Developers Tackle Workflow Issues

Whatever you call it–workflow management, digital-asset management, media-independent production–it's the final frontier of electronic publishing and a hot topic at industry trade shows: the ability to integrate print and Web production seamlessly into automated workflows.

Two factors are driving the interest in workflow management: growing business opportunities and the emergence of the Web as a new publishing medium. A mere 15 years after Apple and Adobe launched the desktop publishing revolution, software and hardware developers have addressed almost every individual need of graphics professionals. We have great tools for vector illustration, image editing, page layout, and print and Web production. However, the technologies that allow us to use these tools within an integrated production environment are still in their infancy.

Meanwhile, publishers are learning that efficient production systems are crucial if they want to take full advantage of the Web, and this means sharing print and online resources in a logical manner. However, few publishers have truly productive setups: most are still using separate workflows for print and online media, or implement Web production as an afterthought to print.

A handful of developers have addressed these problems by introducing workflow systems built around a flexible media database. All media elements–drawings, photos, page layouts, HTML documents, animations, audio and video clips–are stored in the database; from there users can quickly deploy them in print or online. These systems also incorporate project-management functions, allowing you to track each item's status.

Unique Challenges

Unfortunately, workflow management does not lend itself to "one size fits all" products. Each publishing operation is unique, and implementing a productive workflow system is both expensive and time-consuming, often requiring outside assistance. In some cases, these systems must incorporate information from areas of a company not associated with graphics production. For example, catalog producers might want to link their publishing software with inventory-tracking systems.

Most currently available workflow products target big corporations, which typically have substantial information-management needs along with the resources required to implement customized systems. The developers often function as system integrators, coming into a company and configuring their software to meet that customer's particular needs.

Even then, the systems have limitations. For example, many publishers make last-minute changes directly in a QuarkXPress page layout–but without a lot of custom programming, there's no easy way to make the central database reflect those changes.

Enter the Titans

Now that Quark and Adobe Systems are throwing their energies behind the issue, it's more likely that we'll see workable solutions for these print-related bottlenecks.

Of the two, Quark has had the most to say on the subject. Last year, the company announced the Quark Digital Media System (QuarkDMS), which uses an Oracle database to manage text, graphics, and other design elements. Quark plans to release the software within the next several months. By the end of the year, the company plans to offer a product that integrates QuarkDMS with the Quark Publishing System, an editorial management system based on QuarkXPress.

Adobe has offered few details about its own workflow-management system, code-named Stilton. However, the company's new InDesign software, with its flexible plug-in architecture, is ideally suited for integration with custom publishing systems. Several developers of magazine and newspaper systems have already announced plans to incorporate InDesign. Adobe is also continuing work on the GoLive Web Publishing System, which it acquired early this year as part of its GoLive purchase.

The workflow systems from Quark and Adobe won't necessarily be appropriate for smaller businesses. However, given the extensibility of QuarkXPress and InDesign, plus the current plethora of inexpensive media databases, there should be plenty of opportunities for developers to step in with scaled-down applications.

Mac Impact

Within large corporations, the move to automated workflows could have ominous implications for the Mac. Even now, Mac-based designers in many companies feel pressure to switch to the Wintel platform. As they implement integrated publishing systems, IT managers might think they have even greater incentive to force a switch.

On the other hand, many of the current workflow-management systems do use platform-agnostic Web browsers as their primary client interface, and the Mac retains its advantage as the preferred computer choice for design and publishing. During a conference session at the recent Seybold Boston show, Kevin Hannon of Sotheby's recalled that he tried to implement a "PC only" policy when he took over the auctioneer's publishing operations, only to reverse his position when he discovered how difficult it was to attract PC-savvy designers.

August 1999 page: 27

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