Adobe FrameMaker 5.5

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Powerful corporate publishing tool built on the principle of document automation. The latest release seizes the high-ground of electronic publishing, but fails to address the issue of usability.

Adobe FrameMaker 5.5

It's been over two years since the release of FrameMaker version 5.0 (see issue 9). That release was developed by Frame Technology, but the latest version has been produced by a new owner, Adobe. The very fact that the leading publishing software house now controls FrameMaker immediately repositions the application and moves it strongly into the mainstream, but it also raises a serious question. Adobe already develops the market-leading DTP package, PageMaker, so why should it want to compete with its own product?

In fact Adobe has rightly recognised that FrameMaker is a completely different animal to PageMaker. While PageMaker deals with its publications through a hands-on page-by-page process, FrameMaker takes a much more automated and holistic approach. The two methods overlap to some extent, but it's generally true to say that while PageMaker focuses on freeform design, FrameMaker focuses on structured automation. In other words, the FrameMaker user is more likely to be producing a technical manual or a catalogue than a newsletter or a brochure.

This fundamental difference derives from the way text and layouts are handled. In PageMaker this is left to freeform text blocks that are individually positioned and, where necessary, resized. In FrameMaker text is instead flowed into underlying frames with the resulting length of the document determined by the amount of text. The formatting of the text is then primarily managed through the use of global paragraph and character styles rather than local overrides. While this discipline leads to greater initial set-up work it eventually results in greater flexibility. The whole look of a publication can be radically, consistently and instantly altered, for example, by simply changing the number of columns in the base text frame.

Attempting to do the same in PageMaker would at best lead to a lot of individual fine-tuning. If the publication included linked graphics the result would almost certainly be chaos as the images would no longer correspond to the text and so would need to be repositioned manually. Effectively you would have to redesign your publication from scratch. In FrameMaker such reformatting would hardly cause a problem as images are usually contained within anchored frames. As these frames move with their linked text, the publication's layout maintains its integrity at all times.

FrameMaker even manages to deal with tables in the same fluid way. Whereas PageMaker treats tables as embedded OLE graphics, FrameMaker treats them as an integral part of the text flow. Crucially this allows tables to span pages with the program automatically handling the addition of heading rows at the top of each page. This feature is controlled through the dedicated Table Designer dialog which also enables advanced control over line-weighting, cell shading and even row sorting. For those involved in the production of publications such as price-lists or technical specifications, advanced and integrated table support like this will be reason enough to think about shifting to FrameMaker.

The strict and consistent structuring of the FrameMaker approach really begins to pay off when it is applied to longer documents. Multiple publications can easily be combined into books and their page and section numbering automatically handled throughout. Cross-references made between publications will always be kept up-to-date as will front and back material such as tables of contents, figures and indexes. The process involved in defining and adding index markers is by no means user-friendly, but the necessary power is there to enable advanced custom formatting, subentries, reference grouping and so on.

Ultimately the discipline enforced when setting up the structure for the publication ends up creating amazing flexibility. This is most apparent in the use of conditional text. Because text, graphics, tables and references are all kept fluid and flowing, it becomes possible to manage multiple versions of the same publication from within the one file. It is possible, for example, to control both Mac and Windows versions of a software manual simultaneously. By marking relevant screenshots, paragraphs and even text within paragraphs with either a user-defined Mac or Windows condition tag, it becomes possible to hide or show the elements of each whenever desired.

This design flexibility is absolute, right down to the hiding or showing of individual rows in a table, with the rest of the layout adjusting itself accordingly. What's more, with advanced features such as the vertical justification that ensures text columns line up at the bottom of the page, you are virtually guaranteed a professional-looking result. Trying to manage multiple versions - or even a single changing version - within a regular DTP program would be absolute torture, but it's more or less painless with FrameMaker. For certain jobs like producing software manuals this "SmartDocument" capability is priceless - the last thing you want to do when you've just finished the actual program is to wait six months for the manuals.

With such advanced power, FrameMaker clearly has a unique and important role to play in computer-based publishing. The fact that Adobe has recognised this and gone so far as to buy the program immediately gives it a huge credibility boost, but what else has Adobe's involvement added? At first sight the answer is very little. While version 5 saw core improvements such as multiple-column frames, new anchored graphic positions, text run-around, heading straddles and the ability to import files by reference, version 5.5 adds virtually nothing to the underlying engine. The only new formatting change, for example, is the limited ability to stretch text vertically or horizontally. When other programs like Quark and Ventura are offering advanced effects such as irregular frames, masking and fit-to-curve, this has to be disappointing.

Where Adobe has brought its skills and experience into play is in the area of outputting, especially in the field of electronic publishing. In fact FrameMaker already has quite a history in this area and can claim to be the first publishing program to recognise the importance of electronic distribution. In particular the program has long offered working hypertext publications through its ability to define text and graphics as source and destination links. Unfortunately navigation was initially only enabled through saving the document in a view-only mode which meant that every reader had to have their own copy of FrameMaker! The introduction of the standalone FrameViewer browser program opened up a potentially larger audience, but its proprietary nature still prevented it from taking off outside a controlled corporate environment.

Of course this is exactly the demand and market that Adobe is trying to satisfy with its Acrobat (PDF) portable document format and its widely - and freely - available Reader program. As such, it comes as no surprise to find that support for Acrobat has been tightly integrated into the latest FrameMaker. It fact it is possible to create a PDF version of any document simply by using the File menu's Save As command. During the conversion process FrameMaker automatically turns existing links, cross-references and indexes into PDF links and gives the option of turning selected styles into bookmarks and text flows into article threads.

The process is amazingly simple and amazingly fast. It took under two minutes to produce a 45-page multiple chapter document complete with graphics and bookmarks and a navigable table of contents and index. In many ways the tie in between FrameMaker and Acrobat is a perfect match - bad news for all those who hate their software documentation arriving as PDFs on the CD. On the other hand there are still some niggles. There are certain advanced Acrobat options, such as control over font embedding, that are not available directly and there are other FrameMaker features, such as the ability to create pop-up menus, that could have been converted to their Acrobat equivalent but aren't.

In spite of these minor failings, the FrameMaker/Acrobat combination is unbeatable for the creation of exact electronic equivalents of the printed document. However, by its very nature, the PDF format is not the answer to all needs. In particular it's not ideal for prolonged onscreen reading or browsing and can only be accessed if the user has installed the Acrobat Reader program. A much simpler and more universally accessible solution is the omnipresent web page built on HTML. FrameMaker has bowed to the inevitable and, like all the other DTP programs, has clambered onto the HTML bandwagon.

Unlike most of the other programs, however, it takes a very different approach. Rather than trying to recreate the existing layout through the creation of HTML tables, FrameMaker goes with the flow. In other words rather than arbitrarily splitting up the web site into pages and layouts determined by the completely irrelevant size of paper, FrameMaker recognises that onscreen reading is a very different activity with very different demands. While the best solution on paper might be a four page two-column publication, for example, on the web this might be better as three pages of completely different length or even one long page.

FrameMaker is able to offer this flexibility thanks to the fluidity of its text flow, style formatting and anchored graphics approach. Styles can be mapped to HTML tags and set to start a new page - so splitting the site naturally into linked files for faster delivery and easier navigation. It's even possible to set up macros that automatically include the necessary navigational features, such as a link to the next section, at the bottom of each page. FrameMaker will also create cascading style sheets to keep as much formatting information as possible in supporting browsers.

Compared to the HTML-table approach, FrameMaker's handling represents true re-purposing and should be another unbeatable advantage of the frame-based approach to publishing. Unfortunately, in practice, results were rather unpredictable. Creating pages based on FrameMaker's own optimised HTML templates and samples worked fine, but my own tests with more advanced layouts were less successful. All anchored graphics were repositioned directly next to their text, for example, but they were simply left-aligned with no way to change position or to force text run-around. More worryingly, all cropping information was lost and a grayscale TIFF ended up with a bizarre purple tint when converted to GIF.

All told, the FrameMaker method of dealing with documents has huge intrinsic advantages when it comes to producing HTML but there's simply not the fine control necessary to make it a standalone solution. Ideally it should be possible to adjust all aspects of the conversion process so that, for example, separate table formats and graphic positioning for print and HTML could both be defined in the same publication. At the moment, however, it's not even possible to specify that a particular image should be converted as a JPEG rather than as a GIF. Of course complete control would inevitably involve more work in the set-up, but again the eventual gains would more than compensate. As it stands the capability to comprehensively and instantly re-purpose the same publication for different media remains a goal, but at least FrameMaker comes nearer to achieving it than the competition.

One of the major benefits of electronic publishing is that it allows the distribution of long, full-colour publications without any of the complexity or cost of traditional print. Such usage will undoubtedly spread, but there's still a lot of life left in paper as the primary publishing medium. As Adobe is the developer of Postscript, the publishing language that underpins the entire industry, FrameMaker is definitely now in the right hands. Innovations to strengthen support for traditional print include the introduction of twelve new colour libraries including the major Pantone and TRUMATCH palettes and the ability to specify tints to any value between 0 and 100%.

However the advanced handling of colour separations is much more disappointing. There is no support for producing six-colour work such as that based on the new Pantone Hexachrome standard. At a more basic level, although it is now possible to set overprinting on a global ink basis there is no true object level trapping. Worst of all for a program built on producing long documents, there is no support for imposition. FrameMaker is not chasing the high quality design-intensive market, but this level of support isn't acceptable for a professional publishing program developed by a company like Adobe. To add insult to injury the Mac version of FrameMaker is much stronger with features such as OPI support and the ability to save individual pages as EPS files.

FrameMaker's commercial print capabilities are definitely looking long in the tooth, but at least they are adequate for most jobs. The same cannot be said of the program's interface which is just about prehistoric. FrameMaker prides itself on its cross-platform interface which seems to mean conforming to the lowest common denominator, Unix. The result is a complete mess with each dialog box having its own bizarre - and ugly - design and absolutely no consistency of operation. The toolbars are just as bad. For some reason the formatting toolbar is complete spartan only offering four basic options while the main toolbar is overflowing. Worse although these commands are grouped together they are not context-sensitive so that to make use of the toolbar when working with a table, for example, you first have to hunt down the right tab.

To be fair there have been some improvements. Right-clicking now calls up a context-sensitive list of relevant commands. These are hardly comprehensive, but they do provide a much-needed alternative method of accessing the program's power. Another minor change makes a huge difference. The Paragraph Designer dialog is now tabbed which makes it far easier to navigate the huge range of style-based controls. These are definitely steps in the right direction, but they aren't enough. For example when adding hyperlinks it's reasonable to expect to be presented with a list of all existing bookmarked destinations to choose from. In FrameMaker, you not only have to remember and type in the destination marker's name but - as I eventually discovered - this name is case-sensitive. Why? What possible benefit could this offer?

As it stands the interface is typical of the program as a whole. Everything about FrameMaker seems to be built on the principle of "no gain without pain." For those willing to put in the effort to get to grips with the program and its way of doing things, the rewards do eventually flow. If Adobe put in a bit more effort itself, however, it could both lessen the pain and increase the gain. Unless it does FrameMaker is never going to reach the audience it deserves.

Ease of Use




Value for Money




ratings out of 6

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64MB of RAM, 90-145MB of disk space, Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4, CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

Jan 1999

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