Review : QuarkXpress 2015, part one -- the history

Pioneer of digital publishing unifies its efforts into coherent whole

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Quark

Price: $849

The Good

  • Produces print, HTML5/CSS, and ePub files
  • Does fixed or reflowable e-books
  • Perpetual license rather than subscription
  • Some features an advantage over InDesign

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • No subscription option
  • No built-in InDesign file conversion
  • Doesn't open very old QXP documents
The release of QuarkXpress 2015 has given me an occasion to renew an old acquaintance; like many veteran graphic designers, I once made my living using programs like QuarkXpress, Pagemaker, and later, InDesign and even Pages to create various small-press type work all the way up to major magazine and newspaper advertisements, books, and other mostly-printed matter. Today, Quark is back (it never really went away), both because the 2015 release in particular seems to have found its footing in the current design environment, and because it offers an option to those reluctant to climb on board Adobe's subscription-only model for pro apps. Should you switch teams, and throw in with the loyal opposition? We'll find out, but first, a little background on the program -- and the reviewer.

If you're reading this introduction, it's probably either because you are a current QuarkXpress user who is interested in what's new in the latest version, or (much more likely) you are a lapsed Xpress user who is wondering if it is possible to return to the fold. Or maybe you have decided that the alternative isn't for you for one reason or another. We will get to a discussion of the latest incarnation of QuarkXpress, but first let's get the history, baggage, and us-vs-them stuff out of the way.

Perpetual vs Subscription

Because the whole subscription-vs-perpetual licensing thing is a war in the Mac community on par with Ford-vs-Chevy in the non-tech world, let's get this out of the way right up front, so we can then focus on the program and its virtues itself: when it comes to supported programs that are world-class print and e-book/app programs, there is Adobe's InDesign CC and QuarkXpress 2015, and that's essentially it. You can, depending on your needs, meet your print requirements with some alternative and simpler programs, but these are the ones you have when you are done playing around and are serious about doing digital or paper printing for a living.

Adobe has, very successfully, moved to a subscription-only model for its pro apps that allows users to buy just what they need and, if they want, just when they need -- though there are significant savings and benefits for those who subscribe for the whole year. InDesign, by itself, costs $20 per month on an annual basis, or $30 on a pay-as-you-need basis.

Unlike Photoshop, there aren't many programs other than conversion utilities that can read native InDesign files, so if you lose access to InDesign due to temporary poverty or some other reason, you lose the ability to edit or even view your files created with it, unless you made a PDF version. The subscription includes support, as well as ongoing and automatic updates. Back when it was available as a standalone program, it cost $700 to purchase, with major new updates coming about every 18-24 months.

QuarkXpress continues with the "perpetual license" model, where you buy the software outright, and can use it with or without updating for as long as your machines and OS support the version you have. The program costs $849 for new customers, and $349 if you are upgrading from any previous version (some buyers of version 10 will get the 2015 update for free; check with the company to see if you qualify). For many, this will seem like a lot, but a good graphic designer can make the money back in an afternoon, so the cost is trivial (and deductible) to a professional. Plus, with a perpetual license, you don't lose the ability to open and edit your work.

Both InDesign and QuarkXpress are good at creating professional print and e-book products, so this review will not focus much on which one is "better," since they are both outstanding. It comes down to how you like to work, what your publisher or printer would prefer, and the payment model you think is best for you. Although many would tell you Xpress is little-used anymore, in fact it still commands about a quarter of the high-end print market -- a far fall from the 95 percent it once commanded, but still nothing to sneeze at. If Apple controlled 25 percent of the computer market, its Mac income (roughly $5.5 billion per quarter) would triple.

The fall from grace

So I personally go back a long way with programs of this nature. I am one of the millions who thought that QuarkXpress 3.31 was the pinnacle of the original version of the program, and I am one of the millions who switched full-time to InDesign after Xpress version 5 because of the company's incredible hostility to its users, because it was very, very slow in making a version for OS X ( which finally happened with version 6 in 2003! What on earth were they thinking?!), and because the CEO at the time, Fred Ebrahimi, was an idiot who told dissatisfied Mac users that the Macintosh platform was "shrinking" (about four years after that statement would have been truly accurate) and that people who didn't like how Quark was conducting itself should "switch to something else."

So we did. Needless to say, that jerk is no longer there.

Ebrahimi was not the only problem. Both he and the founder of the company, Tim Gill, had a reputation for being rude to customers, and this was reflected in the general customer service buyers encountered for much of the early years, particularly when QuarkXpress was the primary game in town. Gill was long gone by the time InDesign came out, and ever since Quark's audience largely defected to the by-far-friendlier Adobe camp, the company has been far more humble and reversed its previous reputation for obstinance and nit-picking. Over the past few years, the company has focused on trying to rebuild its audience, and that requires appreciating them.

For a while, Quark thought it could salvage itself by turning Xpress into a web-publishing tool as much as a print tool. I experimented with this in versions 6 and 7, but gave up on the program after that -- because I was not primarily a web designer and, while I had an occasional need to do that, there were other tools that I thought were better at it. Most of the improvements in the post-v5 versions, it seemed to me, were aimed at the web abilities rather than the print abilities, and the general feeling was that Xpress had become neither fish nor fowl, not being the best option for either print or web.

Quark 6 (2003), the first OS X-native version
Quark 6 (2003), the first OS X-native version

Looking back, I think QuarkXpress 9 (2011) was where the disparate elements began to come together -- perhaps because the company began using a list of user requests to determine what new or improved features to add. In addition, Xpress had discovered ePub and used its knowledge of web technologies and print to add in the ability to turn layouts into ePub files pretty easily. The world largely didn't notice, however, because they had jumped ship to InDesign for professional print jobs, and simpler tools for the lower-level jobs like business card and brochure layouts, which Apple's Pages or third-party options like Swift Publisher and Business Card Designer could now handle with ease.

Coming up tomorrow. QuarkXPress 2015 -- the nitty-gritty.

It's hard to explain to people nowadays that you once needed to purchase a $700+ program to do business cards properly. Of course, it's hard to explain to people these days what "registration marks" were, and why they were so crucial at one point. Ah, "analog" printing ... those were the (bad old) days.

This is also about the time some of us noticed that Quark was actually getting updates out the door in a timely fashion, supporting OS X and its ever-changing technologies pretty well, and wouldn't bite your head off if you dared to call them with a question. I dipped my toe back in the Xpress pool when the first Yosemite version came out, and it was nice to see that the fundamentals of Quark's philosophy were still there, but I didn't go beyond the trial version because I was by then invested in InDesign, and because my need for layout software was diminishing -- I was back to being a writer and editor full-time, not a graphic artist much anymore.

So that's a thumbnail of my and QuarkXpress' history and baggage that we bring to a review of the latest version. In Part Two, we dig into what we have today, and whether its enough bring a bit more equilibrium to the publishing -- and e-publishing -- field.

-- Charles Martin (@Editor_MacNN)