Move over Adobe

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As we are in the midst of rethinking our publishing processes, I’ve been looking at the current crop of tools, and (for our needs) three of them stand out over their competitors. Adobe, AuthorIT and MadCap seem to be heading for a battle royale, with the latter two the David to Adobe’s Goliath. But who will win?

Before yesterday I wouldn’t really have put MadCap in that battle but it’s been a busy time for MadCap, who (yesterday):

..unveiled its roadmap for the first complete, native XML software family designed to solve all of a company’s documentation and authoring demands. The MadCap family will include five new products: MadCap Blaze, MadCap Press, MadCap Team Server, MadCap X-Edit, and MadCap X-Edit Express, as well as enhanced versions of MadCap Analyzer, MadCap Flare, MadCap Lingo and MadCap Mimic. The tightly integrated MadCap family will provide companies with an end-to-end solution for developing and delivering content in print, online and on the Web—and in their language of choice.

[full details]

OK, so MadCap have a lot of ideas, but what does this mean for the technical communications industry? Putting aside discussion on bespoke solutions, in what state is the current crop of “out of the box” products? And, ultimately, why is this news from MadCap so intriguing?

Looking at the current tools the obvious and dominating product is FrameMaker. Recently updated by Adobe and with a new lease of life alongside Robohelp in their Technical Communication Suite, the future looks bright for the product and as the market leader it’s a safe decision to adopt their products and, like Microsoft in the OS business, it’s safe to assume they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. With a little work and additional tools, the Technical Communication Suite offers a smart multi-publishing system built around well-known and well-proven tools.

Then there is AuthorIT, which has been on my radar for sometime now, and the latest version certainly offers more functionality and builds on their core strengths. Their entire suite covers a lot of the areas that MadCap are targetting and it’s already being used by technical communications departments. The latest version is, in essence, a 1.0 so has a few rough edges and issues but the AuthorIT camp are making the right noises and I expect it to become a solid and viable solution for many people wanting to move into multi-format publishing from a single source.

At this point I should really mention the other tools that make up the rest of the market but as I’ve not really been heavily involved with anything else (Arbortext, ForeHelp, HDK are about it) it would be wrong of me to summarise both their market share and their futures (if anyone else has an opinion here I’d love to hear it in the comments). I would guess that, and I include AuthorIT and MadCap in this, the rest of the market outside of Adobe is fairly evenly split across a variety of products.

The new MadCap offerings bulk out their current product set into a complete end to end publishing system and, from what I can see with the limited details on offer, ticks all the boxes. On the other hand, both Adobe and AuthorIT will say the same thing so perhaps we need to see a little more detail before we get too carried away?

Yet, despite the fact that the feature set MadCap announced has a bigger overlap with AuthorIT, the feel is that MadCap are aiming squarely at Adobe. Of course, it’s understandable that they are aiming at the biggest target as chipping away at the other players probably isn’t a sustainable business plan, so the question is whether or not they can beat Adobe at their own game.

Given that Adobe were missing in action for a few years, the speed at which they have ‘caught up’ has impressed me but having seen demos of both their Technical Communication Suite, and of MadCaps offering (before these new products were announced) my gut feel is that Adobe have only caught up and aren’t moving forwards as fast as MadCap. In fact I think it’s safe to say that MadCap, and AuthorIT, are changing the game and I’m not sure if Adobe are properly positioned to respond.

As Ellis, over on the Cherryleaf Blog suggests:

I still have concerns that Adobe still really doesn’t understand the practicalities of technical communication, that features appear as solutions looking for problems to solve. However, Adobe is the market leader and, as we’ve seen in IT many times before, it’s often the company with the best marketing (rather than the best software) that wins.

The latest swathe of products gives MadCap a full, end to end, system that should be able to handle anything a ‘typical’ technical communications team can throw at it. In saying that, without a little more detail it may all be smoke and mirrors (something they’ve been accused of in the past) but the simple fact is that MadCap have already demonstrated they ‘get’ the current marketplace, and they’ve certainly made a big enough splash to warrant the attention.

I wonder, if we fast forward a couple of years, if the marketplace will still have one big player. I suspect not as the noises coming out of both the MadCap and AuthorIT camps speak of big things, so perhaps Adobe need to look over their shoulder and up their game? Regardless, the main winner of this competition is you and I, the technical writers who deal with these products on a daily basis. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest part of the MadCap press release is the fact it exists at all. Challenge the status quo and things start to happen, quickly, and the technical communications community can only benefit.