The Quark Wars

Quark XpressDrew Turney remembers the design industry’s very own history of warfare and asks the modern day generals of each camp about the decisive battles behind it.

History is full of iconic struggles between mismatched foes who fought bravely for supremacy through incredible odds. Think David and Goliath, the RAF and the Luftwaffe, Ali and Foreman, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

In the design industry, we have our own titanic struggle full of drama, intrigue and dramatic power shifts. For the last 22 years, Quark and Adobe have tussled for the hearts and minds of the electronic publishing and page layout market in a story of changing fortunes.

To get the full story as it unfolded from inside both war rooms we talked to Quark’s Denver-based product manager Dan Logan, desktop technology general manager Tim Bannister, regional business director Alex Nemeth of Quark Australia and Michael Stoddart, Adobe Australia’s senior sales manager for creative solutions.

The prize

It started with former Xerox employees John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Just like the company saw no value in the mouse and graphic user interface and sold it to Apple for a song, Xerox committed another historic blunder in refusing to back Warnock and Geschke’s idea for a programming language to print from a computer directly to a small print device. The pair left to form Adobe in 1982 and created Postscript themselves.

Around the same time, Steve Jobs had been talking to Canon about an office-based print device they were developing. He realised Postscript was the missing link, licensed it for printing from Apple computers to the newly minted Apple Laserwriter, and the desktop publishing revolution was born. Michael Stoddart of Adobe says his experience at the time was typical; “I was working for a large newspaper where the whole third floor had compositor desks. By the end of that year that whole floor had been removed. Those jobs had simply ceased to exist.”

Ironically, Adobe wasn’t the first to capitalise on the technology on a wide scale. A vendor called Aldus was enjoying the lion’s share of the emerging market with PageMaker, their page layout application. Even though it had virtually created the industry for computer-based layout artists Adobe had nothing to offer them, so a marriage with Aldus made perfect sense, the two merging in 1984.

But another company called Quark struck while the Postscript iron was hot. With only a small word processing program for the Apple III, they produced a layout program built for designers called XPress, first launched in 1986.

“Back then the strategy was to not be distracted by the technology but go directly to the creative professionals,” says Dan Logan. “What gave Quark the edge over PageMaker was that we spoke the language of designers. We didn’t make up a bunch of new metaphors to represent this new idea of using computers, we used the original vocabulary of design — kerning, tracking, colour separations, trapping. If applications could talk, we wanted a product that could talk shop with them.”

Adobe’s Michael Stoddart agrees Quark was perfectly pitched early on. “PageMaker probably lost the market to XPress around colour management. Quark got the colour separation engine working well,” he says.

As time passed, XPress also became the de facto standard page layout tool for the Mac — the designers tool of choice — while PageMaker made more inroads into the corporate sphere on the PC, slowly fading out of the picture before the last version shipped in 2001 and Adobe stopped development support in 2004.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, QuarkXPress consolidated its position. It became a second language to the first generation of digital graphic designers. Every job ad in the classifieds mentioned the holy trilogy of skills — you needed Quark, Photoshop and Illustrator.

With the page layout market almost completely to itself, Quark behaved in ways many of us would consider predictable. The very steep asking price continued to hover at or above the AUD$3,000 mark and desperately needed features went overlooked, such as the conspicuous absence of a tool to collect fonts for output.

While few software vendors would give a straight answer to the question ‘were you a monopoly?’, Quark’s Alex Nemeth admits the company could have done better. “When you have a mass adoption of the product areas of your management geography can vary,” he says, “and unfortunately the Pacific area started to get neglected a bit. As soon as you lose connection with your customers that’s going to leave the door open for an aggressive competitor.”


An aggressive competitor was precisely what Quark got in Adobe. While holding a fair slice of the graphic design market in image manipulation thanks to Illustrator and Photoshop, the company just couldn’t make a dent in the page layout sector. Whether it was because of programming constraints or it was simply symptomatic of each company’s feelings for each other, support across borders was almost non-existent. For example, Quark recognised only non-proprietary image formats such as .tiff and .eps, and many of us remember the endless process of placing the .tiff file, going back to Photoshop to make tweaks, resaving the .tiff and placing it again. The days of resaving the native .psd and having your page layout application update it automatically were far off.

So while the good and evil in this story aren’t so easy to attribute to either party, it can be termed a case of the empire striking back. InDesign was released in 1999 with a flourish, the first page layout program native to Apple’s shiny new Unix-based operating system (OS X) in 2002.

Rather than repackage and expand PageMaker, Adobe took a whole new approach to K2, the Himalayan-themed name given to the developmental beta. InDesign is object-oriented, the application itself a tiny 2Mb while the functions are all plug-ins. It makes for a far more modular architecture which the product development cycle can add to or take away from much quicker.

By contrast QuarkXPress was what Adobe’s Michael Stoddart calls ‘a monolithic code base, a black box’ so adding or changing features meant extensive reprogramming. So adding a utility to collect fonts or getting rid of the laser gun-wielding alien (Google ‘QuarkXPress Easter eggs’ if you don’t remember it) might simply have been a far bigger job for Quark to do — or one that required too much investment when their users had little other choice but to use their software.

Adobe was in a good position. Not for nothing did InDesign remind so many designers of Illustrator in the early days. Quark’s Dan Logan calls InDesign’s early versions a ‘multi-paged Illustrator with a bunch of existing technologies like font libraries and Postscript engines in a layout application for pages and long documents’.

Adobe’s Michael Stoddart denies Adobe had Quark in its sights at the end of the 90s, but that the development cycle meant the company was merely lucky to coincide with the rise of OSX and the Quark’s continuing complacency and disengagement from customers. “We were building this object-oriented code base five years before anyone had ever heard of InDesign,” he says. “Given the way software develops we couldn’t have timed it to the day. There was some discontent in the market though so it was a good opportunity to let the market know we were working on something.”

The new battlefield

History shows us Quark tripped up badly when it came to OSX. Or was it more the case that design pros held back on OSX because of Quark? With the introduction of the iMac in 1998 Apple branched out into the consumer mainstream, but among creative professionals, it might not have enjoyed such wide and early adoption if not for the droves of users moving to the cheaper, leaner InDesign.

“I think I can be honest here, that was a long time ago,” says Dan Logan when Desktop asks why Quark flubbed OSX so badly. “There wasn’t a lot of consensus [in the company] about the importance of Mac OS 10. Some people believed the print industry is very slow to adopt new platforms and felt we had more time than we did. Also, the release schedule of Mac OS X overlapped with our own and we were already pretty far into version 5 before we had the tools to begin our Mac OS X port. So internal forces said we didn’t need to rush it and probably underestimated the effect InDesign would have.

“We learnt a big lesson from that experience and that’s why since then we’ve tried to be the leaders in OS compatibility, and that’s illustrated by our quick release of the universal binary version of QuarkXPress for the Intel platform — we were way ahead of Adobe on that one.”

And as Tim Bannister adds, some of their customers were even slower than they were. “Even after version 6 [2003] came out it was years before some of our larger professional publishing customers changed to OS X — some users still aren’t on it. It took awhile for the market to mature around it.”

Quark released the long-overdue and ultimately disappointing version 5 in 2002. It was the longest gap between QuarkXPress versions (since 1997’s version 4), and there’d only been one update issued — version 4.1 in 1999. To make matters worse for Quark, Adobe was preparing a decisive new assault. In 2003 Adobe’s Creative Suite was born, giving designers a very compelling reason to buy InDesign. Not only did it come bundled with other software they already used — Photoshop and Illustrator — it cost considerably less than QuarkXPress alone, less than $2,000 versus $3,495 for QuarkXPress 6.0

Creative Suite was Adobe’s D-Day landing. After surrounding the seemingly unassailable fortress of Quark’s customer base, now the San Jose-based company was launching a full scale and unstoppable invasion. News stories appeared throughout 2002, 03 and 04 reporting one large Australian corporate or media publisher after another dumping XPress for InDesign, the cost and the familiarity with Illustrator working in the Adobe’s favour. As Michael Stoddart says, “You can’t come out into the market with something brand new. People expect it to work a certain way.”

While Quark struggled with the only slightly more mature version 6, Adobe struck another blow. By 2003 the XPress-Illustrator-Photoshop skill set sought by design studios and ad agencies had been replaced by the Creative Suite-Dreamweaver duopoly, and Adobe’s 2005 acquisition of Macromedia bought even more of the graphic designer’s toolbox into a single purchase, Dreamweaver and Flash part of Creative Suite from version 3 onwards.

Today, you can buy every application you could possibly need to run a graphic design, web development and video editing studio — 17 products in all — for a little over $5,000. Even without taking the changing capabilities of digital technology into account, the same thing would have cost tens of thousands of dollars for a wide variety of disparate software in the late 90s, and it’s still barely $1,500 more than Quark 3 and 4 cost on their own.

Rise of the resistance

So where Adobe was once the small, nimble and hopeful rebel — the proverbial X Wing fighter zooming down the trench of the Quark Death Star — the tables have well and truly turned in the course of the noughties.

After releasing some very good software and making very smart product acquisition and bundling decisions, Adobe has a solid command of the market in 2009. Quark is now a small player much happier to court opinions and input from customers and the media and give users what they want.

Chief among the changes was a dramatic price drop of almost 50 percent in version 7 (2006) but was it five years too late? Alex Nemeth doesn’t feel the excessive price of previous versions was all Quark’s doing but admits it’s another thing the company could have done better.

“At that time the market was being managed by partners such as distributors and we weren’t effectively managing the pricing of this region,” he says. “When I joined, meetings with both current and new users showed us the pricing wasn’t in line with the market and that hurt us here. In parts of Asia, the UK and Europe we managed it differently and it didn’t affect us as much.”

As well as being more feedback-friendly than it ever was, Quark has perhaps realised it can no longer compete in simple page layout with the new industry leader and has restyled itself as much more than a page assembly tool vendor, directions Dan Logan claims will help Quark ‘break out’ of an arms-race style competition with Adobe.

A big part of it is the DPS (dynamic publishing solution), an XML-based workflow system to automate design across all media. It’s a lot more Adobe friendly, and everyone at Quark talked about how the enterprise solution-based approach can include both Adobe and Quark products comfortably.

“Our customers do not want us to engage in a war with InDesign,” Tim Bannister says. “They’ve told us that over and over. They want to us to help them do more with less.”

“When we worry and we can’t sleep at night, it’s not because of InDesign,” Dan Logan adds. “It’s because we have strived to hit the mark set by our customers. We’re a lot more worried about their expectations of us than competitive forces.”

Alex Nemeth also hints that Quark is steering away from the ad agency/design studio type of environment to look at ground previously occupied by PageMaker. With much of the creative sector not just firmly in Adobe’s grip but contracting because of a sluggish economy, in house creative departments doing more work themselves to cut costs might be the new growth market. “Over the last four or five years, a newer focus for us is the marketing and communications departments of large corporates,” he says.

A peace treaty?

It’s easy to talk about the past. When a director or scriptwriter recalls a movie years after its release and the studio isn’t plugging it any more they can finally reveal the infighting, tantrums, studio interference and nonsensical marketing that led to a disaster. The same goes for Quark’s late arrival to OS X or non existent customer engagement.

But ask either company to comment on an ongoing war and why their product will win, you’ll be hard pressed to even get them to agree such a battle still exists. Quark is up front — and perhaps tactful — about not wanting to annihilate Adobe and claw their way back to the gilded pedestal they once occupied. “No one benefits from a 90 percent dominance of the industry,” Dan Logan says. “InDesign is very good at certain things and in certain types of documents, and QuarkXPress is equally as good in certain types of workflow and for certain types of documents.”

Similarly, the last few versions of Creative Suite have been less about cool new tricks in programs and more about carrying design elements from one end of the process to the other for print, web, mobile and more. Michael Stoddart is similarly circumspect.

“The world has moved on from the feature war between Quark and InDesign,” he says. “It’s not about what you have, it’s about what you’re trying to do. The media has moved on and nothing exists in isolation any more — even Quark 8 has export to .swf.

“Most of our customers realise a feature is a feature. In large companies with a workflow you still put type and images on a page but it’s more about the ecosystem around that, it’s about integration with HTML or asset management systems. Today it’s not a bigger battle but a bigger game.”