How QuarkXPress 2016 changes the DTP game

QuarkXPress 2016 was released today.

It’s been my great privilege to work with the Quark team as one of their testers in the weeks leading up to it. You may have seen my post before about conversion to native objects. That is a game changer. There is more, though. For the first time, we can create seamless HTML5 apps straight from desktop publishing software. It’s been tried before, in a number of ways. But the result has always been clunky, sub-standard, not quite right.

Quark now changes all of that. You can turn a relatively simple print publication into a web-app for the iPad, other tablets or smartphones in about six clicks. You can turn it into an interactive one in about half an hour. Of course, like all things interactive, the magic comes when you develop specific resources that make the most of it. You can put any audio on, but pristine audio recorded in a studio (even a home studio, with proper equipment and sound-damping) will help to perfect it, whereas substandard audio or (worse) a standard audio track that everyone knows will dissolve the magic. The point is that print suddenly goes Harry Potter—like those photographs which people wander in and out of. Combine it with Flixels or other looping video stills, and you have something that will bring people back again and again.

QuarkXPress 2016 has a lot of other new features. If you want to know what they are, you could do worse than buy my book: Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2016. Heck, if you desperately want to know and can’t afford to buy the book, email me and I’ll let you have a look at the PDF. There may also be an HTML5 version coming…

The thing is, it isn’t Quark’s new features that take it right past Adobe InDesign. It’s the other things.

User responsive

The Quark interface has always run quicker than InDesign’s, but that’s not what I mean here. Quark the company is exceptionally responsive to its users. Maybe you’re saying it needed to be: Quark did have the reputation of being aloof, even arrogant. I have to say that I never really engaged with Quark as an organisation back in the 2000s when this was supposed to be the case, except occasional contact when I upgraded. (I see from my account that I have been upgrading since 1997.) A year ago, though, I joined Quark’s Facebook group. There are about 1,200 people on it. Half the posts are by users, and half the posts are by Quark’s own team, including developers, quality controllers, and the guy in charge of the whole QuarkXPress outfit. It’s quite unlike any other commercial Facebook group (or forum) I’ve ever been part of. On occasion I’ve seen bugs reported by users and fixed by Quark’s engineers on the same day. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, especially not for feature requests, and there are still people who are insisting that the one feature they need has to be the next one implemented. Even so, the willingness to help, sort out problems, give advice and generally make it fun if quite unparalleled.

This goes through to the new features themselves. About eighteen months ago, someone rang me up from Quark (long before I got involved with them) and asked me what I thought of their App Studio. App Studio makes smartphone and tablet native apps from Quark documents. I told her I thought it looked really good, but it was far too expensive and I couldn’t imagine any client ever wanting to fork out for it. Actually, I can think of a few clients now who would be best off pursuing that route, but that’s what I said at the time. “What do you think we should do, then?” she said. “Make it free,” I said. “Let me publish HTML web-apps, you know, the kind that were all the rage when the iPhone first came out before native apps did.” The kind of thing, for example, that we’re seeing increasingly with Hive and IFTT.

Eighteen months later, HTML5 publishing does exactly that—exactly, even down to the level that you can prepare your app for HTML5 publishing, put it out there, and have the App Studio version available later without having to recode.

You may or may not want that, but it’s an example of the phenomenal responsiveness I’ve experienced. The key new features, HTML5 and native vector conversion, are probably driven more by business need than by user requests, but most of the rest have been prioritised based on what people said they wanted. It’s done very simply by Facebook polling. I wanted colour transformations in Open Type so I could use the Chartwell fonts. I voted for that, it’s now in there. Others wanted the eye-dropper tool back. It’s now back. Others wanted an improvement to footnotes. They’ve been improved. Still others wanted fit-box-to-text. It’s in there. The list goes on and on. I haven’t got everything I wanted yet, but I’ve got more of what I wanted from this software release than any release of any other software I’ve seen before—probably because this is the first time anybody asked me what I wanted.

Without wishing to talk Adobe or others down, this is not what we usually experience. The subscription model for Adobe particularly keeps delivering incremental upgrades to software that I don’t actually need, which, in turn, stop plugins working that I actually rely on. To upgrade all of my plugins would cost thousands, even if the upgrades were available, which they often aren’t.

Quark has also been working with its users to debug. When Mac OS X El Capitan came out, Quark was the first to have a (free) El Capitan-ready upgrade. Not all the Xtensions worked, so Quark’s team brokered conversations between Extensis, one of the main sufferers, and its users. The problems were quickly solved.

Speaking of that, if you do join that group, be careful what you say about Xtensions. You’ll find that if you start saying ‘this Xtension is rubbish’, you’ll actually have the guy who owns the company which makes it respond to you. Politely, of course, and they work hard to fix problems, but it’s a good reason not to mouth-off. Generally, people don’t.

Buy once, keep forever

Quark always used to be an expensive product. It still is, in certain ways. It is not, and never will be, bargain basement ‘my-first-DTP’. Cost of first acquisition is ludicrously cheap for students, quite cheap for not-for-profits, but a fair whack for everyone else. Upgrades, though, are very reasonably priced. Any version of QuarkXPress, including version 1, lets you upgrade to the current version at the same price. If you have QuarkXPress 2015, you upgrade for half that price, which, coincidentally, is the same as the not-for-profit price. By my calculation, staying up to date with QuarkXPress costs me about £10 a month, but there’s no obligation to do that. Quark has kept on unofficially supporting the older versions, so that even version 9 still works on El Capitan. There are people on the Facebook group stolidly refusing to upgrade from version 7, and they’re still getting same courteous help and advice, though not the bug fixes (even Quark has to stop somewhere).

When InDesign came out, it was given away for free. First literally for free, and then bundled with Creative Suite, and subsequently Creative Cloud, so that if you need both Photoshop and Illustrator, it was cheaper to get the whole bundle. It did this while Quark was struggling with the transition to OS X, and a lot of people were sticking with Mac OS 9 and QuarkXpress 4 or even 3.32. It was a good piece of business by Adobe. They had no legacy users to keep happy, they were able to construct the whole thing from the ground up as OS X native, and they could still make money by selling people upgrades that they didn’t necessarily need, but which gave them the brand new, more-or-less free, InDesign.

The publishing world went wild for it. InDesign had so many more exciting features. And it was free. People used to tell me that InDesign could do so much that Quark couldn’t. When we checked, it was usually that the current version of InDesign could do a lot of things that the five-year old version of Quark they had used before couldn’t. Well, ok. As I say, it was a good piece of business by Adobe.

There were three things that held me back. I was still specifying QuarkXPress for my design teams. First, InDesign was slow. That shouldn’t trouble you now, because computers move so fast now that everything is quick. Even so, productivity was key to what we were doing. Second, the additional features were fun features for designers, but as the budget holder and the guy who actually had to deliver projects within a brand, they weren’t useful features as far as I was concerned. Glowing text did not match our brand (which was actually the UK’s biggest brand—I’ll leave you to check my CV to see which it was). I wanted designers constructing creative solutions from the ground up, rather than applying an effect to overcome problems in the layout. Third, I had very serious doubts about how long InDesign would stay free.

In a sense, of course, it still is. If you subscribe to Creative Cloud (and I still do, and I use Illustrator and Photoshop every day), then the general bundle which is cheapest if you need the other main design applications includes InDesign at no extra cost. But the cost of keeping up to date with Adobe Creative Cloud is steep. £450 a year. You can do better in your first year if you take all of their offers, but the cost mounts. I don’t actually need any new features. There’s been nothing (except for El Capitan compatibility) which has interested me since CS6. But I still keep paying—really only for Photoshop and Illustrator, as I only use InDesign when forced to, and abandoned Lightroom years ago in favour of the superior Capture One and Media Pro combination, which Lightroom can’t touch.

So, £450 a year for features in Illustrator and Photoshop I don’t need, which is £225 each. If I was going to make InDesign my DTP package, that would be £150 a year per application. The same as Quark—except that I only have to upgrade Quark if I want the new features, and I never get a new version of the software imposed on me (as happened to me with CC 2015) which wipes out all my settings and stops my plugins working. Yes, that’s right—you can keep all of your old versions of QuarkXPress running.

Deep publishing

My third big, serious reason for pressing the advantages of QuarkXPress is the deep publishing features, especially Job Jackets. If you are managing a brand, job jackets let you get to your results consistently and quickly, and have them evaluated not just in terms of what will work through a pre-press RIP, but in terms of brand compliance. I can have a rule that pops up a warning that I’ve included an off-book colour or out-of-specification font. You can effectively include all the instructions for a temp or a new hire in the document tickets themselves.

If you are working with lots of brands, as I do, Job Jackets are absolutely golden. Whether the brand has a specification document or not (many are merely ideas in the mind of the brand owner), you can build everything in, and create and evaluate documents rapidly without even remembering (which can be very hard when you come back to a brand after a long time away). Creative Cloud, of course, can save styles and templates, and make swatches and graphics portable across the web, but it can’t do anything like Job Jackets.

QuarkXPress is the low end of what Quark Software Inc., does. Quark Software Inc., is about massive systems that serve enormous enterprises, where QuarkXPress itself is the front end for template editing. Effective brand management is and always will be built into QuarkXPress. Creative Cloud — and I’m not knocking it by saying this — isn’t really about that. It wants to be exciting to designers and hobbyists, offering the best value bundle of software (and it is, if you really want to use Premiere instead of Avid, and Adobe’s recording software instead of Logic or Pro Tools, and Lightroom instead of Capture One) suitable for professional applications. Photoshop is still king of the hill for images, and Illustrator for illustrations—though Affinity is catching up fast in terms of features—but, for the rest, the bundle is the second-best for most things it does. Even Dreamweaver, which is arguably the best pure HTML editor out there, is losing ground to more specialist applications. These days it’s all about Content Management Systems, and true coders use plain text anyway.

What all this means is that Quark Software Inc., is always going to be the leader in deep publishing, simply because no one else does what it does. The surface charms of InDesign are obvious—though many of them are equally available, sometimes with more function, in QuarkXPress—but, at the deeper level, Quark is the winner, for me at least.

Add to all that the new features, which InDesign shows no signs of matching, and, for me, QuarkXPress has re-emerged as the true winner in desktop publishing. And also in desk top publishing—a distinction which my book explains. Oh, go on and order it.

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