Adobe InDesign: After a Decade of Dominance, What Next?

Silicon Publishing was out in force at PePcon 2015 in Philadelphia, and as usual it was a true joy to meet pretty much all of the brilliant and talented InDesign developers from around the world: Gabe Harbs (In-Tools) came from Israel, Kris Coppieters (Rorohiko) represented New Zealand, Ferdinand Schwoerer (Movemen) from Germany; our own Olav Kvern joined us from Seattle, and three Adobe InDesign engineers travelled all the way from Noida, India. It seemed that all of the serious InDesign-related companies were represented: MEI, Typefi, Teacup Software, you name it. The cool thing about the InDesign ecosystem is that knowledge is shared freely among InDesign developers, without competitiveness.

PePcon 2015

Yet there was still conflict and confrontation, most notably between a unified group of developers and Adobe. The cause of developer frustration was the recent decline in support for extensibility in Creative Cloud products. Brave Adobe developers found themselves in an awkward middle position: they were sincerely trying to help, and many constructive things came out of the dialog, yet in the end they were simply well-intentioned engineers, hardly all-powerful. As big as Adobe is these days, perhaps there is no human being that is directly responsible.

Samuel Goldwyn once said, "society, individually, is an idiot: collectively, it is a genius." With large corporations, the opposite seems to be the case.

Software Companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe are generally composed of the most dedicated, brilliant, honorable people, yet the companies as entities can still manage to behave like raving lunatics. The declining extensibility of the Creative Cloud is just such a case.

Software Life = Developer Ecosystem

When InDesign started out, the geniuses who led the evolution of the product (people like Chad Siegel, Mark Niemann-Ross, and Whitney McCleary) were fighting an uphill battle: they had to differentiate themselves from Quark XPress, which still ruled supreme as of InDesign 2.0. I remember walking into pre-press departments in the early 2000s and designers folding their arms, asserting “this is a Quark shop. We don’t need anything else.”

The two main ways that InDesign surpassed Quark were extensibility and the ecosystem of developers supporting the product with custom solutions and tools.

As I have discussed elsewhere, the product already had a wonderful level of extensibility, beyond that of Quark, in its fundamental architecture. Adobe kept enhancing this, with both a powerful, well-supported SDK and a magic, cross-platform scripting engine called ExtendScript. Adobe gave fantastic support to those of us delivering solutions on top of the product.

People like Whitney understood that a software product like InDesign has extremely limited usage “as is”, straight out of the box. Doing anything real with desktop authoring tools in large workgroups inevitably demands extensibility: Quark itself had proven this with its ecosystem around XTensions. In a large design/authoring workgroup, it is not enough for an application to sit isolated in front of each user with only generic functionality: there is always some form of automation or interface with other systems, such as DAM connectivity, integration with workflow software, or automation of tedious tasks. The developers who work to build tools such as plugins, and to deploy integrations that make large-scale publishing solutions a success, need to have up-to-date documentation and enough communication with the product team to maintain coordination with evolution of the core product.

Even after InDesign attained greater market share than Quark, Adobe pushed yet further, with our long-requested InDesign Server in the CS2 era, as well as with a beautiful technology called CS Extensions (and their precursor “Patch Panel”). From CS4 through CS6, these gave developers an amazing way to build very powerful UI inside the application - some capabilities could never have been offered before, while others became infinitely easier than what had been possible with the C++ SDK.

The Challenges facing InDesign Today

The Creative Cloud release of InDesign posed three parallel challenges for those of us in the development community:

  • Release cycles became almost continuous due to the frequent updates of the product. It is a challenge for developers to keep up with testing the frequent updates, and there have been numerous instances of updates breaking existing 3rd party tools.
  • CS Extensions have been slated for extinction due to the dependency on Flash, yet their replacement, CC Extensions, have only recently attained near-parity in functionality, and progress was drawn out over a slow 2-year stretch.
  • Adobe appears to have dramatically cut back on investment in Creative Cloud extensibility and developer support. Documentation of extensibility features mainly consists of CS6 documentation, with scripting guides left pretty much where Ole left them when he joined us. They even still say “CS6” on them.

The high-level goals of Creative Cloud seem to be focused more on new applications, with the apparent assumption that InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop are "baked" products, and more subscribers will be enticed by cool mobile utility apps, hosted services, or innovative web/mobile-related tool sets. However, InDesign has a very wide usage for both print and web/mobile design and is in fact a huge part of the reason people buy the Creative Cloud in the first place. The large scale deployments of the product, without exception, succeed only when extensibility works. Adobe in aggregate appears to be losing sight of this fact, despite the sincere efforts of some individuals. Yes it is largely a "baked" product and mainly does anything one would want from a layout/design app: however, that should really leave features such as CC Extensions (vital to connecting, say, the Creative Cloud to the Marketing Cloud) in a position of priority, which is apparently not currently the case.

Perhaps InDesign’s success is its undoing. They killed Quark so completely that it is not as if there is a page layout app ready to take InDesign’s place, nor is there any competition waiting around or lurking on the horizon. From the cold perspective of pure economics, gutting extensibility may not be felt in the short term. Yet I seriously doubt that it will prove to have been a prudent decision, viewed in the long term. When the ecosystem around a software product suffers, the users of the product ultimately suffer as well. I hope to convince the Adobe machine to change its ways in this regard: wish me luck!