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Are plug-ins a boon or a limitation?

Tom Arah argues that the "virtuous circle" of industry co-operation has broken down and that the direct interests of the user should always be paramount.

Spheroid Designer is a plug-in out of control

The computer-based publishing industry has existed now for over a decade and during that time each of the major programs has matured beyond recognition, but so too have their markets. It used to be that every new trick the programmers could devise would be welcomed with astonishment and delight. Now seasoned veterans have an impossible wish list against which they measure each new release. Having used a program day-in and day-out for up to ten years, professional users know exactly what they want it to do and how they want it to do it.

The problem is that each of us will have completely different requirements. If a large part of my job is the production of a regular price list, the handling of tables will seem a program's most important feature, but for someone who mainly produces adverts this will be an irrelevant and unnecessary overhead compared to the drawing tools on offer. In a mature industry it becomes clear that a one-size, off-the-peg solution designed to fit everyone is no longer good enough. For professional use it must be possible to tailor the program to produce an individual fit.

This ability of a program to be fine tuned to the developing needs of the user is crucial and an area in which the Mac-based publishing programs were pioneers. Adobe in particular started the ball rolling by opening up its plug-in architecture to allow the creation of add-ons for use within Photoshop and then Illustrator. Quark picked up on the idea and enabled the creation of XTensions for XPress, a feature copied by Aldus (and now Adobe again) for the creation of plug-ins for PageMaker. The concept is still spreading with MacroMedia now opening up FreeHand in the same way. The end result is a model of co-operative software development that appears to benefit everyone.

KPT - acme or nadir?

Central to this model is the third party developer. By accessing the power of the underlying program through its API (Application Programming Interface), third party developers can concentrate their skills and effort on specific areas without having to reinvent the wheel. While a small software company cannot possibly hope to create a new program with more all round functionality than the market leader, it can certainly hope to improve on some of its features. This is exactly what Kai Krause did, for example, with his Kai's Power Tools (KPT) a set of add-on filters and textured effects for use with Photoshop. From humble beginnings, his company has grown until now, with over a million copies of KPT sold, it employs more than a hundred people.

The third party development model is equally beneficial to the core program. For many users, such as computer game designers, Kai's Power Tools has itself become the main reason for using Photoshop. Looking at it more cynically, the third party developers are effectively working for free as freelance programmers. If a particular add-on proves popular then it can be bought in to help produce the next release of the main program. The upgrade to PageMaker 6.0, for example, was largely a bundle of existing third party add-ons. Such plug-ins also help their host program between upgrades. The last major release of Quark XPress was over three years ago, but the appearance of add-ons, such as those for converting publications to Web pages, have kept the majority of existing users more or less content.

Finally then, the end user also benefits as the third party developments extend the functionality of the core program and offer new power throughout the product cycle. As such the add-on and its host program effectively merge. One of the most useful features of PageMaker, for example, is its Build Booklet add-on which takes a publication and reorders the pages to create a properly imposed booklet ready for printing. For many simple publishing jobs this feature alone makes PageMaker a better solution than a word processor. The add-on has become more significant than the program.

With the independent developer, underlying program and end user all benefiting the virtuous circle is complete. By working together far more is achieved than would be possible alone. The central concept is the synergy of co-operation, choice, efficiency and freedom. As such it is no surprise that this third party development model is strongly identified with its Mac-based origins. The recognition that each user was an individual was always the defining difference between the freedom and flexibility offered by the Mac and the then corporate straitjacket of the PC where users had little choice but to do things the Microsoft way.

According to this interpretation each add-on can best be seen as symbiotic, living off its host, but at the same time helping to support it. Soon the system becomes so interdependent that neither can survive alone. There is no doubt that this organic, Mac-inspired model of industry co-operation has been an important force in the development of the computer-based publishing industry, but is it as purely beneficial as we have been led to believe? I would argue that the system has run out of control and that for the customer the drawbacks now far outweigh the advantages.

Bloatware

The first problem is that of bloating. As Kai Krause says in the introduction to the third version of his Power Tools, "There are entire programs now living inside the hosts, possibly larger and more complex than the early version of the hosts themselves...!" Kai Krause is naturally quite pleased by this, but that does not necessarily mean that the user should be. One of the main initial attractions of add-ons was their single-minded efficiency and simplicity. In many cases this has now been lost under a welter of unnecessary "improvements".

The second problem is that by their very nature, add-ons are not fully integrated. Again KPT is an extreme example with its deliberately off-the-wall interface, which as Kai Krause proudly puts it, "may seem like a bunch of balls dropped into a pile of mud." However, even with the more conventional add-ons, such as the PageMaker additions there is no consistency between how the Grid Manager or Bullets and Numbering plug-ins operate. More importantly, because the plug-ins are not integrated, there is no transparency of use. Whenever I give PageMaker training it is very noticeable that most users have entirely ignored everything that the Utilities menu has to offer.

That wouldn't be too bad if the add-ons were only used for the most esoteric options. Commands like those for producing Bullets and Numbering or Drop Capitals, however, are absolutely basic. With each new release of PageMaker I assume that these functions are going to have been assimilated into the normal working of the program, but they still stubbornly remain hidden away under the Utilities menu. It's not just the usability that suffers by this lack of integration. The fact that tables are still created by a completely separate module severely affects functionality by preventing the production of tables that flow across multiple pages.

Where's the usability?

Even more fundamental is the fact that the normal standards of workability simply cannot be applied to plug-ins. It as if they are exempt from working smoothly - or often at all - because of their semi-detached status. With the Build Booklet add-on, for example, if any object overhangs the edge of the page the imposition process simply fails. For me the depths were plumbed with the Change Case add-on. Selecting some text and then the command brought up the profound but enigmatic error message "PageMaker not found!". That such a basic and simple task is left to an obscure and clumsy add-on is bad enough, that it cannot be relied on to work is ridiculous.

From this it might sound that much of the trouble is down to sloppy programming by the external developers, but the problem is more intrinsic. This becomes clearer if you look at how such add-ons are developed. PageMaker offers a scripting language based on its own commands which can be used for basic automation of repetitive steps. However, to be able to gather information from the application and to act on conditions, both of which are essential to any intelligent action, the programmer is forced into accessing PageMaker through amazingly complicated and very limited DDE procedures. Effectively they are trying to control the whole program through a keyhole.

For external developers to get absolute control over the program is impossible so any add-ons are going to be awkward at best. Unfortunately Adobe's own programmers seem to be in much the same boat. This is clearly demonstrated in the attempt to offer automatic reformatting in PageMaker 6.5 so that a two column layout, for instance, can be automatically reflowed into a new three column format. Such a feature needs precise control over the positioning of all relevant text, a simple enough job if each page is structured on an underlying page frame - after all Ventura offered the function way back in the GEM days.

With PageMaker's freeform approach, however, where text blocks can be positioned anywhere on or off the page, such tight control is impossible. Instead each text block must be accessed in turn and, if its edges fall close enough to those of the columns, it is treated as fair game and the program tries to resize and reposition it to the new layout. The program is effectively simulating the manual process, but acting half blind. Effectively Adobe's own programming is itself reduced to the status of clumsy add-on with only a percentage chance of working as desired.

PageMaker - Plastering Over The Cracks

The latest 6.5 version of PageMaker shows the limitations of the organic third party development model at its extreme. The unwieldy, unassimilated, and unreliable add-ons are bad enough, but even more worrying is the state of the core program. Since the major overhaul in version 5.0, both upgrades have been superficial using the cover of plug-ins to conceal the lack of core development. Rather than acting symbiotically the add-ons have become truly parasitic, sucking the life out of their host. Clearly the virtuous circle of third party development has broken down somewhere, but what has gone wrong?

The problem as I see it is that the industry has misunderstood how the circle worked and assumed that by looking after its own interests, the customers' interests would follow on naturally. This seems particularly clear with the latest version of Photoshop. Although this has brought in some welcome new innovations, such as the use of adjustment layers, just as significant are the many potential new features that have been left out. Most applications develop by copying the best points from other programs, but Photoshop seems to have deliberately avoided this path. The textured filter effects offered by KPT, for example, were again left untouched although their long-term popularity shows that they are clearly on the customers' wish list.

Amazingly this generosity is not just limited to the independent plug-in developers - apparently over a thousand - recognised by the Adobe Developer Association. One of the most obvious features that Photoshop has strenuously avoided introducing is the use of natural media artistic brushes, despite the fact that even shareware options like PaintShop Pro now offer them. The company that benefits most from the omission is Fractal Design with its Painter product, a fact which becomes considerably less surprising when you find Fractal Design boasting of Painter's status as a strategic partner to Photoshop.

Of course the same arguments about the benefits of co-operation can be made and it is true that each company is freed to concentrate its resources and research in separate and complementary areas. Equally though, by agreeing to avoid stepping on each others toes the two companies are effectively conspiring to preserve their markets. Not only does Fractal Design keep its artistic niche, but in return Adobe remains unchallenged in its photo-editing market. Photoshop's near monopoly 75% of the PC market and 86% of the Mac market comes to seem quite natural when much of the industry is seen as working to keep the status quo.

We've come a long way from the ideal picture we started with of industry co-operation leading organically to efficiency and choice. Instead the add-ons now seem to be sapping rather than increasing the usability and functionality of their hosts and the virtuous circle of product development has now come to seem more like an unhealthy cartel. In both areas it is the user who ultimately pays the price, having to buy inferior products at inflated prices.

The Microsoft Model

If the model of industry co-operation and third party development has now become a hindrance rather than a boon, what model should replace it? It will be a bitter pill to swallow, but essentially the lesson must be learned from the old enemy Microsoft. The last decade has seen a revolution on the PC platform. Nowadays comparing the usability, functionality and even flexibility and creative freedom offered by a modern Windows product such as Word 97 to that found in PageMaker or Photoshop or any of the other Mac-inspired programs shows just how completely the world has changed.

The idea that best seems to sum up the difference is "streamlining". The power available in Word is immense, but it is well structured, logical and under very tight control. Basic features like Bullets and Numbering, for example, would never be found under a catch-all Utilities menu, but naturally enough under the Format menu or, more simply still, from the right mouse button's shortcut menu. Even for add-ons and complementary programs such consistency is rigorously maintained with precise guidelines on how each should work. Somehow I have the feeling that the KPT interface would not get the Office seal of approval.

To a Mac fanatic this will no doubt all sound horribly regimented and restrictive, exactly what they disliked about the old days of everyone having to do everything in the same way. In fact though this is no longer the case at all. While writing this article for example, I am using a Word add-on I developed myself, (the tragically under-appreciated) Factotum for Word. Factotum takes the power on offer to its limit with its own toolbars, menus, dialogs and even screen arrangement, but even absolute beginners are encouraged to tailor Word to their way of working, for example, to add their most frequently used commands to a button bar.

Effectively Microsoft has leapfrogged over the third party development model to offer first party development directly to the end user. Now the users themselves can tailor the application from simple customisation, through basic automation right up to absolute control via the in-built programming language Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). This is exactly the sort of power Adobe's independent developers would kill for and I have a strong hunch that those programmers working directly on the automatic reformatting feature in PageMaker 6.5 would also be jealous of the tight control offered by VBA's strict object and property structure. It's a further demonstration of how freedom and flexibility can flow automatically from an efficient and streamlined core.

VBA

The opportunities offered by VBA are immense and explain why there are now over a million independent Office developers. Third party development is thriving then, but it is not organised and is certainly not allowed to stand in the way of progress. For example one of the (many) features of Factotum for Word is its navigable on-screen table of contents designed to help those working on longer documents. In a co-operative industry model, Factotum might be left to tend to this niche of users in perpetuity. Alternatively it might be bundled as part of a Word upgrade at first adding some functionality, but eventually sapping the strength of its host. Instead Microsoft have simply produced their own version, Word 97's document map feature, and thrown in some bells and whistles for good measure.

Wearing my developer hat of course it's annoying to lose a major selling point, but to the customer, and therefore to Microsoft, that's irrelevant. To the customer an integrated and fully developed feature is always going to be better than a semi-detached add-on. Moreover, the program gains new functionality which is then accessible to further development through VBA which is good for me as a programmer. Even better, because the application remains streamlined and healthy, there are more users many of whom will need that extra edge which is good for me as a developer.

Again the virtuous circle is completed with the program, user and third party developer all benefiting. The difference is that rather than being based on industry-led co-operation, with the end user assumed to benefit almost incidentally, this virtuous circle is based from the start on customer-led competitiveness. The end result offers users the best of both worlds; a streamlined and efficient off-the-peg solution with the freedom to be easily tailored to individual needs.

Hopefully the computer-based publishing industry as whole will take note and come to see that its interests follow on from those of its customers, rather than vice versa.

Tom Arah


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