With the release of Scene7 5.0 and its Web-to-print features, there are now two extremely powerful server-side rendition technologies from Adobe. Unless you are intimately familiar with these two technologies and their corresponding branches of the Adobe organization, you might assume that Adobe would develop these technologies with some concept of integration, but in truth they really are two distinct and disconnected offerings that just happen to come from the same parent company.
When Adobe bought Scene7 in May of 2007, Scene7 was a leading provider of imaging for retail web sites, known for feeding up images on demand so users could zoom in on a purse, rotate a watch with pseudo-3D technology, or see a furnished room as it would look with various selections of colors and materials in a photo-realistic way. The scalable, hosted application would serve up images in different raster formats at different resolutions based on the parameters of a URL. While it was possible to produce raster images of sufficient quality for print, they did not produce vector-based output, nor did they have a strong text engine, so Scene7 at the time was unsuitable as a complete solution for web-to-print. Rather, it would typically serve up images that would be used by other tools (server software with robust PDF output such as InDesign Server or Quark DDS) to the extent that Scene7 images became part of print output.
The Restoration Hardware configurator - an application of traditional pre-Adobe Scene7 technology
Meanwhile, InDesign Server was a very different sort of application, available as software that users would put on their own servers (not a hosted solution: initially the license even prohibited use within a Software as a Service or SaaS model). There was very little “server” in InDesign Server, instead the core rendition part of the desktop application was split out from the UI and handed off to the developer community with a simple SOAP interface and no job queuing: it was up to us developers to figure out how to spawn instances, queue jobs and make it produce output as fast as was possible given the slow nature of the rendition engine. In the five years of desktop product evolution, emphasis had been on attaining ultimate rendition capability more than speed of composition. InDesign Server went exponentially slower than earlier server-based composition engines, because it offered very robust features that were computation-intensive. Using the InDesign Paragraph Composer to lay out text, for example, involves analyzing the entire paragraph before deciding where to place the second character. The complexity of rendition, coupled with a lack of initial high-throughput focus, means that InDesign Server offers the ultimate in quality of output, at the expense of throughput.
A Web-to-print solution built on InDesign Server
Soon after Adobe bought Scene7, they embarked on adding web-to-print functionality to the product. There was some interaction with the InDesign Server group, even some involvement in Scene7 Professional Services in InDesign Server deployments, but fundamentally Scene7 went down the path of building their own web-to-print by pulling Adobe core technology into their server-based application infrastructure. They opted to base web-to-print on a new XML format that was brewing at Adobe since the Macromedia acquisition: FXG. FXG was a graphic format being built into Flash and Flex, which could be exported and imported from Illustrator; the primary motivation/use case for FXG was Flash Catalyst, which uses this model to enable powerful designer/developer workflows. The XML nature of the graphics and the integration of this XML into Flex MXML as a “native” format provide a good foundation for defining relationships between graphic objects and their behaviors in Flash applications. Notably, Flash Catalyst didn’t really require print-related functionality, so FXG did not (and still does not) include much that supports print: the color model is exclusively RGB, for example.
The first Scene7 Web-to-print release, in September of 2009, used FXG 1.0. In order to provide capabilities essential to print output that were not part of the FXG 1.0 specification, FXG was extended by a Scene7 namespace, thus “Scene7 FXG” is the core XML used to describe the high-quality print output from Scene7 Web-to-print. FXG 1.0 was put out concurrent with a wonderful new text markup language, the Text Layout Framework (TLF). Unfortunately, at the time of FXG 1.0, the TLF spec was not yet final. The text possible with the first Scene7 Web-to-print, even with S7-namespace enhancements, offered only rather crude text features. This made the first Web-to-print offering from Scene7 less than stunning for text: it was clear, however, that the core rendition functionality was solid, and there were some exciting aspects of the system from a Web-to-print standpoint:
- For the first time in history, the same graphic XML used in the client could power robust print output on the server
- PDF export was blazingly fast
- The possibilities for working with variable data and graphics were very powerful, with tactics such as nested FXG, DOM manipulation, and some built-in methods for defining and using variables
- The Web-to-print functionalities could leverage traditional imaging and image-management techniques available with the general Scene7 platform
- A “solution accelerator” built initially by Scene7 Professional Services, offered a jump start towards a Web-to-print application built in Flex
With the first, FXG 1.0-based release, there was a core infrastructure for Web-to-print, but the application was clearly brand new, and the text capabilities were sorely lacking. Knowing that TLF 1.0, an extremely robust typographic capability, would be part of FXG 2.0, most of us in the development/partner community decided to wait for the release based on FXG 2.0. This wait turned out to be longer than expected, because FXG 2.0 itself suffered from delays in Flex 4 and what became a desire/policy of synchronizing Flex 4 with the CS5 release. Once FXG 2.0 was final, though, Scene7 was quick to make it work with the system: in parallel, what had been the Solution Accelerator was divided into an SDK and a sample application, and improvements were made to document setup and other aspects of Web-to-print based on experience with 1.0 and beta 2.0 implementations. In October 2010, the Scene7 5.0 / FXG 2.0 Web-to-print went live on all Scene7 production servers.
The Basic Configurator sample application that comes with Scene7 Web-to-print
Now that there is a truly robust Web-to-print offering from the Scene7 group, the comparison with InDesign Server, which is at this point a well-proven rendition back end to Web-to-print, can be made. And it should be made… already in our work at Silicon Publishing, we have been in the middle of decisions over which technology to use several times. At a very high level, there is a high degree of overlapping capability, and the buzzword popular at Adobe the past couple years, “disruptive” is well-suited. Adobe is definitely competing with itself, and it is not as trivial as the PageMaker/InDesign “disruption” when you know one technology is slated for extinction: it is likely that both Scene7 and InDesign Server will continue as Adobe offerings indefinitely, and both products will continue to grow and mature. In the overall industry, these two are the leaders from a functional standpoint, as Adobe has such a huge advantage over their competition in this space. So let’s look at the differences, first in a side-by-side comparison:
||Adobe Scene7 Web-to-print
||Adobe InDesign Server
||Software as a Service (SaaS)
||Off the Shelf Software
||Very fast at generating PDFs and previews, suitable for real-time response to edits
||Latency to generate previews, not generally suitable for real-time response to edits. Our solution with Silicon Designer is to render all edits directly in Flash, though there are challenges with this and some limitations.
||Robust text, not quite as robust as InDesign but functionally quite amazing, see the core text features at the Adobe Labs TLF Demo. Still limited to core text something like InDesign 1.0: no bullets/lists built in, no tables, primitive span across pages. However, these features are also current limits of the Flash player, yet are on the roadmap for the Flash player, and there are ways to accomplish these with custom development.
||Completely robust composition capability. The state of the art, with absolute fine-grained control over anything you might ever do with composition. Yet in a web-to-print context, it is difficult to round-trip those features that don’t exist in Flash.
|Appropriate document types
||Small page count, without heavy flow across pages: Business cards, brochures, letterhead, stationary, greeting cards. The scope of document type is expected to extend over time, though there has not been a clear statement from Adobe Scene7 that they have an aim for long documents.
||Any type of document, though the speed of rendition can be a negative factor with very-fast throughput documents such as statements.
||Designed from the ground up to be part of a web solution: scalable, flexible, and easy to connect with other Scene7 core imaging capabilities.
||This is the desktop InDesign application, put on a server, with minimal server-like features. It can work in a web context and is proven in numerous systems, yet it can mainly be considered a headless InDesign exposed to SOAP and CORBA interfaces.
||Brand new – only in October 2010 is there a version out with truly robust text. Indications are that it will generally work, and the Scene7 development team is the best/most responsive in the world, but there will be some inevitable iteration to reach maturity.
||Completely proven: released on October 2005, numerous deployment churning out many documents worldwide. Based on the ubiquitous InDesign engine.
|Integration with the Creative Suite
||It is a one-way street into FXG from the CS application (InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop) in which you author your templates. There are some document features that won’t make it into FXG with fidelity, and there is no lossless round-trip back to the CS format: Illustrator imports straight FXG, with some caveats and without the S7 namespace features. Once it is in Scene7, you would generally work in Scene7 for all edits and post-processing, unless you want the ugly prospect of opening up a PDF in Illustrator or the limited straight FXG import happens to meet your needs.
||Complete round-trip with InDesign desktop. Integration with other CS tools works well in terms of referenced .ai or .psd assets, but unfortunately there is no Illustrator or Photoshop server with which to accomplish robust online edits to these assets.
||“Just enough” print features, this is likely to extend as it is used in real world situations. CMYK color, PDF job options, trim and bleed settings, are all available, yet there are still some limits.
||All of the robust print-centric features of InDesign.
||Basic Web-to-print sample available with the Solution Accelerator SDK/Sample application: most true implementations will still require extensive development. The system is flexible and open, Scene7 chose not to prescribe much as it will be used for diverse workflows/document types.
||No real example full solution: samples such as the Distributed Copy Editor have some full-scope Web-to-print implications but are outliers compared to typical web-to-print scenarios. Emphasis in the samples is on the server side of things.
|Core rendition approach
||Scene7 expects you to know in advance the structure of pages and blocks on those pages: automation is accomplished via passing FXG to the server describing a complete graphics tree for each page
||InDesign Server offers complete control over the rendition, passing a script to the server which can include scripts that deal with pagination, how things flowed, etc.
We can also look at the areas where Adobe Scene7 is ideal, or where InDesign Server is ideal. Constraints such as availability to host yourself vs. availability in a SaaS model may eliminate one or the other off the bat.
- Scene7 Web-to-print is typically the best option when:
- You want a scalable SaaS solution
- Speed of server-generated preview is essential to a Web application
- You want to leverage the single FXG XML standard for Web and print documents (and have developers/applications available to do this with)
- Your application would benefit from integration with the other features of the Scene7 platform
assuming that your document types are relatively small and straightforward, i.e. business cards, stationary, signage, brochures, multi-page documents in the low page-count range or where the design is not flow-intensive.
- InDesign Server is typically the best option when:
- You want to host the solution yourself
- Speed of server-generated preview is not essential to a Web application, i.e. you can work around limits with Flash-based editing offering most or all of proof rendition
- You are using the most advanced features of InDesign or InDesign automation and need these fully editable in a Web UI
- Your workflow requires direct work with the source documents subsequent to the online editing session
Those are the strong indicators that would push it one way or another, although there are requirements driven by workflow/UI and or document characteristics that can push it one way or another.
I will try to keep this updated, please provide feedback based on your experience, or questions that might help make this more clear. In general, both tools are very powerful, and there is something like a 70% overlap, whereby in 70% of the Web-to-print solutions we’ve encountered, either one would work, so it is likely we will work with both for the foreseeable future. Our Silicon Designer product is built to run with either Scene7 Web-to-print or InDesign Server (optionally with XMPie on top of it), and we are planning to continue to support this.
Silicon Designer works with both InDesign Server and Scene7 Web-to-print
One thing to contemplate that also keeps coming up in our work: could they be combined? Yes, they definitely could… this will inevitably happen for some large organizations, but a formal connection is not currently on Adobe’s roadmap as far as we can tell. We would like to see InDesign Server offered as a SaaS component of Scene7, but have no indication this is in the cards. There is nothing like an obvious combination, you would probably see one or the other at the center of such a combined solution: Scene7 just for previews from FXG, or InDesign Server just for long documents or specific document features, that sort of thing. It really depends on what you want to accomplish. Combining the two will probably be very rare unless/until Adobe offers some appropriate bundled pricing.