Adobe's InDesign is now a sturdy competitor for Quark

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #655  May 14-20,  High Tech Office column

Maybe the basic page layout tools in your word processor do everything you need. But if you regularly create more complex page layouts for brochures, menus, advertisements, fliers and the like, then you're probably using page design, or desktop publishing, software. And for a decade or so, the market leader has been Quark XPress, which supplanted PageMaker, owned by Adobe.

Adobe gave up trying to redesign PageMaker as a Quark-killer, instead trying to reposition it as a mid-level business tool. The company built a new application, InDesign, aimed at professional users. First released in 1999, InDesign offered designers the same interface as the other Adobe products (such as Photoshop) that they already owned, and a number of innovative features. But version 1.0 was buggy, a resource hog, and lacked some basic tools. While version 1.5 was better, the product garnered a lot of interest, but relatively few sales.

Now, with a new InDesign 2.0 ($1,050, $225 to upgrade, with special deals for XPress and PageMaker owners), Adobe is trying again. While still needing a powerful computer, the new version's performance has been tweaked while features have been added to make it match or surpass XPress.

InDesign is available in PC and Mac versions. The Mac version will run natively in both the classic Mac interface and the new OS X, but will operate faster and with better stability in OS X.

Designers will be pleased with the program's support for layers and transparency. Both of these features improve the ability to use graphics created in Photoshop or Illustrator in creative page designs. As well, almost any object can now get a drop shadow.

Less sexy, but much needed is new support for tables. While this has long been a standard feature in word processors, until now, neither InDesign nor XPress has made it easy to create and customize layout of data. Now, tables can be created or imported from Word or Excel. Type tools make it easy to create attractive blocks of text, with rivers of white space automatically eliminated. Support for UniCode fonts makes it possible to add text in non-Western languages such as Chinese. Dictionaries for 12 languages are included.

Knowing that many customers will have previously worked with XPress or PageMaker, InDesign can import files from those programs. (While pretty good, users may need to tweak imported page layouts.) Designs can be exported as HTML or XML as Web pages or in the popular Adobe Acrobat PDF file, without requiring the additional Acrobat product. These features make it possible to use a single design for print and online versions, though it's not a replacement for a dedicated web page design program like Macromedia's DreamWeaver or Adobe's own GoLive.

Unlike earlier InDesign versions, the new one allows users to print to non-postscript printers, and to preview pages before printing.

While aiming primarily at designers creating stylish short documents, Adobe has added tools for book production, such as the ability to group multiple files as chapters, synchronize their colours and layout, and create a table of contents. These tools are not as powerful as their equivalents in Adobe's FrameMaker, however. InDesign's features can be expanded with plug-ins, extra-cost add-ons from Adobe or third parties. Adobe hopes many of these will emerge in the coming months.

Designers working with short and medium-length documents will find that the new InDesign offers features to better unleash their creativity than the industry-standard Quark XPress 4. It will have added appeal to users who already work with Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator. Quark has an extremely loyal customer base, however, and the company has not been standing still. A few weeks after InDesign, Quark released its long-awaited XPress 5. More on that next week.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan