IDML import in use: why this is huge

Quark Inc is introducing IDML import as a beta feature in the January free upgrade to QuarkXPress 2017. It doesn’t import .INDD files, and it doesn’t import every feature — table structure comes across but not contents. Footnotes, indexes and other internal references don’t import. Nonetheless, there are three reasons why this is absolutely huge.

First off, what is IDML? Since CS4, InDesign has been able to save its files as InDesign Markup Language, an XML format which can be written and read by external applications, as well as by different versions of InDesign. It is not the same as InDesign’s native .INDD format, which is proprietary. Markzware can convert Quark’s .QXP files to .INDD and .INDD to .QXP, but other software cannot. However, given that there are many different versions of InDesign still in use, templates available from print vendors and template suppliers often come as .IDML rather than .INDD, and the ability of external applications to write them means that formatting a database can be achieved before InDesign is opened, saving time and minimising error.

Reason 1: Templates

Let’s look at a template downloaded from a site called StockInDesign. You could find lots of other templates out on the web, as InDesign has always been promoted as a strongly templated application.

IDML template example

This is a straight import. To do so, go to File—New—Project from IDML. You’ll be asked if you want to continue with the beta. Click yes. There really is no danger to you at all in doing so, it’s just that Quark likes to preserve a high degree of finish with its production features. In all my tests, I’ve never seen this actually go wrong. However, some features in ID will not be imported, as noted at the top. In a very few seconds, the conversion is complete and the document appears.

Now, you may have already used QX2017 or QX2016 to import a PDF file and convert it to native objects, as the basis for a template. You can still do this, but the IDML import does much more. As you can see from the screen shot, all of the guidelines are imported. Master pages with their objects come in as well, and so do stylesheets, although the character styles will be implicit in the paragraph styles (you can easily save them out if you want to). In terms of taking a published template, your job is pretty much done.

Why would you want to do this? It’s fair to say that the world could use a lot less templated documents in general. I groan inwardly whenever I see a PowerPoint presentation done from one of Microsoft’s standard templates without any thought for how it matches an organisation’s brand. Microsoft’s formatted letter templates are ridiculously complicated, and they give an impression of a different kind of company from the one actually sending the letter. When people start mixing different Office templates, the results are just higgledy-piggledy.

But, many print companies now provide templates in IDML format. One of my favourites, Zwartopwit print  in Belgium offers IDML and PDF templates for all of its different formats, complete with the correct number of pages and instructions. For an A4 magazine you might find this a little obvious, but when it comes to unusual sizes and folds, it can save you a lot of work and ensure that you’re not introducing mistakes. IDML templates are much richer than PDF templates, and you can get a lot out of this.

Likewise, although I would want to warn everyone against blindly accepting templates (look at all the identikit WordPress sites out there), the IDML templates you can download from template companies like StockInDesign tend to be more sensible than the Word templates, and it’s also a lot easier to conform them to your brand using QuarkXPress’s features.

Quark’s IDML import is not yet production ready to save all your ID files as IDML, cancel your Adobe subscription and then carry on seamlessly—it needs to import table content, cross references, lists and indexes first—which is why it’s a Beta feature. But it does support pretty much everything a decent template will support. Whether you are trying to get rapidly to a polished result from nothing, quickly mocking up a document for a client, or simply trying to ensure you work to the printer’s exact specifications, the new feature is golden.

Reason 2: Direction

I should say at this point that I don’t work for Quark, and I don’t have confidential access to their roadmap, so what I’m going to say here is an outsider’s observation. The second reason why IDML import is huge is because what it says about Quark Inc’s intentions. When InDesign was first released, it was aggressively promoted with free versions, and the promise was very clearly made: “InDesign can import your QuarkXPress files”. Now, this was never entirely true. InDesign could import up to QuarkXPress 4.1 files, but InDesign 2.0, which was the first production-ready version, came out only a few days before QuarkXPress 5, and InDesign has never been able to import Quark version 5 files or above. This is therefore the first point since 2002 that QuarkXPress or InDesign could read each other’s files. Native import of PDF files, introduced in QuarkXPress 2016, was an enormous step forward, because it meant that Quark was now the first (and still only) DTP application capable of natively editing ‘foreign’ layout outputs reliably. IDML import takes this a massive step forwards.

Reason 3: upgrade versus subscription software

Over the last years, Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative applications have moved from a pay-to-own, pay-to-upgrade (PTOPTU) model to one of continuous upgrades via subscription (CUS). Other software is attempting to go the same way, such as Strata 3d, Type DNA and Ortelius. The upside of PTOPTU is that you own the software, and you only spend money when compelling new features or operating system upgrades persuade you or force you to. The promise of CUS is that you get all of the latest upgrades straight away, for a lower initial capital cost. One of the crucial arguments for CUS is that software houses are increasingly reluctant to introduce free, intermediate upgrades offering new features, so that PTOPTU is no more than CUS under another name.

Now, Quark has been aggressive in fixing bugs and in issuing new releases to make it compatible with operating system changes and upgrades, but this intermediate upgrade with a flagship new feature, albeit in beta, should push users to re-evaluate the benefits of the CUS model.

Subscription software has sometimes lagged when it came to operating system compatibility, famously in the case of Mac OS X High Sierra, which left some CUS users floundering to restore their systems to Sierra in order to work at all. In this sense, the subscription model has not fulfilled its promise.

IDML import as a free, intermediate upgrade, takes us into new territory. Between Word for Mac 2011 and the current 2018 Office 365 subscription version of Word for Mac 2016, there were only six new features, all of them interface related, and four enhanced features. QuarkXPress introduced 16 major new features and 16 enhanced features in its 2016-2017 upgrade alone. Annual upgrading in QuarkXPress already costs less than paying a subscription for its competitor.

If Quark is trying to demonstrate that PTOPTU offers better value for money than CUS, then the inclusion of IDML import as a free intermediate upgrade is a very strong argument in its favour.