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McIlroy--QuarkXPress and InDesign Battle it Out

May 2000
There's an interesting controversy raging in our business right now that harkens back to the good old days when we had "The Great Page Layout Wars." Remember those wars? Aldus PageMaker vs. MacPublisher (win to PageMaker). PageMaker vs. Letraset Ready!Set!Go! (win to PageMaker). PageMaker vs. Ventura Publisher (win to PageMaker, eventually). And then QuarkXPress vs. PageMaker. Now, that was some war! The battles raged for years. When PageMaker was an Aldus product, it seemed like PageMaker was winning the war. Then Aldus sold PageMaker to Adobe.

It should have been a good hand-off. Adobe has always been a solid player, well-entrenched in offering high-quality software to the graphic arts and design markets. Adobe, like Aldus, always offered some of the best levels of customer service. The company was well-funded and successful. But, PageMaker lost. What went wrong for Adobe?

The Contender Stumbles
Arguably there were several factors involved; but, to my recollection, the number-one reason was that Adobe took its eye off the ball in the all-important Macintosh market. At that time, Windows PCs were in a minor ascendancy in the graphic arts, and the new wisdom mandated that software should be released more or less simultaneously for both Macintosh and PC computers.

At that time, the feature set of PC PageMaker was well behind Macintosh PageMaker. Adobe had to hold up the progress of the Mac version, while bringing the PC version to parity. Quark took advantage of the lag, and moved QuarkXPress for Macintosh well ahead of PageMaker in terms both of features and of its stability for PostScript output in professional production environments. Before you could say "collect fonts for output," prepress professionals had begun to recommend QuarkXPress to their customers.

Quark had created a volunteer sales force among the world's printing and prepress companies. Game over. PageMaker continued to prosper in the office and SOHO markets. But QuarkXPress took the title of the best-selling page layout software, and ended up with some 85 percent to 90 percent market share at the high-end part of the market—not necessarily the most lucrative, but certainly the most prestigious. Along the way, Quark became a hugely profitable private company and made multi-millionaires out of its two co-owners, Tim Gill and Fred Ebrahimi.

As time passed, the two warring fiefdoms suffered the mortal consequences of Quark's triumph. Quark started to become the arrogant victor. Its customer service efforts began to disintegrate, even as its software upgrades became ever more sporadic, bug-ridden and high-priced. Customers continued to use QuarkXPress because it was still the best software tool, but their resentment towards the company turned, in some cases, to fury.

But that fury seemed tame in comparison to the passions brewing at Adobe headquarters in Silicon Valley. The mood there became obsession, an obsession for revenge. The sense was, no matter what it takes, no matter what it costs, we will fight you, Quark, and one day we will reclaim the page layout title.

Thus, Adobe InDesign was conceived: a next-generation page layout tool with the best typography possible on the desktop and intimate links to other Adobe software. A Quark killer!

A New Player on the Field
After years in the laboratory, InDesign was finally launched a year ago with great hoopla. Everyone paid attention. There was a single question on all their lips. Was this to be, finally, the Quark killer—the product that would humble the arrogant victor? Adobe officials were characteristically tasteful in their response. Yes, they would admit, Quark is our competitor. And yes, InDesign must surely competes with QuarkXPress. But a Quark killer? Oh, that's hardly for us to say. Let the market render its verdict.

The competition might have remained dignified, except that Quark tried to pull a fast one on Adobe. In September 1998, when Adobe's shares were trading down around $25, Quark announced a sort-of takeover bid for Adobe. The bid never materialized in specific terms, and appeared afterwards to have been designed mainly to humiliate Adobe at a moment of weakness. It helped Adobe clarify its thinking on InDesign's market position.

Last July, in an interview with ZDNet, Adobe Chairman John Warnock was asked if InDesign is intended to be a Quark killer. Here's a brief excerpt:

ZDNet: "Is it a Quark killer?"

Warnock: "If people use it, they will prefer it."

ZDNet: "Is it a Quark killer?"

Warnock: "Yes, I think over time it is."

OK, so we've got that clear.

The problem is that InDesign is not a QuarkXPress killer. To take back the title, Adobe has to present designers and publishers with a thoroughly compelling reason to make the switch. And they've failed to do so.

Point, Set . . . Not Yet Match
The reviewers and users are, for the most part, mixed in their verdicts. Clearly, there are features

in Adobe InDesign that are better than comparable features in QuarkXPress. (Equally clear is that it lacks numerous features available in QuarkXPress today.) I believe that the underlying architecture of InDesign may make it possible over time for the product to triumph, at least for print publishers. But it's clearly not there yet. The advantages are not compelling, and no one (or very few people) are going to go through the pain of switching their most important graphics software tool just to get a few improved features.

But try telling that to Adobe. They don't want to hear it. They're on a mission, and woe betide any who stand in their way.

The Rise of A New Empire
I think Adobe has become more and more "imperial" in the past few years. "Imperial" as in "Imperial Rome" or "Imperial Russia." The company has become so big, so rich and so powerful. But at the same time, Adobe still hews to the heavily altruistic motivations of the company founders, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke (who has just retired). It leads to a kind of schizophrenia for Adobe and its employees. The publicly traded company has gone from a market cap of $1 billion to nearly $13 billion, just in the past 18 months.

Sure, they've made a few good moves in Web software, and sure, sales and profits are up, but there's no rational explanation for a 13-fold increase in market value for this company. I think the folks at Adobe know that this is madness, and struggle daily with a precarious dance on the precipice of an inflated stock market that will either keep pushing them to yet more preposterous valuations, or send its stock value crashing back to earth. One of the results is that Adobe appears to have very little time for its critics.

Where Quark seemed mostly sullen or surly in the face of the customer service criticism it used to receive, Adobe just goes all silent, and acts like nothing wrong is happening. I get a sense from Adobe that they feel that it would be crazy for anyone to want to criticize them, and therefore anyone who does criticize them must be crazy and, because the critics are crazy, the company feels it's unnecessary to listen to them.

And, at this time of trying to develop and launch a Quark killer, it's dangerous to be delusional.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and serves as program director of Seybold Seminars. He welcomes comments at

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