By Alan Houser

With the historic Adobe release cycle of 18-24 months for desktop software, the arrival of FrameMaker 11 in July 2012 should be no surprise. Let’s look at what the latest version of FrameMaker offers.

A Bit of Background on FrameMaker

Many people think of unstructured FrameMaker as the “classic” FrameMaker interface. Authors apply paragraph and character styles as they write. A combination of styles and page layouts (defined in a FrameMaker “template”) drive the document formatting. This is actually a very efficient way to author and publish technical documents that include complex tables, graphics, and cross-references, with consistent formatting and layout. Style-driven authoring also allows you to easily change the formatting and layout of publications — providing ease of publishing to multiple channels and devices.

It’s notable that FrameMaker was one of the first authoring and publishing tools to offer features for content reuse. Multi-file books. Variables. Conditional Text. These tools pre-date XML by at least several years. FrameMaker variables, in particular, are a powerful feature for replacing text strings (think “Product Name” or “Company Name”), that still does not have a direct equivalent in more recent document architectures like DITA.

Now, what’s new in FrameMaker 11?

Unstructured Features

New features available in unstructured FrameMaker include:

  • Automated Line Numbering – Yes, automatic line numbers.
  • Rapid Authoring with Quick Catalogs – Adobe’s term for a keyboard shortcut system, somewhat revised, that’s been in FrameMaker for many years. Unfortunately, the implementation of this feature is laggy, especially on first use.
  • Object Styles – Named styles for graphics. Globally update graphic properties by adjusting style definitions. A welcome feature.

FrameMaker 11 Object Style Designer

  • Hot Spots – A new graphic “hot spot” editor for defining hyperlink areas in a 2-D image.
  • 3D – Several features to extract data from 3D images to generate interactive documents. Automatically populate tables of parts, animations, and views, with hyperlinks back to the 3D image.

Unstructured Authoring Impressions

Clearly, the changes here are mildly evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that’s to be expected. The FrameMaker unstructured authoring paradigm has remained relatively unchanged for many years. Of the new features, I only consider “object styles” to be generally useful. Some of these will be highly useful to a segment of users (3D, hot spots, line numbers), but there’s nothing transformational here.

Structured Features

Let’s look at what Adobe has added to Structured FrameMaker:

  • Rapid authoring – Same as unstructured. Quick-access menus for element names. Same problem with lag.
  • Banner text – Pre-populate structured elements with “coaching” text; for example, “Type title here.”.
  • Smart paste – Paste unstructured content (e.g., Word, text) into FrameMaker. FrameMaker automatically applies structure.
  • Code View – A new alternative to FrameMaker’s traditional WYSIWYG authoring. View and edit XML source code.

FrameMaker 11 XML Code View

  • Author View – Another new alternative to FrameMaker’s traditional WYSIWYG authoring. Edit in a formatted view, but without text margins, running headers/footers, or page breaks.
  • XSLT/XPath 2.0 support – Select and run XSLT transformations on XML source content. Select portions of XML content by running XPath statements.

FrameMaker 11 XPath Builder

Structured FrameMaker Impressions

First, Adobe FrameMaker in structured mode remains among my favorite environments for authoring and editing XML documents (to be distinguished from XML configuration files, XML Schemas, XSLT stylesheets). The combination of document window, context-dependent element catalog, and structure view are easy to navigate and manipulate. I especially appreciate the structure view, which provides an appropriate amount of interactivity and real-time feedback.

What about structured authoring in FrameMaker 11?

Many of the structured features appear to be motivated by FrameMaker’s historic criticisms. To counter the notion that “FrameMaker is not a real XML editor” (a tired, old red herring), we have Code View. To counter the idea that WYSIWYG editing is not appropriate for XML authoring, we have Author View, which provides a lightly formatted author view without page breaks, very similar to the interface presented by most other XML authoring tools.

Other new features have been available in competing XML authoring tools for some time. Banner text and smart paste are available in XMetaL and oXygen. With XSLT/XPath 2.0 support and Code View, FrameMaker is now an authoring, publishing, and XML development tool. But dedicated XML development tools like oXygen are more feature-rich and mature as XML developer tools (and less expensive).

Why Upgrade?

There is one “killer feature” in FrameMaker 11, but it’s only available in Adobe Technical Communication Suite 4. That’s the ability to publish FrameMaker documents to tablet and mobile devices via multiscreen HTML5. Whether your FrameMaker source files are old or new; unstructured or structured, Adobe TCS4 opens a relatively easy path to multiscreen HTML5 publishing. Adobe TCS4 also opens a path to native applications for ios, Android, or other mobile operating system, through Adobe PhoneGap. This path lets you offer your document-based applications in the Google Apps Marketplace, Google Play Store, or Apple App Store, for sale or free.

Overall Experience

Sure, FrameMaker 11 adds new, welcome features. But the features are tacked on to an already over-loaded interface. Some of the new features are useful, but have a baffling implementation (for example, “Save DITAMap as FM Book with Components” uses seven templates). And many of the new features are already provided by other tools that do those particular tasks much better.

FrameMaker 11 Crash Dialog
FrameMaker 11 seems particularly “laggy” and “crashy”. I see the Microsoft Windows 7 “wait” cursor. A lot. Usually FrameMaker recovers. Sometimes it does not. Loyal FrameMaker users have come to expect this from new FrameMaker releases. Adobe releases buggy software, and cleans it up in auto-updated patches in the coming months.

What Adobe Should Do

Unstructured FrameMaker is a wonderful tool for authoring technical documents. FrameMaker’s style- and template-based paradigm provides “just enough” semantic markup for many organizations, with relatively low configuration costs (it’s not rocket science to create an unstructured FrameMaker template). When set up and used correctly, authors can create high-quality technical documents with a minimum of effort spent formatting. Organizations can publish documents with consistent formatting and branding to a variety of output devices.

Structured FrameMaker is a perfectly viable platform for XML authoring and publishing, whether against an industry-standard or custom-developed DTD. And structured FrameMaker is unequalled as PDF publishing engine for XML documents. No XML authoring and publishing tool is easy to configure, but the most common alternative for generating PDF from XML (XSL-FO) requires rocket-science level programming skills for customization.

But…with each FrameMaker release, FrameMaker becomes more difficult to use, and more challenging to teach (I’m an Adobe-certified FrameMaker instructor). The quirks of the interface abound. Click “edit variable”, and FrameMaker assumes you want to edit the _name_ of the variable. The conditional text pod is baffling – for me, an expert! The attribute editor dialog puts the “reset all” button in the location most dialogs reserve for “cancel”, so I find myself regularly zeroing out attribute values. Landmines abound, and I see FrameMaker users struggle more and more to use FrameMaker’s core features to create consistent, maintainable documents.

FrameMaker is still a wonderful authoring and publishing tool, with little competition in its core strengths. But the poor ease-of-use and complexity of the application are out of control. In future revisions, Adobe should consider focusing on the things FrameMaker does well, and make those things easier to do. Come on, Adobe. You can do better.