McIlroy--Winning Battles, Losing Wars
I'm writing this column the day after the conclusion of Seybold Seminars Boston/Publishing '99. Though Seybold is no stranger to controversy, it's been a few years since a product announcement at a Seybold Seminar event created headline news within the publishing industry.
But this year, Adobe's top executives, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, announced their long-rumored "Quark-killer" page layout application and set tongues wagging. Code-named K2, but now called InDesign, the software is clearly going to challenge Quark in the area where it has triumphed: customization through extensibility.
Quark championed the concept of allowing third-party software developers to plug their wares into a major application, effectively recreating the core program. Using what Quark called "XTensions," hundreds of smaller companies helped make QuarkXPress extra-well-suited to a series of different types of publishing functions and operations, from newspaper publishing to Web design. The core page layout functionality of QuarkXPress remained unchanged in each variant, but custom features added support for operations such as version control or precision kerning. As a result, QuarkXPress could move from being merely a very good application for designers and publishers—to being a great one.
Of course, this being the real and imperfect world, the story has not been 100 percent joy and happiness. Along the way, privately held Quark Inc. developed a reputation for some of the worst customer support in the business. It wasn't merely inadequate—lots of software companies can match that. But through its strict licensing policies and high-priced upgrades, Quark layered in a level of implacable arrogance that put a young industry on edge.
The end result has been a paradox. The publishing industry has flocked to QuarkXPress in droves—last fall Quark announced its two millionth sale of the program. At the same time, many of those customers, perhaps even most, have a lingering antagonism toward one of their most important suppliers.
Through all of this, Adobe has lagged in product engineering, but excelled in customer support. While Adobe has some programs that are industry darlings—Photoshop being the leading example—it also offers PageMaker, which is rarely used by high-end designers and publishers. Ever since Adobe bought PageMaker (when it acquired Aldus) more than a half-dozen years ago, its executives have targeted QuarkXPress with a passion that approached obsession.
For several years, the two companies fought the upgrade battle, challenging one another on the quality and quantity of new features, but Quark emerged the consistent winner. Back in the labs, Adobe continued to labor on the Quark-killer it unveiled at Seybold last month.
The challenge is an interesting one, while the victor has yet to be decided. Had the Web never emerged as an alternate publishing medium, I'd be declaring Adobe the likely winner today. Instead, in this Webbed world, I'm just not certain.
The reason why Adobe InDesign is better than QuarkXPress is very simple—it's more extensible. Adobe has done Quark one better and made it possible for third parties to delve deeper into the core functionality of InDesign than they can into QuarkXPress.
The result is that Adobe will be able to deliver better products at a higher margin and gain a higher market profile and ego boost. No contest. While it's certain to take years to dislodge as successful a competitor as Quark, on this basis alone, Adobe would emerge the winner.
Stakes Have Changed
The fly in the ointment is that the stakes have changed. This is no longer strictly an ink-on-paper world. Designers and publishers are ever-increasingly concerned both with print and the Internet. The current solution to the multiple-media challenge is mostly to take print publications and "repurpose" them to the Web—to extract the words and images from the print publication and re-edit and redesign them for Web use.
If the Web was in some ways a secondary medium, less important than print, perhaps this approach would make sense. But the Web is fast emerging as print's more versatile sibling, able to direct commerce activity that print could only dream of motivating. If anything should be repurposed, it's probably Web content turned into print, not vice versa.
The day after Adobe announced InDesign, Quark's founder, Tim Gill, took the Seybold stage and offered the audience a preview of a range of new technologies and products.
Among them was a technology code-named Troika, which presented a vision of true "media-independent publishing"—text and images moved dynamically both to print and the Web—rather than the inefficient and ineffective repurposing that's the norm today.
As I looked at Troika, I began to develop a suspicion that Adobe may win the battle, while it loses the war.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.