QuarkXpress 8 Reopens a Forgotten Chapter in Apple’s History

Quark XpressA pivotal name in the history of the Mac nobody wants to talk about anymore is Quark.

The desktop publishing revolution the Apple Mac was built on came about because of Adobe’s postscript language, and Quark Xpress was the first major, pro-level page layout tool to take advantage of it and enjoy wide market share. PC-only applications like Pagemaker (developed by Aldus in those days and eventually bought by Adobe) never enjoyed wide professional success, and throughout the Gil Amelio era of the 1990s, Quark Xpress and the Apple Mac went together like Statler and Waldorf.

From their enviable position of almost 100% market share, Quark Inc either didn’t see the writing on the wall or were caught napping while Adobe closed ranks around them, buying or further developing the other major applications in the graphic designer’s toolset such as Illustrator and Photoshop.

Adobe InDesign, Quark’s only real rival in nearly 10 years, was launched in 1999. For years Xpress users had complained about much needed features — even no brainers like being able to collect font files together to send to your output bureau or printer. The whole time, Quark routinely ignored them while still charging upwards of $3,000 for each new version.

InDesign was quick to add much-desired features and Quark virtually haemorrhaged customers, one large magazine publisher after another dumping it for Adobe’s cheaper, better alternative. It also didn’t that Quark was unforgivably late releasing a version of Xpress for the newly minted Mac OSX in 2001, an area Adobe was quick to capitalise on.

It’s a very different world now, one where Adobe is the colossus who owns the whole market and the Denver-based Quark is the tiny outsider hoping for a few crumbs. The last widely-used version was Quark Xpress 4, so it might surprise you to learn version 8 is about to be launched.

The major functionality of the ‘silent’ versions 5, 6 and 7 (ie nobody took any notice of them) was the same we’d used since the early 90s was still intact. Add-ons like the ability to convert your design to web-ready HTML code were an ill-conceived disaster.

But Xpress is worth another look. Version 5 offered nothing new, seemingly rushed out in a panic to stem the increasing InDesign tide, but 6 introduced a couple of small and intriguing new functionalities that 7 built upon.

Quark also radically slashed the price of version 7, but is it too little too late? Many of us have been using InDesign long enough to not want to go back to Xpress even if price was an issue. Most large corporate users wouldn’t be paying for it out of their own pockets anyway, and if magazine publisher overlords asked their art directors whether they wanted to save the company some money by enduring a new (re)learning curve the answer’s likely to be a resounding, purse-lipped silence.

Quark marketing promises version 8 will be ‘the version that takes on many users’ wish lists’, and I for one partly hope so. As a graphic designer from the bromide era I have a soft spot for the first computer program that became a second language to me. If you remember the little alien who destroys an object box with his ray gun (Google ‘quark xpress easter egg’), you might too.