Adobe FrameMaker 9 review

£914
Price when reviewed

As one of the earliest desktop publishing applications, FrameMaker has a long and illustrious history stretching back over 20 years. Its history has also been troubled, however. Soon after acquiring the program in 1995, Adobe’s interest shifted to InDesign and development of FrameMaker slowed to an inconsistent trickle; the program’s demise looked inevitable.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. With its acquisition of Macromedia and, with it, RoboHelp and Captivate, Adobe saw the opportunity to combine the three to produce the Technical Communication Suite. FrameMaker 9 shows the benefit of this new lease of life – and more development effort than it’s seen in the last 15 years.

It was certainly needed. FrameMaker’s Unix mainframe-style interface had hardly changed from the late 1980’s and was a major embarrassment. Now, FrameMaker 9 has been given a typical Adobe makeover. The most obvious change is the shift from the old modal dialogs to new neatly-docking panels, but there are plenty of other improvements. The toolbars are more attractive and have been rationalised. There’s new tabbed document handling and the ability to save panel layouts as workspaces; ideal for technical authoring where you often have to concentrate on very different tasks, like managing structure, handling graphics, organizing review and so on.

The biggest practical interface advance is FrameMaker 9’s new ‘pods’. These are panels docked along the bottom of the screen, that provide centralised control over a document’s cross-references, markers, variables, conditional text and embedded insets. These previously had to be handled individually. As well as allowing you to view and quickly navigate to instances, each pod lets you quickly call up the relevant panel for creating, editing and handling them. In addition, FrameMaker 9 adds a new Fonts pod that displays which typefaces are being used and where, making it simple to replace unavailable fonts.

FrameMaker 9’s new pods are a huge step forward but they are inconsistent, for example in the range of instances shown. Other idiosyncracies and bugs have been introduced too – the new Characters panel for inserting symbols, for instance, looks like it has escaped from a 1970’s Unix mainframe and seems to add any character it fancies. On balance, most existing users will come to embrace the new working environment, especially after a bit of extra customisation, though initially productivity may well dip.

FrameMaker’s great strength is in producing technically-complex documents, but its handling of multiple-component books has always been surprisingly weak. Major enhancements include the ability to include other file types, such as XML, alongside FrameMaker’s default FM files. You now can group files and use folders and subfolders to nest books and produce hierarchical books. Searching and replacing within books has also been enhanced, as has control over section numbering.

Hierarchical books lets you break flat chapters into sections and sub-sections, but to truly get on top of sprawling technical documentation you need precise control at all levels of the authoring process. This is where XML and FrameMaker’s dedicated Structure view comes in, letting you control all aspects of the organisation of information in your project. Here, the DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) specification has become the standard for typical topic-based handling and FrameMaker 9 adds full support for DITA 1.1 and 1.2 and the use of DITA maps as books. It also adds WebDAV handling so that you can work with server-hosted content management systems just as you do with local files.

Details

Software subcategory Other software

Operating system support

Operating system Windows Vista supported? yes
Operating system Windows XP supported? yes

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