While QuarkXPress may have been the dominant application in publishing for over a decade, it seems to be falling from grace. Some bad business decisions, coupled with poor customer support and an unexciting and late port to Mac OS X, have damaged Quark’s foothold in the industry. Adobe has been the biggest single beneficiary of this process, but one major newspaper group, Metro International has chosen another path.

UK readers may be thinking of the Metro newspapers available in several cites in Britain. Though they have the same name as Metro International’s titles, they are in fact a copy of the original idea to publish a quality free newspaper and are produced by the Daily Mail group.

As a result of Quark’s dropping of the ball, many newspapers and magazines are moving away from XPress, including some high-profile titles. The Guardian is moving editorial production to InDesign, and in the magazine world, Macworld, Cosmo Girl and, as reported in Macworld online the entire BBC Magazines portfolio have all gone over to Adobe’s side.

Also kissing goodbye to Quark is the international free distribution newspaper Metro. Launched in 1995 in Stockholm, Metro was a new concept in newspaper publishing. Prior to its arrival, free distribution newspapers were poorly produced, thinly-veiled advertising vehicles disguised as newspapers: they tended to have more in common with junk mail than a newspaper that people would pay money for. Metro did things differently, focusing on short news items rather than “advertorial” or lifestyle puff-pieces – and now it’s doing layout differently.

Despite Adobe’s recent high-profile gains, Quark still remains the industry standard – so why did Metro decide to move away from it? According to IT director Jirka Jirout, there were several reasons: “First, QuarkXPress doesn’t support Unicode and documents from different regional mutations and is very poor in a truly international environment.”

Design issues

Jirout goes on to criticize the application’s design: “From a technical point of view, XPress is extremely poorly written. Versions 5 and 6 aren’t very stable, and the fact that they don’t the use operating system’s services even for the basic GUI drawing is really surprising. It’s also sensitive to system upgrades, particularly in localized versions such as Central European. Unfortunately, this hasn’t changed with XPress on Mac OS X. The crash log shows that XPress is basically doing everything itself, including very low-level stuff.”

Quark certainly seems to have burned a lot of bridges in the publishing industry: “Quark is unreliable as a company,” Jirout says. “We had to wait three months for delivery of paid licences in Hong Kong, which almost jeopardized the Metro launch and caused us enormous problems. Add to this some known comments of Mr. [Fred] Ibrahimi [Quark Inc’s chairman] and our patience with them has ended.” Jirout’s remarks echo those of many former Quark-users who have criticized the company in professional forums and blogs all over the Internet, but is dissatisfaction with Quark enough of a reason to contemplate a change?

The impetus for Metro’s switch actually came from a move by Apple: “The initial impulse was approaching a necessary switch to Mac OS X, because of Apple’s ceasing production of OS 9-bootable Macs," says Jirout.

Why, however, did Metro not choose Adobe InDesign? With staff working on editions across the world in languages including English, French, Dutch, Polish, Spanish and Danish, producing the newspaper would be difficult enough – but there are also several editions of Metro in parts of the world such as Greece, Korea and Hong Kong that don’t use the Roman alphabet, putting even more strain on the layout software and editorial staff. Unicode seemed to be the answer.

InDesign was rejected because of “problems with support for international environment”.

Metro also didn’t like the fact that Adobe doesn’t produce some international versions, instead farming that out to third-parties (WinSoft in Central Europe and AisaWeb in Asia).

Jirout also points out that Metro’s experience was that “switching from XPress to MLayout is easier than switching to InDesign for editorial people. Its user interface is more or less identical to XPress’s.”

PC or not PC?

The publishing industry is in a state of flux at present: advertising rates and readership are down and falling year-on-year, leaving smaller budgets for IT purchases. Much has been made of this, with several small papers such as Dublin’s Lucan Gazette starting-up using Wintel PCs. A Pennsylvania paper named the Twin Tier Times even attempted to go with a Linux-based solution, going bust a few issues later. Even the regional offices of the Daily Mirror are rumoured to be considering a move to the PC. Did Metro consider a move away from the Mac to a PC-based platform? “Not seriously,” says Jirout.

One other option would have been to go with a solution developed in-house, an idea discarded after testing MLayout.

“With MLayout we can freely share documents without having to care about where they originated. We can use it for any language, as it supports Unicode and uses standard system-services for hyphenation and spell-checking. Both application API and document file-format are fully documented, which allows us extremely easy integration with our other systems such as solutions for automatic ad placement, and the generation of structured content such as TV and cinema listings.”

At the moment, MLayout is installed at four Metro offices. At some it’s still being used together with XPress but another three are preparing to switch very soon. “We do plan to move all editions to MLayout.”

Despite Jirout’s obvious enthusiasm for MLayout, he concedes that the complete migration of a title from one application to another can be a complicated process. “It takes about a week to prepare all the templates and style sheets. QuarkXPress users are usually given a day’s training focused on MLayout’s differences. Power-users are usually fine with that – other users sometimes require another day of follow-up training. The biggest problem so far has not been switching from XPress to MLayout, but switching from OS 9 to OS X. Even experienced OS 9 users sometimes get lost in different-looking dialog windows, have problems with the Finder, and so on.

Metro, if taken as a single newspaper with multiple editions, is a huge undertaking – and moving to a new layout application is no easy task when you have a daily production cycle. “We did several tests, producing a dummy issue, running the production parallel to one in Quark,” Jirout says. “The problems are mostly psychological when people hear they are not going to use XPress. Once they tried MLayout, they’re fine, because they see it is more or less the same for them. Some people, using less powerful hardware complain about speed – typically users switching from Power Mac G4 1GHz with OS 9 and Quark XPress 4 to iMac G4 1.25GHz with OS X and MLayout.

“We also had some organizational problems with introducing new design earlier this year, when parts of our design team were still creating templates as XPress-only.”

Softmagic, the developer of MLayout was understandably keen to help the Metro team in the move. While not directly involved in the switch, it provided documentation, source code and “help that allowed us to easily integrate it with our other systems. They reacted really promptly to several bugs that we had discovered, sometimes even making a special build for us,” says Jirout.