February 4, 2002

Review: GPLed Scribus on its way to competing with Quark in desktop publishing

Author: JT Smith

- By Ray Shaw -

For many organizations that produce substantial publications (something bigger than your average church newsletter), the industry standard layout program is Quark. And that can be a shame, at times.

While Quark does have many good features, it can be difficult to learn. It also costs about $300 for an educational license. However, it's when you try to use it in a networked environment that your hair tearing begins in earnest, especially if you're using Mac OS clients and a Unix-like server. This is where I am.

The Retriever Weekly, the college paper of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, uses Quark Passport on Mac OS 9 clients talking to a Linux server running Netatalk. Attempting to use Quark to work on files on the server is frustrating, as it often corrupts files when attempting to save over the network, apparently due to its temp file handling. Single and double quotes are sometimes mangled or lost between the writers and the final print edition. It also can't seem to import RTF files without losing the italics, which has forced us to use the DOC format (and so indirectly caused several virus problems). The setup requires us to use hardware dongles, which is annoying if you upgrade your Mac to one that uses a different type of keyboard (you have to mail your dongle back to them to get the right one). And being OS 9 software, it sometimes just explodes.

Enter Scribus. Scribus, released under the GPL, aims to be a replacement for Quark and competing products such as Adobe InDesign. At version 0.5, it looks to be well on its way.

Because Scribus is included in Debian unstable version, installation was a snap. Just to be thorough, I also tried compiling it, which was as easy as with most modern programs of this size (./configure, make, make install). Firing it up, I noticed that it started quickly enough, and took up a smallish footprint (though I didn't have any very large documents to test).

The layout and tools were straightforward, with a mix of menus and buttons. Creating a document is likewise straightforward, with several useful options (page size, margins, and an option for automatic columns). Placing and moving text and image boxes is easy, with the ability to create oval and custom five- or more-sided boxes (which are really necessary for newspaper layout).

File and edit functions

The file menu is as one would expect, with the ability to print, and save as EPS, PDF, or using Scribus' own XML-based format. The non-binary native format is nice, both for the sake of supporting it in other programs and for processing it with standard text tools such as Perl, vi, etc. Scribus can only have one document open at a time, though you can run multiple copies of it. The ability to read Quark files would be extremely useful, though I can imagine that this may prove to be difficult to accomplish.

The edit menu has the standard options: cut, copy, paste. One noticeable hole here is the lack of an undo function. It would be helpful to have a sophisticated undo function that maintains a long history and lets you undo select actions, but even a simple "undo the last thing I did" would be welcome. Additionally, Scribus doesn't appear to be able to actually edit templates yet.

Options for individual text or image boxes are set via the style and item menus. These include fonts and colors, and also the ability to not print the image box, which can be extremely useful. You can also change the shape of boxes from here, and the multiple duplicate function could come in handy.

The tools and help menu options are fairly limited at the moment. The help menu displays informational boxes about either Scribus or Qt, and also brings up the currently empty online manual. The tools menu deals with hiding/showing the various toolbars. The extras menu contains only one option,
manage pictures, but it's a really great option. It allows you to see the paths of your picture files, jump to the pictures within the document, and enable/disable printing. More importantly, it allows you to determine whether any picture files are missing (if you're sending the document on a ZIP disk to your printing company and have forgotten to include some of your image files, for example), and to locate the missing files.

Looking at the working area

The working area is also coming along nicely. You have the ability to snap to and/or view a grid (or not), and a right-click on any text or image box will bring up a menu of common operations. You can show or hide the rulers along the top and sides, and display them in points or millimeters (inches would be nice, too). Text/image boxes can be rotated and have their contents flipped horizontally or vertically, and fine adjustment of position and width is also possible.

You can select a background color
from eight customizable colors, and also control the shading and "textdistance," which is the distance the text is placed away from the border of the box. You can also set the attributes "Is PDF Bookmark" or "Is PDF Annotation," though these are not covered in the English documentation, and I couldn't figure out how to use them. For fonts, True Type and Type 1 Postscript are supported.

Scribus also has support for text chains, which are a must when working with a newspaper. A text chain allows you to specify "jumps," when a story begins on one page and is continued on another, which occur frequently in newspapers. Specifying a text chain makes the text entered in one box automatically wrap to the next correct one. Creating and breaking text chains seems to work the same way as it does in Quark, and is fairly straightforward. A nice additional feature not included -- which I'm not sure is even present in Quark -- would be the ability to view the text chain relationships, perhaps as colored lines connecting the boxes. Attempting to create a text chain from a box to itself seems to hang Scribus, but this isn't something you're supposed to do anyway, and will probably not be difficult to check and prevent.

Still some features needed

Scribus looks great so far, but there are a few missing features and hurdles. The first is the aforementioned lack of an undo feature; everyone makes mistakes. Currently, Scribus has the ability to import text from plain text files. Importing text from DOC and RTF files would be very useful, and is necessary for an environment such as mine, where it is important to include formatting such as italics, and where content is submitted by writers and editors who will likely be using
the DOC format. Supporting the fancy features of the DOC format isn't necessary, but the ability to import basic text and attributes (such as bold and italics) would be a big step forward in terms of my needs. It hurts to say this, but it should probably support "smart quotes" as well, if only to turn them into regular quotes.

As with many Open Source projects, documentation is a bit of a problem, though it's certainly better than many. Some features, such as PDF Bookmark and PDF Annotation, could use more attention (any at all, really), but for the most part I managed to get by quite well on what was there.

Scribus is also facing the same problem that Linux itself is facing in terms of making it onto the desktops of designers: an entrenched software product that people have learned to tolerate. Many design shops had trouble when trying to use Adobe InDesign, because the printing companies wanted the documents in Quark format. Our printing company is more flexible in this regard, and the ability to export to EPS with CMYK color support may well be enough, but your mileage may vary. On that front,
Apple still has the upper hand over Linux distributions when it comes to making sure your photograph colors look the way you want. This is thanks to ColorSync, which tries to align your monitor with "real life." An equivalent to ColorSync on Linux would be terrific, but an equally good move, for the adoption of Scribus, would be an OS X port of Scribus. Most design shops and designers are using Apple hardware, and exchanging this for Linux in an existing shop seems unlikely at the moment.

Additionally, Quark is the industry standard, which means that most designers are familiar with it and use it. The ability to read Quark files would be another giant step forward, as would the ability to save them (though even a commercial product such as InDesign can't save in Quark format). A Quark plugin to read Scribus files might also be effective, but that seems like it would be a lot of trouble.

Finally, there is a program called Flight Check which is available for Quark, and does pretty much what the name implies: makes sure the documents are ready to send to the printer. This includes checking to make sure all the photographs are present (Scribus does handle this already), and also that the fonts are included. Something like this would be a nice touch.

Scribus is off on the right foot, and it has many features that are fairly advanced for a version number like 0.5. It has some sizable hurdles to overcome, but since it's come this far, I have high hopes for it.


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