At its core, QuarkXpress 9 is a professional-grade page layout application with some unique hardcore features that appeal to particular market segments. Once the king of all design apps, the fallen star is searching for relevance in a market in which it’s a minor player. Is this new version worthy of consideration by the disenfranchised, or is this just another comeback attempt from the fighter everyone wishes would just stay down?
I’m sure there’s a boxer in a film someplace who once was an undisputed champion of the world, got beat up on but good by some young punk, and then returned to lay down an old school spanking a few years later, restored himself to glory and got the girl to boot.
I wouldn’t know, because I don’t really like boxing, but this really is a tale of a fallen champ and its foe, the current undisputed etc.
Designers over 30 might recall QuarkXPress once held as much as 90% of the pro page layout app market, back in the late 90s. At the time, it was expensive, but focused, quick, stable, hardware-friendly, full of idiosyncrasies and realistically the only real choice for professional print layout designers.
Today, Quark has a much smaller percentage of the market (I’ve heard 25%, but I suspect that’s being generous), and anecdotally is struggling to make a noticeable wave of any kind.
What happened? Here’s a brief history.
(longer version at end)*
- Quark was expensive, slow to add features. Designers silently resentful of the high price. Brand new InDesign is cheap, developed quicker, and opens Quark files pretty well.
- Mac OSX comes along: Adobe supports it, Quark doesn’t. Designers getting grumpy with Quark now, calling it arrogant and other unpleasant things.
- Adobe introduces Creative Suite: The four apps you need (Ai, PS, PDF and IND) for less than Quark charges for just the page layout app. Designers burn effigies of Qs and profess love of all things Adobe. Quark goes away and dies in a cave.
Quark lived on, with a gigantic installed base of old unused versions, and a few faithful or genuinely happy users. It was slowly developed, apparently unsure of its role – initially adding features nobody wanted, then those some did, and then features that particular sectors found actually quite helpful, and yes, we’ll definitely be buying the latest version now.
I really enjoyed using Quark, and was pretty good with it, back in the late 90s. I reviewed Quark 5 for desktop in 2003, and from memory was disappointed to find it lacked the focus of its forebears, as well as being less promising than the InDesign line, which already showed better integration with the rest of its stablemates.
Since then I’ve barely touched Quark. All my workplaces shifted to InDesign, and only recently have I seen Quark installed on a studio machine. Perhaps it’s the circles I’ve moved in, but I suspect my experience is common to many, and I suppose many younger designers have never used Quark for a new layout.
But here’s the freshly minted QuarkXPress 9, unboxed and promising to impress. Can it overcome my underlying resentment and doubt of it, and professed love of InDesign?
Same, but different
Quark 9 feels instantly familiar. InDesign was clearly modeled on Quark’s established basic methodology: box for text, box for pictures, inter-textbox linking, text runaround, colours in a palette, fine-grained text control, and keyboard shortcuts for everything. Any user of either app will be able to set to work immediately here.
This is my first experience of Quark’s newish UI, debuted in 2008 with Quark 8. It’s simple looking, but usable. Palettes can be grouped together, and their positions saved; handy given there’s 23 palettes in total, and the grouping process is pretty fiddly.
Just as always, the colour management, Style Sheets for character and paragraph, layers and page controls are all sensible. Whether you prefer the Adobe or Quark implementation is down to you – differences are largely stylistic, not substantive.
For all the familiarity, there are some cracking features in QuarkXpress 9. Some are new, some are old but new to me (in my ignorance, please forgive).
The measurement palette features a live resolution count on an image as you manipulate it, especially handy when scaling images. No maths, no dodgy looking proof required. That’s nice.
Double clicking a linked graphic produces a dialogue asking if you’d like to edit or update the source file. Those frustrated with the interminable scrolling in the InDesign Links palette might enjoy that.
Conditional style sheets are new in version 9. Here, you set a string of styles and the conditions under which the subsequent style is implemented. For example, Headline Para style for the first paragraph; Bold body Character for the next sentence, Body Para for the rest of the story, and apply the Byline character style backwards from the end to the Em dash.
The style application is updated as edits are made to the text, and it all works very nicely.
The new Callouts feature allows for floating elements to remain tied to a particular section of text. The benefit here is satellite elements remain in relative position to a nominated text anchor through subsequent editing of the body of text.
Improved Table controls allow a single table to be split across a page break. Handy.
Set up for publishing
Where Quark really puts distance between itself and InDesign is design for publishing. A number of unique features aid this segment, and feel nicely implemented.
Quark’s implementation of the JDF (Job Definition Format) industry standard is nicely done. Think of JDF as the job ticket accompanying a job bag – it contains specs for page count and size, orientation, resolution, colour management, all manner of meta tags (document code, revision number, instructions) and so on. I believe Adobe has implemented JDF for InDesign in the form of a report tagged on to an exported PDF.
Quark has integrated it more fundamentally: having set up the specifications of the job, the Job Jacket informs the pre-flight process, ensuring any job conforms to its set specifications, and is available for reference by the designer at any time. No more four-bonus-pages errors.
Further, a workgroup can share a common settings file, which can be updated mid-project as required.
Job Jackets were introduced in Quark 7 in 2006 – this is my first look at them, and I’m impressed.
Also added in Quark 7 were Composition Zones. Here, you split a page into sections, and outsource the various components to your team: a newspaper design team might assign the main story to one designer, an advert to another, and the breakouts to another again. Each designer receives a document cut-to-size, which they complete and return, and the master document is automatically updated as the completed zone elements are received.
Story Editor view
Seemingly a billion years after InDesign introduced it, Quark users can now view a body of text free from styling to better concentrate on the actual text.
Xtensions and scripting
Quark was arguably the first application (in 1987) to allow third-party improvement through the installation of function-specific mini-programs. At the time it made sense to keep these plugins in a separate menu, but today, the implementation of what Quark calls Xtensions looks like something of an afterthought.
Quark has maintained what are effectively separate menus for Xtensions and Scripting additions. Some of the best functional improvements for QuarkXpress 9 are buried in the catch-all “Utilities” menu where the item is hard to find, and function unclear. I think adding Xtensions to their relevant function area (a la Photoshop) would be better.
Anyway, that rant done, QuarkXPress 9 ships with some nice new Xtensions:
Cloner Xtension allows for elements to be duplicated to the same spot on different pages, or into new documents entirely. The same function can also split a multi-page document into multiple single-page documents, or separate various layouts into multiple new single-layout documents.
ImageGrid Xtension can automatically generate a contact sheet of images from a folder of files, with some nice fine tuning controls.
Linkster Xtension is a nifty little feature, allowing a series of linked text boxes to be split into self-contained boxes with the content previously displayed in each being retained. Further, it’s possible to split the middle box out of the series, while maintaining the link between boxes one and three: useful for a paragraph of quoted text, or a caption.
Quark offers export to the Blio and ePUB eBook standards. Similarly, Quark plans to provide a new feature called App Studio in short time for the publishing of titles (think magazines) for the iPad, distributed via Apple’s App Store. The feature will allow for slideshows, movies, sounds, html and buttons to be added to a layout, but was apparently not finished in time to make the 9.0 release. The promises sound good, but that’s all we have to go on – watch this space. Adobe’s new InDesign 5.5 offers similar functionality.
The Quark Monster
One of the greatest software Easter Eggs, the original Quark Monster remains about the most entertaining way to delete a text box, aside from making peeow-peeow sound effects yourself. Select a box, and hit Shift-Option-Command K. Do it a couple of times in a row for a new surprise too.
The Monster that is Quark
Sadly, there are a couple of irritating fails in QuarkXpress 9.
Some UI elements are of arguable benefit, the Excel import filter crashed my system, and a particularly irritating bug with the scripting support appears to regularly hang my system clock.
As best I can see, Quark still works exclusively on X/Y coordinates for any given object being tied to the top left corner of the object. InDesign’s 9 clickable nodes works better, but you could also argue the new image manipulation controls in InDesign CS5+ are just as troublesome. Personal preference.
Epic Fail: InDe…what?
The killer blow in this matchup is unfortunately one landed by the former champ on itself.
QuarkXpress can’t open InDesign files.
Let’s say you decide to give Quark another go, but in recent years you’ve (quite understandably) been using InDesign – for the moment there’s no way to open your InDesign documents in the sparkly new QuarkXpress 9.
Long time XTension provider Markzware has previously offered the ID2Q Xtension that does a good job of converting .indd files for use by Quark, and is currently working on the next version for compatibility with Quark 9 and InDesign CS5.5. When it does ship, it will cost about $200.
The functionality of this Xtension should be built in to the core application, or at worst bundled alongside. InDesign has been able to open QuarkXpress files for as long as I can recall. How Quark plans to make conquest sales (or retake what was lost) without offering a transition away from the customer’s current solution is a mystery to me.
QuarkXpress is a complex software title, capable of doing many, many things. It remains a solidly professional tool, and for some it’s remained the right choice throughout its difficult slide from leadership.
Old features like Composition Zones and Job Jacketing as well as innovations like the Conditional Style Sheets and Callouts feel right for publishers, and busy long-form print designers. It looks like Quark has identified those markets for potential growth, and is working on building USPs to enhance appeal.
For general graphic design work I feel Quark is a less developed, less capable product compared to the market leader. There are some nice innovations here, but they’re little jabs with no power. Where’s the devastating uppercut to amaze and surprise us?
Adobe’s strategy early on was for InDesign to match Xpress functionality, open its documents, and be priced significantly cheaper first, then add killer new features like tight PDF integration, built in pre-flight, layers and so on.
That’s how the underdog acts. Quark IS the underdog these days, but doesn’t seem to realise it.
Pricing, features, and compatibility – none of them fall convincingly on Quark’s side.
If you’ve got a hankering, Quark offers a trial version of Xpress – download it and have a look around. I hope for the sake of competition you’re more impressed than me.
QuarkXPress 9 retails for around AU$1250.
InDesign 5.5 retails for around AU$1000.
*A brief history of Quark v InDesign
Adobe’s fairly new PageMaker replacement InDesign gained feature and stability parity with Quark in 2001 with version 1.5, and arguably drew in front the following year with InDesign 2, about the time Mac OSX was becoming a realistic alternative to OS 9 as an operating system.
Being a completely new operating system, OSX required applications to be written anew, and naturally there was a lag period while professionals waited for their core apps to be updated, then stabilised, before switching to OSX, which usually also involved new hardware – further reason to hold out a while.
In 2002, Quark’s then brand new XPress v5 didn’t launch with OSX compatibility, requiring users to either run machines solely in the old OS 9, or worse in slow Classic (emulation) mode.
QuarkXPress 5 ‘featured’ the ability to design for web, but instead of offering this as a handy output/export option for normal layouts, required the designer to choose whether the job was for print or web at the File>New Document stage: it was effectively a WYSIWYG web editor: mostly useless for most of Quark’s then-current users. At the time I recall feeling like Quark was heading off in a different direction to its traditional business, chasing the web-publishing market, when all we print designers wanted was Quark to run on OSX.
At the same time the off-target QuarkXPress 5 was released, Adobe’s also-new InDesign 2 debuted the amazing new feature of Transparency, and ran natively in OSX, effectively the last of the pro-designer’s toolbox to do so. THIS was the feature designers had been waiting for, and as studios began transitioning to OSX, InDesign began gaining ground on Xpress.
In 2003, Adobe bundled an improved InDesign together with new versions of Illustrator, Photoshop and Acrobat (all must-have applications, and almost without competition) to create, uh, the Creative Suite, available as a package for much less than the price of the (still OS 9-only) QuarkXpress.
Design pros the world over, grumpy with Quark for tardy OSX implementation of Xpress and resentful of its high price shifted to InDesign in droves.
Later that year QuarkXpress 6 finally ran on OSX, but too late; the battle for the hearts and minds of many was already lost.
QuarkXpress 7 (2006) debuted a host of really interesting features, and was quickly ported to the then-new intel architecture for Macs some 10 months before Adobe updated InDesign.
QuarkXpress 8 was released in 2008 and included flash authoring; a 2009 update allowed for transparent PDFs and Vista/Snow Leopard compatibility.