Quark and Adobe chose the Macworld Conference at London's MacExpo to go head to head with their respective publishing packages, XPress 6.5 and InDesign CS.

In the course of the event Quark revealed that XPress 7.0 will contain "a multi-user environment", and that XPress customer support is to be upgraded "very soon".

Product evangelists and specialists from both companies pitted like-for-like features against one another, as well as fielding questions from a hall packed with publishing professionals who pulled no punches. The issue that generated most heat was the products' limited backwards compatibility – with the Quark team taking the brunt of the crowd's frustration.

The event was staged as part of the Macworld Conference programme. In the Quark corner was product marketing specialist and XPress evangelist Shellie Hall, while representing Adobe was business development manager Chris Kitchener. The DTP bout was chaired by Macworld contributor and publishing-technology guru Alistair Dabbs.

The event opened with two timed 15-minute slots, in which Hall and Kitchener outlined their companies' philosophies, before going on to run through their application's wow features.

Head to head
Chigago-based Hall trumpeted Quark's changing approach to the way it conducts business. "We're interested in much more than just the technology," she said. "Quark now has many more customer-facing staff, and has instigated a customer-information campaign." She added: "Part of this is a new magazine called Quark Particles, while on the new Quark Forums you will have pretty much any XPress query answered. We're also holding road shows to enable us to get closer to customers."

Hall then demonstrated a number of XPress features, including project-based layouts, Synchronized Text, and multiple undos. The latter prompted Hall to applaud ironically, in recognition of the years of impassioned, yet fruitless, lobbying for this feature by XPress users.

Kitchener hit back, by reeling off major publishing groups that have recently made the switch to InDesign CS, including Macworld publisher IDG, BBC, Penguin, Future, and Littlewoods. "InDesign CS is now a tried and tested tool," he said. "It has changed dramatically from earlier versions. The deal we now offer companies is more creativity and more productivity." He then ran through some key features, including palette stacking, consistency of colour across the CS products, and InDesign's Eyedropper tool.

Dabbs then timed the pair as they traded further blows in a series of themed Five-minute Challenges. Subjects included Productivity & Workflow, and Publishing & Output.

Hall touted QuarkVista, a image-manipulation XTension built into XPress 6.5 that lets users edit images non-destructively from within the application. "This is just version 1 of Vista," Hall said. Imagine how powerful future versions will be." She also showcased QuarkXClusive , a free variable-data XTension it has developed in conjunction with HP to simplify the creation of customized marketing material.

In his slots, Kitchener chose to highlight InDesign's nested styles and the benefits of the application's compatibility with OpenType.

Next, Dabbs invited questions from the floor, which grew increasingly prickly in tone. One attendee demanded to know why XPress 6 and 6.5 cannot open XPress 4 documents. "What do you expect me to tell my clients?, he asked. "'Sorry, we can't open your files, you'll have to update to 6.0'." The question was met by murmurs of agreement from the floor.

Dabbs invited Quark regional business manager Nick Martin to field the question. "Adding the ability to save to version 4 from 6.0 would have added eight months to the development cycle," he explained. "We knew people wanted the product before that, and so took a decision on it."

He added: "It's a balancing act; we're trying to move forwards and backwards at the same time. On the one hand we have people queuing up to tell us that what they want is new features, and yet on the other are people like you who want compatibility. We can't possibly keep everyone happy. There comes a time when every software company has to take the decision to move forward."

Kitchener concurred. "I agree. It has to be about moving forward. We planned to introduce more backwards compatibility in InDesign CS, but all there is a feature called InDesign InterChange that does nothing whatsoever. It just never quite happened."

Asked if Quark would ever allow XPress to open InDesign files Hall shook her head theatrically. "That ain't never gonna happen," she proclaimed, to laughs.

Macworld CD editor and production journalist Vic Lennard asked why, unlike InDesign, XPress 6.0 and 6.5 doesn't have any PDF presets. "It means that every time you create a PDF you have to reinvent the wheel," he grumbled.

"That's something we're looking at for version 7.0, Hall answered. Lennard, though, was unimpressed: "That's no good to me. It should have been in 6.0."

A flurry of questions followed, involving the timescale of moving from XPress to InDesign. It's just as well the Quark team were spared the comment from the attendee behind me, who - upon rifling through her complementary bag of Quark goodies - proclaimed: "It's going to take more than a pen and some mints to get me to stay with Quark."