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Print and Web Apps round up

Tom Arah takes an overview of the worlds of print and Web design software.

Last month we looked at the latest bitmap and vector graphics applications, seeing how they had changed over the last few years and trying to see where they might be going. This month it's the turn of print and Web based design software, so without more ado (and strictly in alphabetical order) here are the main contenders:

Print Design

Acrobat 5: Not strictly a DTP application itself, but Acrobat turns any program into an electronic publisher, while its PDF file format is replacing PostScript as the foundation on which commercial print is built. Pros: PDF's PostScript-based nature goes a long way toward ensuring reliable commercial print from any application, while the free Reader program means its files can be universally distributed and viewed. As well as creating PDFs, the full Acrobat program offers features such as Web capture and workgroup review to add value and versatility. Cons: The sheer range of functionality and targets can lead to confusion while Acrobat's page-based metaphor isn't suited to extended screen-based reading. Overall:  By offering a medium for both electronic publishing and professional print, Acrobat is becoming indispensable for the modern publisher.

Acrobat 5 offers a route to both electronic publishing and commercial print.

FrameMaker 6: Bought in from Frame Technology when Adobe realized that PageMaker would never cut it for longer publications. Pros: Advanced long document capabilities such as indexing, cross-referencing and managing multiple variations of a single publication and good repurposing to either PDF or HTML. Cons: Adobe's half-hearted commitment (XML output was left to a bought-in add-on in the recent release) led to strongly denied rumours that the company had stopped development entirely. Overall: FrameMaker is still the best option for producing technical documentation in a corporate multi-platform environment.

InDesign 1.5: Launched with much hype two years ago as the next-generation Quark killer. Pros: InDesign offered a whole host of must-have features such as strong PDF support, advanced typography, tight integration with Illustrator and Photoshop, scriptability and a modern modular architecture. Cons: In practice though the program felt nothing special and too slow to handle longer documents comfortably. Overall: So far InDesign has been a let down, but its powerful underlying architecture and Adobe's commitment means it's not too late for the program to come good.

InDesign often seems more like a drawing program than a DTP application.

PageMaker 7: The application that invented the DTP concept back in 1985. Pros: PageMaker's great strength is its simple electronic pasteboard metaphor and good output bureau support. Cons: The traditional, design-intensive, cut-and-paste text block approach is intrinsically unsuited to long document handling or repurposing which doesn't leave PageMaker anywhere to go. Overall: Adobe recognized the writing on the wall and turned its attention to the next generation InDesign, while repositioning (milking?) PageMaker as a business publisher. However the improved PDF handling in the soon-to-appear version 7 shows there's still life in the old workhorse.

Publisher 2002: Designed for SOHO users needing more design power than Word can offer. Pros: Publisher's automated approach and pre-designed templates mean that many simple jobs can be created and customized with just a few clicks - and it's the only design application to take Web output as seriously as print. Cons: Publisher's automated approach only goes so far and with no direct PDF output and a Microsoft-centric interpretation of HTML (it's primarily XML code and you can forget Netscape users), Publisher's commercial print and Web output is suspect. Overall: Publisher has a lot to offer the occasional Office user happy producing in-house print and intranet Web work - but be wary before trusting it for anything more advanced.

Ventura 8: The first professional DTP program on the PC, Ventura's venerable history stretches right back to the old pre-Windows GEM days. Pros: Ventura's tagging system and advanced features, such as database publishing, equation editing and multiple page tables, made it ideal for long document handling while Corel grafted on some impressive design-intensive features such as fractal fills and text on a path. Cons: Unfortunately Corel initially misunderstood Ventura's long document strengths and, combined with a painful move to the Windows environment, Ventura has managed to shake off most off its previously loyal fans. Overall: Ventura is the most powerful DTP application, but its unfortunate history and steep learning curve has scared off its potential audience. Without any recent development, Corel needs to show its commitment or the program is in danger of being consigned to history.

XPress 4.1: PageMaker invented DTP, but XPress was the program that capitalized on it. Pros: A combination of PageMaker-style intensive control, Ventura-style tagging and Quark's own innovation, extensibility, gave XPress its initial edge while rock-solid PostScript output established the program as the standard for publication printing. Cons: Since then the company has tended to sit back on its laurels and exploit its captive market. In particular XPress still can't handle tables or technical documents and its reputation for reliability took a knock with version 4. Overall: XPress still maintains a hold on professional Mac-based print but the userbase generally is less than loyal. Big things are needed from the forthcoming version 5.

 

Since the last round-up three years ago the field of DTP hasn't exactly been revolutionized. In fact, apart from Publisher, the existing DTP apps have only seen a couple of full releases between them!

Having said this, there have still been two important areas of development. To begin with, the fact that all the main players now support direct PDF output shows the increasing importance of Acrobat as the publishing medium of the future. At the same time the Web has become omnipresent and increasingly it's clear that DTP needs to address Web repurposing alongside its original function of page-oriented print design.

In the light of this there's also no doubt about which should be the best DTP choice. InDesign is Adobe's third crack at the DTP market and was designed to take the best of PageMaker's design-intensive and FrameMaker's longer document handling and to merge these together with the moves to PDF-based workflows and towards repurposing. How could it fail?

There's only one problem - the XPress-killer failed to deliver. To begin with Adobe gave up on its original intention to make PDF InDesign's native file format while any repurposing to the inherently design-limited HTML is inevitably fraught with difficulty and disappointment. More worryingly InDesign's design strengths often make it seem more like a drawing than a DTP program - great for short publications but a cardinal sin for longer document handling where InDesign just seems too slow to be comfortable.

So if it's not InDesign then which DTP application takes the crown? PageMaker still offers the simplest approach but even its developer has moved on. Ventura is still the most powerful and efficient publishing solution but also seems to have hit the end of the road. XPress still dominates high-end publication publishing but most of its users would happily turn to a more modern alternative. FrameMaker still rules for corporate and technical publishing but again its users are restive. Finally Publisher promises simple print and Web publishing for Office users but only if you are happy to stay within a Microsoft-only universe.

Overall there's clearly a range of programs each with their own strengths, but none stands out as a clear leader. Personally though, on the practical basis of which program I turn to most often for most jobs, the best program turns out to be PageMaker! Clearly when its own developer would rather you were using something a bit more modern PageMaker's future is less than rosy, but with a new version 7 due anytime now, Adobe has breathed a bit more life into the old stager. With new versions of InDesign and XPress in the pipeline I hope that the situation will change soon but, for the moment at least, for me the original is still the best.

The program many users still return to - PageMaker.

 

Web Design

Clearly there's not the space necessary to cover all the software associated with Web design so I'll stick to the main wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) visual HTML authoring packages and also those packages offering a more design-intensive alternative to HTML.

Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio: Director's background was in CD-ROM based multimedia but Macromedia's genius was in translating that to the Web. Pros: Via the popular Shockwave player, Director can provide the richest possible Web experience that now encompasses multi-user interactivity and impressive 3D. Cons: The results might be state-of-the-art but Director's theatrical metaphor and linear approach is old-fashioned and trying to squeeze impressive content through the Web bottleneck is never going to be easy and really requires advanced Lingo programming. Overall: Director is expensive and demanding but the results speak for themselves - Shockwave is the best application for producing work where the site itself is the product.

Dreamweaver 4 (UltraDev / Fireworks): Dreamweaver was the first high-end visual HTML authoring package on the PC. Pros: And it made good use of its head-start to provide an excellent mix of wysiwyg layout and coding power. Perhaps most impressive of all is Dreamweaver's extensibility that lets users create their own scripts and share them with others. For advanced users dynamic publishing is available via UltraDev while the bundled Fireworks provides excellent graphics control. Cons: The limited site planning, lack of automatic navigation bars and awkward interface are disappointing. Overall: Generally though Dreamweaver offers the best power and most efficient workflow.

Flash 5: Flash was initially bought in by Macromedia in the form of SmartSketch, a drawing application designed for producing cartoons! Pros: Flash's great strengths are the efficiency of its streaming vector-based SWF file format and the 96% penetration of the Flash player. Nowadays this has been enhanced by some serious programmatic power in the form of Flash 5's ActionScript. Cons: The results can certainly be impressive but Flash is hardly intuitive in use with its idiosyncratic approach to drawing, complex animation and now its advanced programmability. Overall: Flash the program is no longer intended for those users simply wanting to add some design pizzazz to their site (Adobe LiveMotion best fills this role). Instead it should be seen as an advanced environment for creating advanced sites that seriously engage the browser.

Flash 5's ActionScript offers serious programming power.

FrontPage 2002: Microsoft initially missed the significance of the Web, but quickly covered its embarrassment by buying in FrontPage. Pros: FrontPage offers an efficient interface, a visual site view, themed designs and a range of Web components for handling features such as site searches and visitor statistics, that get users off to a flying start. Cons: Some components are proprietary however, and require the server to be running FrontPage Extensions - a fact that is typical of Microsoft's semi-proprietary approach to the Web, most notorious in its deliberately poor support for Netscape. Overall: Microsoft seems to have lost interest in FrontPage's HTML-based role as it instead concentrates on moving all its applications to XML. Microsoft remains absolutely central to the future of the Web - after all it controls the all-important Explorer browser - but FrontPage looks increasingly incidental to the project.

GoLive 4: Adobe also originally underestimated the Web and its own PageMill offering was seriously underpowered, but buying in GoLive CyberStudio helped plug the gap. Pros: GoLive's visual site management, QuickTime support, tie-in with Illustrator and Photoshop and its freeform layout mode are all designed to appeal to designers. Cons: However the program's interface is confusing and its hand coding capabilities and extensibility fall short. Overall: GoLive aims to offer its users state-of-the-art power but with the Web it's usually better to make sure that you get the basics right.

GoLive is designed for designers.

NetObjects Fusion MX: Often ignored compared to the big names but NetObjects has long offered a beautifully simple visual approach to HTML authoring. Pros: Fusion offers the simplest modular interface with its Site view where you plan pages, Page view where you layout pages DTP-style and Styles view where you control your site's themed appearance. Cons: Fusion's approach, where all pages are stored in its own proprietary format and then exported to HTML, leaves little scope for hand editing and can lead to unnecessarily bloated code. Overall: The last few releases have added relatively little, but Fusion's underlying approach makes it simple to produce good results for those users with no interest in getting to grips with HTML.

Compared to the comparatively stagnant world of DTP, the field of Web design could hardly be more dynamic and the software generally has changed out of all recognition over the last three years. One of the main reasons that the Web took off so quickly in the first place was that anyone could write a basic HTML page in any text editor. That's still the case theoretically but, with technology advances such as DHTML and CSS, the more code-centric apps such as HoTMetaL and HomeSite have tended to lose out to the more visual wysyiwyg authors.

So which is the best wysiwyg Web design software? At the low end it looks like a fight between FrontPage and Fusion but in fact there's no real contest. Microsoft is more interested in its longterm vision based on its own brand of XML rather than HTML and so FrontPage has been left in limbo. NetObjects Fusion meanwhile provides its users with true DTP-style freeform page design that it then seamlessly translates into table or CSS-based HTML. More than this it offers visual site management which makes the creation of navigational devices, including rollovers, automatic and child's play. With Fusion, occasional users can be producing professional sites within a couple of hours.

Advanced users however will never be happy delegating all control over their code to their authoring application and so for professional designers the wysiwyg choice tends to come down to either Dreamweaver or GoLive. With features such as its QuickTime integration and a Fusion-style freeform layout mode, GoLive can claim to offer the most design-rich authoring environment. Ultimately though, while such wysiwyg power is useful, it's crucial to remember that every Web page is built on HTML and the tighter the better. With features such as its split-screen design/code view, comprehensive tag reference and new table-based freeform Layout mode, Dreamweaver offers the best of visual design and hand coding approaches. Even better Dreamweaver offers an upgrade option in UltraDev Studio which grafts on advanced database handling while the award-winning Fireworks takes care of graphics. The combination of visual design, hand coding, dynamic publishing and creative graphics leaves Dreamweaver out on its own.

Dreamweaver offers the best mix of visual design and hand coding power.

It's true that HTML is the crucial foundation for the vast majority of Web sites but HTML is inherently limited when it comes to design and these days there are alternatives. Macromedia Flash and its SWF file format began as a way of adding some efficient vector-based life to otherwise static HTML pages. Now this cosmetic makeover function can be handled by the likes of LiveMotion (which offers better drawing and animation control along with bitmap-based output) or even the main drawing applications such as FreeHand or Corel Draw. Flash meanwhile has moved on to become a complete HTML replacement with version 5's ActionScript programming language offering everything you need to produce a fully working self-contained site.

In fact the programmatic side of Flash is now so central that Flash 5 can be seen almost as a visually based Java replacement (especially as its claimed playback penetration now even exceeds Java's). Previously this level of power and control was limited to the Lingo-based Director and for a while it looked as if Macromedia was cutting its own program's throat. With Director 8.5 though, and its advanced 3D and multi-user support, Macromedia's game plan became clear with Shockwave maintaining its edge as the provider of the richest possible Web experience.

Between Dreamweaver/Fireworks/UltraDev, Flash and Director it looks as if Macromedia has the Web pretty much sewn up right the way through from traditional HTML sites through "sticky" SWF Flash sites which keep browsers longer through to "magnetic" Shockwave Director Web applications which users actively seek out. It's certainly an impressive combination and Macromedia deserves tremendous credit for quickly recognising the importance of the Web and leading its development.

However, as we've seen, the Web is a fast moving place and dominance today doesn't guarantee it for tomorrow. In particular all three of today's leading technologies - HTML, SWF and Shockwave - are potentially under threat from XML. This is the extensible markup language that is set to replace HTML as XHTML (or by the backdoor through Microsoft's application-based variation) and which could challenge SWF imaging through SVG (scalable vector graphics) and Shockwave multimedia through SMIL (synchronous multimedia integration language)

These are certainly technologies to keep an eye on and could lead to the real killer Web design applications of the future in which the page layout, graphic handling and multimedia capabilities of Dreamweaver, Flash and Director are merged into a single XML-based Web authoring package. That really would be impressive power and, as the standards themselves are still being established, the field is completely open. In the meantime though there's no shortage of design power today with Macromedia currently leading the way.

Tom Arah

August 2001


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