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Tom Arah takes a look at the companies behind the major design applications.

Through my reviews and articles my aim is to help you choose the right design tools and to make the most of them, but there’s one factor that is often left out of the calculations – the company behind the software. After all, choosing your application isn’t a one-off act but the beginning of an ongoing relationship. In particular you’ll almost certainly want to upgrade in future and will probably want to expand into new but related fields. In short you want to know where your software developer came from, what it offers and, crucially, where it is going.

Of course it’s a rapidly changing field so this can never be an exact science, but here is the wisdom I’ve gained through the years – combined with a quick trawl through the relevant web sites’ corporate hype - distilled into potted company biographies. In each case I’ve picked out the main players’ major applications, strengths, weaknesses and likely prospects. Here goes from Adobe to Quark (purely in alphabetical order)

Adobe

Applications: Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, GoLive, InDesign, FrameMaker, PageMaker, Premiere, LiveMotion, After Effects etc

Background: Adobe was launched back in 1982 by Dr John Warnock and Dr Chuck Geschke two of the principal scientists at the seminal Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Their brilliant invention was Postscript, the page description language that now underpins the entire publishing industry. To the general public, however, Adobe is best known for its industry-standard vector and bitmap editing flagships, Illustrator and especially Photoshop. Over the years Adobe has strengthened these home-grown products with acquisitions including Aldus (PageMaker) and more recently CyberStudio (GoLive).

Pros: The resulting range and depth of applications, from print through to video, is Adobe’s unmatched strength. It is a strength reinforced by the company’s commitment to open standards. Adobe could have built an impregnable proprietary position but has always been committed to open workflows and healthy competition (admittedly with Adobe at the centre).

Cons: The downside is that Adobe often seems willfully blind to the developments around it. In particular the emergence of the Web (which Adobe seemed to see primarily as a means of distributing PDFs) caught the company napping. Suddenly with the unimpressive Web applications PageMill and ImageReady and its print-oriented software showing its age (especially the venerable PageMaker) the entire Adobe range looked old-fashioned and under-powered. The share price collapsed and cash-rich Quark made a takeover bid.

Prospects: The proposed takeover was met with horror by the design community and, a year or so on, the situation has transformed. Illustrator has been rejuvenated, GoLive has given the company a professional Web authoring package, LiveMotion is ready to compete with Flash/Fireworks, and InDesign might eventually turn the tables on Quark. With the recent purchase of Canoma, the company is even set to expand into 3D.

Verdict: The Microsoft of the design world - but in a far more benign incarnation.

Adobe pioneers Dr John Warnock and Dr Chuck Geschke – more Ben and Jerry than Bill.

Corel

Applications: Draw, Photo-Paint, Ventura.

Background: Founded by Dr. Michael Cowpland in 1985 the Toronto-based Corel really came to the fore with the 1992 launch of the Corel Draw 3 suite, which coincided with the launch of Windows 3. Since then the company has specialized in buying in programs on the cheap and selling them on likewise.

Pros: Corel recognised the potential of Windows long before its competitors and used its headstart to build itself a commanding position on the PC. The Corel Draw suite has always offered not only amazing value, but a huge range of cutting-edge power never fully appreciated by the Mac-biased industry. The same is true of Ventura.

Cons: Corel has repeatedly tried to crack the professional Mac market but in vain. On the PC the Draw suite’s ever-increasing power has taken it out of the mainstream while the lack of a decent Web application is crippling. The main problem though isn’t with the applications themselves, but with Corel’s marketing strategy. Annual releases designed to placate investors meant some releases were unnecessary and bug-prone – hence the industry wisdom that it was only worth upgrading to the odd-numbered versions. Corel tried to keep everyone happy by bundling but unless you use the new power/content it’s not added value, just bloat.

Prospects: Draw and Ventura are still excellent programs, but the competition has caught up. Most worrying of all is the perception that Corel has moved away from its design roots. Instead of building the all-important Web solution it has spent huge amounts of programming effort on the WordPerfect suite and translating its applications to Java and now to Linux. In the longer term it might prove a masterstroke but at the moment it seems like the company has taken its eye off the ball or rather that it wants to take the ball off to play on its own. The good news is that the company is making all the right noises about professional targeting and longer development. And the recent purchase of Painter shows the company hasn’t lost its interest in graphics (or a bargain).

Verdict: The jury is out.

Deneba

Applications: Canvas

Background: Incorporated in 1986, the Miami-based Deneba is a small company of 60 people almost exclusively dedicated to producing one program.

Pros: Canvas has clearly benefited from this focus and from the decision to ignore the traditional split into drawing and painting camps which has allowed Canvas to offer a combined vector and bitmap solution from the very beginning.

Cons: No economy of scale. When Adobe wants to add Web optimisation to Illustrator, it can simply lift the code from Photoshop; Deneba must write the functionality from scratch.

Prospects: Despite this there are surprisingly few features that Canvas doesn’t offer and the range and depth of creativity that the latest version 7 offers is amazing.

Verdict: Going its own way and from strength to strength.

Extensis/Creativepro.com

Applications: PhotoTools, BeyondPress, PhotoGraphics, Intellihance, Preflight Pro etc

Background: The Oregon-based Extensis was co-founded by Craig Barnes and Randy Hill in 1993 and, as the company’s name suggests, was built on the idea of extension. Rather than trying to produce the new Photoshop, Illustrator or XPress, Extensis tried to improve the existing applications through developing third-party plug-ins.

Pros: Many plug-ins are by their nature rough and unfinished but the Extensis applications are often more professional than their hosts. By adding essential features, such as editable text within Photoshop and HTML output from XPress, many plug-ins have proved invaluable.

Cons: A difficult business model. Whenever Extensis hits a rich seam it’s a clear sign to the host application to move in and fill the gap – which is exactly what they’ve done.

Prospects: It looks like Extensis has found a new and innovative way to add value. It has launched www.creativepro.com to deliver news and information on all the leading design packages and their add-ons. In the longer term it is also moving to bring its add-ons to the Web as e-services so that, for example, you can Intellihance your digital photos online.

Verdict: Well worth bookmarking.

Extensis is evolving into an entirely Web-based companies as creativepro.com.

Jasc

Applications: Paint Shop Pro

Background: Founded in Minnetonka, Minnesota in 1991 by Robert Voit, a commercial airline pilot, the success of Jasc was built on Paint Shop Pro.

Pros: And the success of Paint Shop Pro was built on the Internet and the bulletin boards that preceded it. Thanks to its initial shareware nature, PSP built up a huge audience (over 15 million downloads) that has largely stuck with the program through its move into the retail channel. Now PSP majors on offering Photoshop-style power at a fraction of the cost.

Cons: It might have been the first of a new breed of programs but PSP has always seemed surprisingly traditional. The slavish copying of the overcomplex Photoshop (right down to CMYK support) seemed especially strange considering the target audience.

Prospects: With the latest version 6, however, PSP has branched out and even shows the old master a trick or two with its vector handling (ideal for the Web) and PC Photography features. Jasc is now looking to move further into Web/vector territory with the prototype of its new SVG authoring package, Trajectory Pro, now available for download.

Verdict: A strange mix: an old-fashioned pioneer.

Macromedia

Applications: Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Director, Generator, FreeHand, Fontographer.

Background: When it launched as a public company back in 1993 Macromedia was a relatively small company focused on multimedia. It was always ambitious and ready to adapt, however, and with the purchase of Altsys (FreeHand) and Fauve (xRes) it moved more into the vector and bitmap mainstream. Its real stroke of genius though was to be the first design company to appreciate that the Web changed everything.

Pros: The core Macromedia strength is its Web focus built on market-leader Dreamweaver and supported by Fireworks, Flash, Director, Generator and now, to a lesser extent, FreeHand. It’s a formidable team and, with its control over the Flash SWF vector format, the company has a major technological advantage to leverage.

Cons: No one can fault the Macromedia applications for bleeding-edge functionality but the Achilles heel is their usability. With HTML roundtripping and the opening up of the SWF specification, users aren’t tied to a solution and are free to defect if it’s in their interests. With programs like Adobe’s GoLive and LiveMotion majoring on creativity and usability Macromedia is finally going to see some real competition. In the longer term, truly open technologies such as SVG could lead to completely new ways of working and pose even more of a threat.

Prospects: The move to the Web has been a huge success and with new releases in the pipeline, such as Dreamweaver Ultradev and the next version of Flash, there’s no sign that Macromedia is taking its foot off the pedal. Macromedia is also leading the way with its recognition that the Web is itself a huge potential revenue source with a division of the company dedicated to building up sites such as Shockwave.com. The prospects aren’t quite so rosy for "old" technology such as FreeHand and Fontographer.

Verdict: The Adobe of the Web design generation - unless Adobe can stop it.

Rw70swf.png: Macromedia has lead the Web gold rush thanks to innovative programs and technology like Flash.

MetaCreations

Applications: Metastream (Painter, KPT, Bryce, Poser, Headline Studio etc)

Background: Metacreations was formed in 1997 as a result of the merger between two existing major players, MetaTools and Fractal Design. This brought together two creative geniuses Mark Zimmer, developer of Painter, and Kai Krause, developer of the KPT range.

Pros: The one thing that has always distinguished MetaCreations software is its creativity. Compared to the artistic natural media of Painter or the imagined worlds of Bryce, for example, other applications have often seemed pedestrian and unimaginative.

Cons: The creativity might be amazing but usefulness was another matter. Often programs like KPT and Bryce seemed to be technology in search of a purpose. Ease of use was even more of a problem. Creative types are generally technophobic but it often felt like you needed a degree to really get to grips with the MetaCreations applications.

Prospects: Sadly the worst has happened and in January MetaCreations announced that it was selling off all its graphics applications and concentrating solely on its photo-realistic 3D imaging technology Metastream.

Verdict: Gone but not forgotten.

A sad end - the MetaCreations site turned into a firesale of old applications.

MGI

Applications: PhotoSuite, VideoWave, PureDIVA, Zoom

Background: MGI is a fast-expanding company based in Ontario that has already grown to 250 employees.

Pros: MGI is a modern company that happily rejects traditional wisdom and focuses on what consumers actually want. Its breakthrough package PhotoSuite II showed a refreshingly radical approach, catering to the new requirements of PC photography rather than the old requirements of imitating Photoshop. Moreover, with its browser-based architecture, it pioneered a new model in which application and Web site merged. VideoWave and PureDIVA take similarly radical approaches to video editing and digital VCR.

Cons: The consumer orientation means that the programs have little to offer professionals.

Prospects: Developments are coming at a hectic pace and the latest is the launch of ZOOM another photo-realistic immersive 3D technology targeting ecommerce.

Verdict: A sign of things to come.

MGI’s PhotoSuite II is a photo-editing program built on a Web browser.

Micrografx

Applications: iGrafx range (Designer, Picture Publisher, Windows Draw)

Background: Founded by J Paul Grayson, at one time Micrografx was the biggest PC design software developer after Corel.

Pros: With Designer catering for vectors, Picture Publisher for bitmaps and FlowCharter for business graphics, Micrografx had a strong presence in all graphic design areas and with Windows Draw/PhotoMagic it had the perfect entry-level combination. Rumours constantly circulated that Microsoft was about to buy the company to provide its business users with a ready-made graphics solution.

Cons: Designer and Picture Publisher could never quite cut it as high-end solutions and the Mac invasion from Adobe and Macromedia ruled out the professional market. At the same time nothing ever came of the Microsoft rumours, leaving Micrografx always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Prospects: At some point in 1999 Micrografx must have called in the management consultants because something strange happened. Suddenly I was getting email asking whether the company were still in business as there was no sign of any of their programs on their Web site. Instead the talk was of "ISO 9000, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering, Continuous Process Improvement, and Benchmarking" through the iGrafx "intelligent graphics framework" of programs such as iGrafx ISO, iGrafx Process, iGrafx Professional, iGrafx Designer and iGrafx Deploy. In fact many of these options turn out to be Picture Publisher, Designer and FlowCharter in disguise. You get the strong feeling that Micrografx wants to begin again and that that doesn’t involve bringing its existing customers with it.

Verdict: Confused.

Microsoft

Applications: Publisher, PhotoDraw, FrontPage

Background: Nuff said.

Pros: Design clearly came low down on the software giant’s priorities but, with PhotoDraw as the new graphics centrepiece, its strategy is at last in place. Now Microsoft can bring its programming muscle to bear and leverage its existing user-base, technologies and marketing know-how. More to the point the company has always known how to deliver big impact quickly through the use of templates, wizards, in-built intelligence and so on.

Cons: The Microsoft approach certainly works well for occasional users but reveals its limitations as soon as users begin to push the envelope. Unkind critics have said that Publisher can’t produce commercial print, FrontPage can’t produce professional sites and that PhotoDraw can’t produce anything.

Prospects: Getting Office graphics right is probably the least of Bill Gates’ concerns at the moment, but there’s no question that the company is going to be an increasingly important player in the design field.

Verdict: One to keep an eye on – as always.

Always a major player, Microsoft is taking graphics seriously at last.

Quark

Applications: XPress

Background: Quark was founded in Denver in 1981 by Tim Gill, the inventor of one of the first word processors for the Apple III. In 1986 Fred Ebrahimi joined the company as CEO and oversaw the launch of XPress in 1987. With its precision typography and reliable Postscript output, XPress was the right program in the right place at the right time and saw off Aldus PageMaker to become the preferred DTP solution for professional publishing companies.

Pros: With a near stranglehold on the professional market, Quark was sitting on a cash cow which it proceeded to milk. Recognising that what the professional market needed more than anything was reliability, XPress avoided adding bells and whistles (or even tables) and concentrated on producing bullet-proof Postscript output.

Cons: Quark could have used XPress’s formidable reputation to capture the mainstream Windows market and build a Photoshop-style presence but instead chose to keep its high price and high-end market. Worse, it then let this core market down badly with version 4’s bugs and especially its print-only approach. Professional publishers are desperate to cross-publish but the only option XPress offered its customers was the proprietary, fatally flawed and (you guessed it) expensive Immedia technology.

Prospects: The horror with which its takeover bid for Adobe was received seems to have acted as a wake up call. First came the (free!) XPress 4.1 release complete with PDF output. News of the upcoming version 5 is even better with a wholesale move to HTML/XML repurposing - and even tables.

Verdict: A new corporate direction - and just in time.

 

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction it’s clearly not an exact science, but is it possible to make any predictions? No doubt in five years time some of the current entries will have gone the way of MetaCreations and other former players such as Aldus and Xerox. Others which currently seem to have lost their way will undoubtedly rally and reposition as the current leaders Macromedia and Adobe have themselves done in the past. The one thing for certain is that in a few years time the scene will be completely unrecognisable. The arrival of the Web has changed not just design itself but the very way that business is conducted. As pioneers like Macromedia, MGI and creativepro.com are already beginning to show the distinction between application, content, company and Web site is breaking down and new ways of working emerging.

As Quark has finally realised and now stresses in its mission statement with all the fervour of the true convert: "The Internet has changed everything about the way you do business. Companies that adapt will thrive. Those that rely on outdated tools will be left behind." That applies to developer and user alike.

Tom Arah

June 2000


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