 7 for example you could drag and drop directly into Photoshop or PageMaker and import native PSD files and apply Photoshop filters from within Illustrator. And with increasing convergence and integration across the Adobe stable it suddenly became clear that the Corel suite, with the honourable exception of Photo-Paint, wasn’t actually a suite at all - it was just a bundle of disparate applications.

And applications that Corel clearly had little interest in developing further, unlike Adobe which was determined to produce the market-leading application in each design area that it entered, however much effort that involved. Where its boring flat fills had been a major weakness, for example, version 8 added advanced support for gradient meshes and the seminal version 9 added multi-layered non-destructive formatting and comprehensive transparency support. And crucially, unlike Corel, Adobe ensured that this new rich formatting power remained as PostScript-friendly as possible. When allied with the other Adobe publishing flagships, Photoshop and the all-new InDesign, and the new emphasis on workflows based on the PostScript-derived PDF format, it enabled Illustrator to capture the print-oriented drawing market and make it its own – and all this despite the ridiculous and completely artificial single page limit!

Meanwhile what was happening to FreeHand? On the Mac, Aldus FreeHand had always filled a clear role providing more advanced print-oriented power than Illustrator such as early support for vector transparency and multiple pages. In fact when Adobe bought Aldus in 1994 to get its hands on PageMaker, for a while it looked like they might drop Illustrator and concentrate on the more powerful FreeHand though eventually they returned the program to its original developer, Altsys, which was soon acquired by Macromedia. On the PC, however the dominance of CorelDRAW and the reputation and renaissance of Illustrator meant that FreeHand was squeezed from all sides.

FreeHand’s original strength was its DTP-style text handling.

In any case Macromedia as a company was less interested in print than in multimedia with its main application, the CD-ROM-oriented Director. At the same time, the nature of multimedia was changing and Macromedia saw that the future lay in web delivery. With the arrival of Rob Burgess as CEO in 1996 Macromedia took a hatchet to its print-oriented applications such as Fontographer and xRes, to concentrate on developing to the Web with new home-grown applications such as Dreamweaver and Fireworks. It also bought up the tiny FutureSplash vector animation package which it renamed and released as Flash in 1997.

FreeHand was looking like yesterday’s technology but it somehow clung on. To have any future though it had to find itself a convincing web role and, for a vector drawing package, that really had to be working alongside Flash. At the end of 1998 FreeHand 8 was launched with the ability to release blends to layers and then output these as frames to produce Flash SWF animations. It wasn’t a hugely impressive start but, in its next release, FreeHand moved up a level with Flash-style anti-aliasing and similar symbol-based handling. With version 10 the library-based symbol handling was identical and you could test Flash movies directly within FreeHand.

The breakthrough release was this year’s FreeHand MX. This continued FreeHand’s push into Flash territory with a new Action tool to handle basic navigation and the ability to embed SWF files in FreeHand projects. With advanced drawing features, such as its transparency control, live perspective effects and MX’s new extrusion capability (outdoing CorelDRAW 2 at last!), alongside its page-based environment this meant that FreeHand had successfully transformed itself into the natural partner to Flash, ideal for producing initial storyboards and designs and the most eye-catching effects.

Perhaps most important of all, with its completely restyled interface – based on a much more streamlined and productive version of the docker palette system that CorelDRAW had pioneered – it is clear that FreeHand is definitely seen as an integral part of Macromedia’s long-term MX strategy. In particular its inclusion in the popular Macromedia Studio MX suite alongside Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash guarantees FreeHand an important role for those interested in producing work both for print (where the program is still a capable performer) but especially the Web. The transformation is complete and, from an also-ran, FreeHand MX managed to steal the A-List vector drawing crown (see issue 103).

FreeHand MX has been reinvented as the natural drawing partner for Flash

While Adobe turned Illustrator into the natural drawing application for users interested in its vision of a cross-application PostScript/PDF print-based workflow and Macromedia turned FreeHand into the natural choice for users interested in its vision of a cross-application Flash/SWF web-based workflow, what was Corel doing? With its near-dominance of the PC market and its existing roster of design applications all it needed to do was to improve reliability, professionalism and integration and recognize the importance of the Web. The open goal was there in front of them.

Unfortunately the company had other goals in its mind. As it had shown with Ventura, Corel couldn’t resist the temptation of buying up ailing applications and applying some marketing magic to open up new audiences. And when the biggest bargain of them all became available in 1996, Corel couldn’t resist buying up WordPerfect and its office suite. Being the Microsoft of the design world wasn’t enough, Corel thought it could take on the Redmond giant directly or at least find a money-making niche. As Cowpland put it, “Look at Pepsi vs. Coke, McDonald's vs. Burger King, there's always a good number two. We think we're a good number two in the Windows space." (http://www.morochove.com/watch/cw/ff70731.htm)

In fact Cowpland’s ambitions were even grander. Corel had gained its position by betting on the PC and on the Windows platform now it decided to bet against them both. Huge investment and research development was poured into porting the Corel applications, particularly the WordPerfect suite, to run under Java on cut-down Network Computers. Again as Cowpland put it “I think we're very happy with betting on Java very early and betting on NCs early, too." It was the wrong call as were a number of other initiatives outside Corel’s core design base.

Eventually the company stopped throwing good money after bad and in 2000 Cowpland stepped down as CEO to be replaced by Derek Burney who made all the right noises about concentrating on design. Bizarrely though the company still seemed less interested in developing its existing applications than in finding new bargains. When Metacreations imploded, Corel couldn’t resist snapping up KPT, Bryce and the crown jewels, Painter. Even that wasn’t enough and in late 1991 Corel bought up its original rival the ailing Micrografx and its Designer and iGrafx applications.

With so much happening around it, it was inevitable that the amount of effort put into Draw would suffer. One by one each of the secondary modules in the CorelDRAW suite were quietly dropped until in 1999’s version 9 there was only Draw and Photo-Paint left - and the work on Photo-Paint wasn’t exactly pushing the program to its limits. With version 10 it finally looked like Corel might have stopped the rot, and recognized the importance of the Web, with its introduction of the much-trumpeted CorelRAVE module dedicated to producing Flash animations.

Sadly RAVE falls into all the Corel traps. By basing its animations on blended groups that are saved out to frame-by-frame animations you can produce simple high-impact work very easily. For the professional though it is near-impossible to produce more complex work, the program keeps crashing and the final results are download-heavy which goes against the whole principle of Flash’s web delivery. Even more disappointing is the fact that RAVE isn’t actually a new module at all – it is just the Draw application with an added timeline. To be harsh, RAVE is just a marketing trick designed to make the suite look better value.

The new Corel RAVE module offers basic Flash animation.

Marketing aside though, there’s still no doubt that CorelDRAW is an amazing program. By the time the Mac apps seriously arrived in the race, it already had such a head-start that it could basically freewheel and still stay well ahead on feature counts. And while the Draw module no longer innovates, you’ll still find that each new release tends to incorporate a version of any new functionality that Illustrator or FreeHand has added, such as version 9’s natural media brushes and gradient meshes. In each case though the Corel implementation settles for good-enough rather than best-in-field and this fundamentally has been Draw’s downfall. By settling for being a “good number two” it has allowed Illustrator to seize the professional print market and Macromedia the professional web market.

CorelDRAW can still make a convincing claim to the non-professional all-rounder crown – and of course there are significantly more occasional users interested in graphics than there are professionals. The problem is that while professionals need the latest versions of their tools to maintain their competitive edge, occasional users are happy to save their money and fall back from the leading edge. Corel Draw’s users learnt early that they could safely miss upgrading to the even numbered releases; increasingly they’ve discovered that they can live without the odd ones too.

And if you don’t need the latest power then why pay full whack for the latest CorelDRAW suite? After all there’s a much better alternative: for a fraction of the price you can buy the version 9 releases of Draw and Photo-Paint rebundled as CorelDRAW ESSENTIALS. Compared even to the latest 12 release, you really won’t be missing that much.

In a way it’s almost fitting that Corel’s eye to the main chance has contributed so directly to its downfall. And that the consummate predator should itself have turned into an ailing giant snapped up by a company more interested in the balance sheet than in design. At the time of writing it’s not clear what Vector intends to do to make good on its investment but let’s hope they, or whoever they sell the design applications on to, learn the lesson that the Corel story so clearly demonstrates. The only way for the design software developers to make money over the long-haul is to concentrate on helping their customers make it first.

Tom Arah

Dec 2003

Following this article and the disappointing DRAW12 review appearing I’m glad to say that the European Product Manager for Corel got in contact to discuss the future. Not surprisingly he was very positive, revealing that since Corel has been taken off the stock market it has returned to profitability. He also talked about the positioning of Draw based on an in-depth survey which revealed that 50% of Draw users are design professionals who use the program as their main production tool ie more than 5 hours a day while 40% are business generalists who use it less than 5 hours a week. That’s a big split in usage and difficult to manage (I would suggest that the generalists would probably be happy enough with CorelDRAW Essentials while the professionals would certainly like more power and soon). According to Corel, productivity is the key to the program and that’s a sentiment with which I agree (as I say I still turn to it to get simple jobs done quickly). As such the product manager revealed that earlier versions of the latest version 12 had had more functionality but that this was removed in favour of greater stability and ease of use and so enhanced productivity. That’s all very well but clearly there’s no long-term future in standing still and Corel has been stressing stability and consolidation since version 8 and longterms users want the sort of power that they now see in rival apps as soon as possible. Perhaps the most reassuring point was that the new Corel recognizes the problems and is clearly listening and is focusing on its core design apps (and WordPerfect :(). Whether they put the good intentions into practice we shall see – I certainly hope they do.

April 2004

System requirements:Pentium II, 128/256MB of RAM, 250MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 or XP, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM.

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