The Sticky Business of Page Layout

What necessity is to invention, competition is to progress.

Spirited competition is the driving force behind progress of all sorts, application software design being a fine example. Take Quark (please). As Dean Allen so eloquently describes in an essay prompted by my riff last week on Quark’s PR, it was only after the demise of PageMaker that Quark became so stagnant. (If you don’t use Quark but want to know what pro designers really think of the app and the company behind it, read Dean’s article.)

At the beginning, when Aldus PageMaker was king of the DTP market (a market it had effectively created), QuarkXPress was the upstart. It provided a much more intuitive user interface, and was fast and lean — very important at a time when a “fast” machine was running at 33 MHz. Progress was quick, and in just a few years, we ended up with QuarkXPress 3. In that era, Macworld would often run reviews of competing applications in the same issue — e.g. Illustrator vs. Freehand; WriteNow vs. Word vs. MacWrite; etc. And I recall thinking that it started feeling like a stretch to count PageMaker as a legitimate peer of Quark’s. QuarkXPress 3 knocked PageMaker off the throne by being a better application. (Please, no letters from you PageMaker fans; I believe you that you love PageMaker, but everyone else hated it.)

It was competition that gave designers a better page layout application. Sadly, PageMaker never managed a comeback, and quickly slipped away into its current state of irrelevance. And so for most of the 90’s, QuarkXPress had no competition to speak of. And thus, it languished. Versions 4 and 5 were both very late, and neither offered significant improvements to XPress’s core purpose: page layout.

Competition was restored when Adobe launched InDesign, which offers vastly superior typographic features than does QuarkXPress. But QuarkXPress still dominates the industry, even though InDesign:

  • has been out for several years;
  • is widely-hailed as a superior product;
  • costs less;
  • reads QuarkXPress documents; and
  • comes from a company people actually like

I’m not quite sure why this is, that InDesign hasn’t taken more of the market away from Quark. My best guess is that when Quark knocked off PageMaker, the industry was still nascent; but during the 90’s it matured and atrophied around Quark. InDesign may not be too little, but it might have been too late.

Serious application software gets sticky over time. It starts slowly, but eventually it’s difficult to peel users and their apps apart. In the case of QuarkXPress, stickiness manifests itself in wide-ranging ways. At the basic level is user interface stickiness: Quark users are familiar with the palettes, dialog boxes, keyboard shortcuts, and the basic “pasteboard” metaphor Quark uses for document windows. All applications develop this sort of stickiness, no matter what purpose they serve, but it’s much more profound in apps like Quark, which people use for several hours every day.

InDesign was designed to attack Quark’s user interface stickiness. It provides a very similar interface, with the same basic content-boxes-on-a-pasteboard metaphor. It even offers a preference setting to apply Quark-compatible keyboard shortcuts. Experienced Quark users can get the hang of InDesign quickly; it might take a while to achieve the same level of expertise and back-of-the-hand familiarity they have with Quark, but the two applications have far more similarities than differences.

Document formats are another source of stickiness (most spectacularly used by Microsoft to attach users to the Office suite). Your print shop might only accept QuarkXPress documents. Your clients might send you QuarkXPress documents. Your previous work might be stored as hundreds or even thousands of QuarkXPress documents. InDesign attempts to address this issue as well, by offering the ability to convert Quark documents. A fine idea, but in my experience with InDesign 1.5, the conversion wasn’t always perfect.

But QuarkXPress is sticky in other ways. For one thing, Quark established itself as the standard at very large corporations, and very large corporations are very slow to change software platforms. And if your employer uses Quark, you use Quark.

My guess is that it’s this last source of stickiness that has prevented InDesign from making more of a dent in Quark’s market dominance. It’s not just general conservatism that causes large companies to be reluctant to switch software platforms, it’s cost. Not just the cost of new software licenses, but the cost of training employees. There’s also the cost of changing production workflows. A lone designer might be able to switch from Quark to InDesign rather easily; but a large company likely has an investment in automated workflow, like say AppleScripts that update catalog layouts with information in FileMaker databases.

One thing in Adobe’s favor is that InDesign has momentum. Perhaps its momentum is building slower than Adobe had hoped, but it’s building nonetheless. The designers I know who’ve switched are happy with InDesign. And most of the ones who haven’t switched are at least thinking about it. Slow and steady sometimes does win the race.