Which is better: FrameMaker or InDesign?
[Note: This guest post was written by Peter Gold, who has been using and training both FrameMaker and InDesign for a number of years.]
Could someone explain to me the key differences between InDesign and FrameMaker and when I would use one or the other for technical writing?
This is such an easy question to answer! Ready? I’ll answer it with a question: Which software application does the person or company who is paying you want you to use?
It sounds like a smart-alec response, but it’s easy to see what whoever pays the bills gets to choose. There’s a little bit of wiggle room here: If an employee or team can convince the PTB (Powers That Be) to change software, by submitting a compelling case for changing applications, it’s possible to achieve the change. “Compelling” means convincing all the stakeholders — all documentation-team members must agree to embrace the product, and the PTB must agree to pay for training, and for converting the old content to the new product, and the cost of running the old and new systems in parallel during the transition. Of course, the chance of that happening is about equal to the likelihood of turning a supertanker within its own length.
Okay, let’s try a second question: What special outputs or deliverables are required by the project? That’s an important one, so let’s look at it a little closer.
Being a Technical Writer
Remember that good technical writing — gathering, organizing, digesting, and explaining complex material — is tough. But even if you do a great job of it, that information is useless unless it’s distributed.
Delivering the content, in usable form, is where technical publishing tools come into play. Here’s where that second question about special outputs and deliverables can dictate the choice of software tools.
Can you use either InDesign or FrameMaker to create technical documentation? Yes. Do they both perform as well? Mostly. Can they do them as easily? Some features yes, some not so much. Are there any pluses and minuses that are deal-breakers for choosing one over the other? Definitely! So… what are they?
Recent FrameMaker releases have been steadily improving its ability to work with DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture). Briefly, DITA is a method of writing that breaks information into very small units, each with a specific purpose for organizing the information. The idea is that once an architectural plan is created for a project, and all the stakeholders agree to stick to it, then those bits of information can be stored logically, reused efficiently, and delivered promptly. If you’re thinking “ouch!” then you get the point.
The same goes for creating help systems. FrameMaker is part of the Adobe Technical Communication Suite (TCS), which includes RoboHelp, software that converts FM content to a variety of online help systems, and testing, training, and response-tracking abilities. InDesign isn’t made for this.
FM also has powerful XML abilities that are used for publishing from databases and converting among many different data formats. InDesign’s XML abilities are no match for FM here.
On the other hand, FrameMaker’s typographic composition ability is no match for InDesign’s cutting-edge abilities. FrameMaker can do many layout tasks that can compare reasonably well to InDesign’s layouts, but they’re usually easier to do in InDesign because it’s specifically made for this kind of work. The key question here is: How important is great, typographically-sophisticated, cool-looking, creative design to communicating technical information?
Both FrameMaker and InDesign have good e-publishing abilities. Depending on which release, one or the other is ahead. Both have room to improve, but then, the e-publishing field is evolving so quickly, probably no application is able to keep perfectly up-to-date.
Here are some specific feature comparisons between InDesign and FrameMaker that may influence your choice toward one or the other:
|Adding pages when typing, importing, or pasting content||Learning curve||Easy|
|Import comments from PDF for editing in creating application for efficient editing workflow||Requires third-party plug-in (See Annotations plug-in from DTPtools.com)||Yes|
|Text variables for running headers, footers, and user-defined text||No text wrap; don’t support multiple character styles||Yes|
|Multiple TOCs, lists, and indexes, entries create hyperlinks in PDFs||Possible||Easy|
|Paragraph, character, table, and object styles||Supports many more text attributes, can base styles on others||Fewer attributes, can’t base styles on others|
|Cross-references for text become hyperlinks in PDFs||Cross-document x-refs are fragile||Cross-doc x-refs are stable|
|Multi-file books, and operations across book files, like find/replace, spell check, synchronize settings||Yes||Yes|
|Manage and publish books within books for complex document sets||No||Yes|
|Importing many text and graphic file formats, and maintaining links to sources||Yes||Yes|
|Importing content from word-processing software like MS Word||Yes||Yes|
|Updating multiple instances of linked content||Yes||Yes|
|Managing styles when importing and loading documents||Yes||No|
|Managing styles used and unused||Yes||No|
|Master pages that control body page layouts||Yes||Yes|
|Master pages based on others||Yes||No|
|Conditional text for outputting different versions||Yes||Yes|
|Auto-numbered and bulleted lists||Yes||Yes|
|Page, section, chapter numbering within documents and across books||Yes||Yes|
|Anchored frames in text flows||Yes||Yes|
|Keystroke shortcuts for almost all commands||Yes||No|
|Professional drawing tools with layers and transparency||Yes||Basic tools only, no layers, no transparency|
|Interactive multi-media and e-publications creation||Yes||Yes|
|Data merge for data publishing||Yes||No|
|Support for third-party plug-ins and scripts||Many||Fewer|
|ExtendScript Toolkit provided||Yes, from the beginning||Only recently|
|XML authoring and round-tripping||Weak||Strong|
|DITA authoring and publishing||No||Yes|
|Specialized help systems authoring||No||Yes, with RoboHelp|
Why Does Adobe Sell Both Programs?
As to why Adobe maintains these two applications, it’s not so easily answered now, as in the past, when there were more differences between the products. FrameMaker was early-on the best-respected and most widely-used technical publishing software, especially in high-tech industries, and government-regulated industries like pharmaceuticals, automotive, and airplane and aerospace. FrameMaker had many of the essential features that were essential to creating complex, long, information-rich technical publications. Many or most of the software and hardware user manuals that “nobody ever reads” were written by technical writers using FrameMaker, years before InDesign was even an inkling in anyone’s eye.
InDesign debuted as a layout program for designers who created and produced print publications. As users requested and demanded more abilities, features, power, etc., ID evolved. Many of InDesign’s long-document features – multi-file books, cross-references, indexes, multi-level auto-numbered lists, adding new pages automatically as content grows, conditional text, change-tracking, among others, were added as users requested these abilities that are necessary in working with documents that are longer than typical designed documents like brochures, posters, and booklets. You could have said that InDesign was channeling FrameMaker.
Two Users, Three Opinions
Converting FrameMaker content to InDesign, or InDesign content to FrameMaker, is imperfect at best, and round-tripping is even more imperfect. Because converting back-and-forth is complicated, it’s important to make a choice rather than hoping to exchange files between users by converting them from one to the other. In other words, collaboration requires that all users use the same application. This could mean that all users create in a neutral application, like MS Word, or a plain-text application, and then import the completely-finished content into the chosen winner.
I’ve posted more than a few times in various Internet forums about comparisons, contrasts, and considerations that go into choosing between InDesign and FrameMaker for technical writing projects. In looking back, it’s interesting to see that I’ve not changed my position about which product is better… it’s still: “it depends.” Of course, because I’m writing from my personal and professional point of view, remember that every statement starts, contains, or ends with: “in my opinion.” So, if you want more opinions, search the Internet for terms like “technical writing indesign,” “technical writing with framemaker,” “technical writing with adobe technical communications suite,” and “choosing software for technical writing and technical publishing” (without quotes).
In particular, visit http://www.techwr-l.com to get insights from members of one of the largest technical-writing communities in the world. Folks there use InDesign, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, ArborText, QuarkXPress, MS Word, TextWrangler, and so on and on, every day, and overall they have experienced everything to love and hate about how these tools satisfy their needs as technical writers.