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While concentrating efforts on misguided new Web authoring capabilities, QuarkXPress's design capabilities have fallen behind the competition.

QuarkXPress defines and dominates high-end publishing in much the same way as Adobe Photoshop does photo-editing. Take a look at any newsstand and the vast majority of publications on sale will have been designed with it.

With such a demanding user-base Quark has to make sure that it has got everything absolutely right before releasing a new version and it's now almost four years since the last major upgrade, 4.0, was released. That's an age in software terms, so expectations are naturally high. More importantly during this time Adobe has developed its own rival to XPress, InDesign (see review). Competition has clearly focused Quark's mind and just two days after Adobe announced that InDesign 2 was shipping, Quark did the same for the US version of XPress 5 with the International English version expected by the time you read this.

It's clear that Quark is determined to crush InDesign before the young pretender wins any converts. The big question is - does XPress 5 do enough to secure its following and to protect its crown?

Unrest has certainly been brewing amongst XPress's users for some time now and for one over-riding reason - the Web. Almost by definition, XPress users are in the business of shifting regular amounts of high-value content and they naturally want to be able to deliver this content on screen as well as on paper. As Brett Mueller, senior product manager at Quark puts it: "Our customers have told us that it is vital for them to manage costs by merging print and Web workflows." In the past Quark tried to provide its own proprietary Web solution to enable this in the form of its Immedia technology, but that proved completely impractical and died a death. Now Quark has embraced open standards and is determined to make XPress as natural a choice for Web publishing as it is for print.

Users can now create Web documents.

The difference is apparent as soon as you start work as the File>New command now provides a separate "Web Document" option. Select this and you are presented with a dialog in which you can set default colours for text, background and links, set up a repeating image background and specify a default page width. Once the page appears, you create your design by placing text and picture boxes anywhere on your layout and then loading graphics and formatting text. Certain commands such as kerning and baseline shift aren't appropriate in Web mode so are grayed-out, but generally you work much as you've always done. In other words, anyone familiar with XPress can be designing Web pages within minutes.

Of course there are differences when designing for the Web. To begin with the Web is an interactive hypertext environment in which users expect to be able to jump from location to location. In XPress 5 this is managed with the new Hyperlinks palette. Simply select either a picture box with the Item tool or some text with the Content tool and then hit either the palette's New Anchor icon to create a target destination or the New Hyperlink icon to choose an internal anchor or an external URL. Once added, all targets in the document are automatically listed in the palette and you can easily add new links simply by clicking on them.

Links are set up with the Hyperlinks palette.

For more advanced graphical links, XPress 5 supports both rollovers and image maps. To create a rollover you simply select a picture box and then the Item>Rollover command to specify the rollover image and the target anchor or external URL. To add rectangular, oval or Bézier image map links you use the tools on the new Web toolbar to mark up areas on the picture box and then the Hyperlinks palette to set up the links.

The Web toolbar also comes into use when creating forms to gather data from visitors to your site. In addition to the Form Box tool itself, XPress offers eight different options for handling data with its text field, button, image button, pop-up menu, list box, file selector, check box and radio button tools. In each case calling up the Modify. command lets you edit settings, for example, to populate dropdowns or to change your button between Submit and Reset modes.

HTML forms can be added.

That's just about it in terms of Web design power so the next step is to see how your pages perform. You can't see your pages in action from within XPress so instead you have to hit the HTML Preview icon on the status bar which loads a temporary version of your document into your browser. When you're happy with that, you export the final version with the rudimentary Export>HTML command. You must then load the HTML and images to your server - and that's all there is to it.

The whole process is certainly simple but is it practical? It's worth taking a look at the end results a little more closely. In terms of design, XPress recreates the freeform page layout using HTML tables and spacer.gifs which can easily lead to awkward and bloated code. In terms of text formatting, where it can, XPress relies on cascading style sheets (CSS) which is fine if all your users have supporting browsers and the desired fonts. More worryingly, where CSS can't cope, such as with non-rectangular text boxes, XPress just converts the text to download-heavy and unsearchable bitmaps. And the control over Web images generally is negligible with the ability to choose between just five quality settings when converting to JPEG and between four basic palettes when converting to GIF - and all with no preview.

The amount of Web power on offer is basic but the level of control is worse. This is especially true of XPress's coding capabilities or lack of them. Each Web page is built on HTML/CSS code but the only direct access XPress provides to edit the tags that define each page is the ability to set up page titles and meta tags for describing keywords, author information and so on. And even this is so hidden away and awkward that it's almost unusable. The end result is that while XPress offers state-of-the-art print-based publishing you can gain more advanced Web authoring capabilities with any freeware Web design package.

Of course it would be a lot to ask XPress to take on the likes of Dreamweaver and GoLive directly but after three years it could certainly have done more (what has happened to the promised SVG and SWF support for example?). More importantly, competition is the opposite of what users are looking for. What they want is for the two applications to work together so that work is not duplicated needlessly. Unfortunately Quark has misunderstood completely, trying to merge the Web and print applications themselves rather than the workflows.

This mistake is fundamental and goes right back to square one when the user has to choose between creating a normal or a Web document. The whole point is that they want to create both without having to start again from scratch. Unfortunately, as you can't convert between XPress's print-oriented QXD and its new Web-oriented QWD documents, the only option is to start again. And with so little power and control on offer, very few of Quark's high-end users are going to choose to use XPress when they do.

To be fair to Quark there is no easy way to swap between layouts intended for design-intensive, page-based, PostScript-oriented print and reflowable, screen-based, HTML output. The fundamental problem lies in the inherent limitations of HTML as a design medium. Fortunately the solution is on its way in the form of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and, here at least, Quark has been quick to spot the promise. For the last year or so Quark has made its avenue.Quark XTension (see issue 80) available for those users wanting to explore the potential of XML publishing and now it has bundled the capability into XPress 5.

XML promises industrial-strength repurposing - but not yet.

XML's advantages over HTML are two-fold - it is both more flexible and more rigorous. The flexibility means that publishers aren't limited to HTML's in-built tags but can create their own, fine-tuned to the content that they are publishing. The rigour means that browsers know exactly how to interpret the code which opens up the possibility of real design control and accuracy along with absolutely reliable data processing. In other words XML acts as a cross between database, design medium and dynamic application.

To turn your XPress document into XML code you select the XML option from the New command and then choose a DTD (Document Type Definition) which defines all possible tags and their interaction and a Tagging Rule Set which defines the mapping between XPress style sheets and XML tags. You can then drag and drop text and picture boxes onto the new XML Workspace palette and use the new Sequences palette to set up the order in which text boxes should be treated for export.

Crucially the system is a two-way process so that when a relationship has been established you can also import XML and flow it into your document using the Placeholders palette. This is exactly the sort of efficient workflow that the high-end publishers have been praying for as it allows them to take XML-tagged data from a central source and flow it into XPress for print, while running it through other templates for automatic output to any Web device.

But there's a problem. Neither XPress nor the world in general are ready for XML just yet. There are many minor points that need to be ironed out before the system is ready for primetime - style sheet mapping is efficient, for example, but not flexible enough to meet all eventualities. More importantly, the core infrastructure hasn't yet been established. Ideally this would involve reliable XML-capable browsers which are still some way off (though XHTML does offer a bridge). The most immediate problem though is the DTD. Without a DTD you can't do anything, but it's absolutely crucial that these are right and fixed before you start. And at the moment there are no accepted standards - in fact the whole form in which DTDs are formulated is being rewritten to make it XML-compliant! The end result is that most users' exploration of XML will be over before it's even begun.

For the moment XPress's XML capabilities are an important marker for the future but are far more likely to lead to frustration than nirvana. XPress 5 has certainly tackled the Web, but its HTML capabilities are underpowered and misconceived while its XML capabilities are overoptimistic and premature. For the vast majority of users the success of XPress 5 will therefore be judged on the changes to its more traditional design power. So what else does 5 offer?

In terms of the working environment, the interface is largely and disappointingly unchanged - still just one level of undo - though users will appreciate the improved context-menus. Certain features have been redesigned, such as the Preferences dialog which is now list-based rather than tabbed, and the Colour palette which now includes spot and process colour indicators. Other minor but welcome changes include the ability to specify different insets on all sides of a text box, to spell-check a selection, to search and replace text colour, to automatically index multiple occurrences and to choose which book items to synchronize.

Interface changes, like the new Preferences dialog, are rare.

XPress 5 also sees a minor revamp of its Print dialog. In the so-called "Print Preview" tab, for example, the page icon now displays the imageable area, document area, bleeds and registration marks as well as reflecting whether the page has been flipped or inverted. New power for PostScript devices is restricted to the ability to force the output of blank plates, while for non-PostScript devices much more significant improvements include the ability to produce composite RGB output, to scale pages, and to control bitmap frequency.

Naturally XPress's big strength is its commercial print output and high-end workflows will benefit from a number of changes. The Quark Colour Management System now offers ICM 2.0 or Kodak support and a choice of four rendering intents. And, when you're preparing to hand-off your files to your bureau, the Collect for Output command now lets you collect colour profiles and fonts as well as images.

Also useful for bureau output is Quark's ability to export to Acrobat format. PDF export isn't in-built as it is with apps like Corel Draw but instead relies on the user having Acrobat Distiller installed. It does let you over-ride Distiller's font and compression settings from its own dialog, however, as well as choosing composite or separated output along with bleed, registration and OPI settings. Manually added links as well as lists and indexes can also be output as hyperlinks if you intend your PDF to be viewed onscreen.

In terms of design power there are two new options that users have been crying out for. The first is the ability to add tables with the new dedicated Table tool. Once added, you can add text or graphics to cells, but surprisingly the cells don't grow to accommodate their content - instead you must manually resize the grid to make sure that content isn't lost! Editing capabilities include the ability to insert rows and columns, to combine and then split cells, to rotate text and to convert tables to text and vice versa but the power is hardly state-of-the-art.

Table handling depends on manually sizing fixed grids.

The same is true of XPress 5's final major new feature - layers. Using the new Layers palette you can split a layout into different tiers or overlays that you can then lock and unlock, hide or display. According to Quark this "lets publishers manage hundreds of document variants quickly and easily", but really for advanced jobs like this you'd be much better off with a dedicated solution like FrameMaker. Quark's layers still come in handy, for example for adding non-printing annotations, but without the creative possibilities of Photoshop-style layers, they add a level of complexity that is rarely justified by the rewards.

Layers can be used to organize documents and their variations.

Table and layer handling have both been high on users' wish lists for years - and, frustratingly, were demonstrated working back in 1999! After waiting so long though, the implementations are seriously disappointing - especially when compared to the latest InDesign. InDesign's table handling is in a different league with options for creating fixed or resizing cells, nested tables, alternating formatting and so on. InDesign's handling of overlays is even better with its own Quark-style Layers palette just the beginning. In particular, by offering the ability to control how overlapping objects interact with each other, you can easily set up creative transparency and blend effects that leave XPress designs looking flat and uninspired.

Throw in features such as its unmatched typographical capabilities, its integration with Photoshop and Illustrator and its scriptability (only available for the Mac version of XPress), and it's clear that InDesign hits XPress right where it hurts. While XPress 5 has spent much of its effort on its misconceived Web adventure, InDesign 2 has stolen the ground from under its feet to become the leader in high-end, creative, print-oriented design.

So is it the end for QuarkXPress? Definitely not. InDesign might have stolen the design crown but it's important to realize that, for most of its users, XPress's most important strengths have always been its efficiency and reliability rather than its creativity. In many ways the program should be seen more as a sub-editor's tool than a designer's and here InDesign's more powerful and graphical approach can actually be a disadvantage, especially when deadlines loom.

Ultimately the regular publication publishers are likely to stick with their investment in XPress and its tried and tested content-shifting for a while yet - especially if XML repurposing begins to fulfill its potential. However, if it takes another four years until QuarkXPress 6 arrives, the balance of power will definitely have shifted.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

3

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

March 2002

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