Monday, August 12, 2013

InDesign as an Example of Technology Turnover

I’ve been using Adobe InDesign almost since it first came out. I can say that because it was with version 2.0 that the page layout program really worked, and I started using it a year later for all of my book layout. At the time InDesign was a big step forward for me. Now it is a cautionary tale of how rapidly technology turns over.

I can’t use InDesign anymore because I am committed to delivering ebooks along with printed books, and InDesign has starkly limited support for the XML that ebook work is built on. InDesign can export an ebook, but only ironically. The point of working in a professional page layout program like InDesign is that it gives you meticulous, microscopic control over the final printed page. All that detailed control goes out the window in the “whatever” ebook that you export from InDesign — the final product won’t look the way you want, and you can’t control the process. It is like using a waffle iron to paint an oil painting.

But if InDesign is awkward in exporting XML for use in ebooks, it is a fish out of water when it tries to import XML. It can extract the text, but you will have to completely rebuild the typography. That’s not a big deal if you are preparing a novel that might have italicized words on every fifth page, but for anything more technical than that, even for poetry, InDesign’s XML limitations probably rule it out whenever a document is being prepared for both print and electronic media.

But these days, what document isn’t? I am behind the market as I prepare my first simultaneous print book and ebook release. The publishers I compete with have been at it for three years or more. But if I am behind, it is partly because of my reliance on InDesign. My print-optimized books translated so poorly to the ebook format that I couldn’t release my early ebook attempts in 2011.

Now I am trying to catch up, but Adobe, it seems, is content to be left behind. A 19-page white paper on InDesign workflow has just two passing references to XML. Customer support notes describe how to manually correct the inevitable coding errors in InDesign’s generated XML. The irony is that XML was not exactly new when InDesign was first being developed in 1999. Adobe didn’t build XML support into InDesign then because people there didn’t see the connection between XML and page layout. Now, apparently, it is too late.

In two or three years, features of CSS 3 may render the whole page layout software category obsolete except for niche markets such as print-only magazines, annual reports, and travel brochures. For books, InDesign is already sunset technology. And this is only 11 years after its first working release. That’s a measure of how quickly technology can go from breakthrough to irrelevance.