Adobe + Em

Welcome, Adobe folks!

Most of these videos are best viewed in full-screen mode on a large monitor for readability.

Em history/overview

WordsFlow overview

(This is really just an overview and an installation walk-through, not a complete intro. That’s done by the “in action” and “walk-through” videos below.)

WordsFlow in action

WordsFlow walk-through

WordsFlow addenda

Here are some important points not covered elsewhere.

External authors/editors don’t have to know anything has changed on the InDesign side, nor do they have to change their workflow or their software setups in any way. WordsFlow is completely invisible to them, except that all of a sudden they can remain “live” in the production process. This is a major advantage, in that adding WordsFlow to the production process is frictionless.

For cloud connectivity, WordsFlow is implemented in a general fashion to work with input streams, and thus fully supports Silicon Connector from Silicon Publishing, so it can work with files in the cloud already for many different DAMs (currently one-way; we’re discussing how to push changes back to the DAM). See Max Dunn from Silicon Publishing wax poetic about the WordsFlow/Silicon Connector combination.

WordsFlow futures

We’re about 75% done with our own Word importer to both fix bugs (e.g., all changes must be accepted if want to avoid crashing risk on import with current Word importer) and add enhancements (e.g., turn Word change tracking into InDesign change tracking, support anchored groups properly).

If we were working with Adobe more closely, we could certainly help track down and fix current Word importer bugs.

Although WordsFlow as-is seems to cover about 90-95% of what people want to do, we do have a list of major and minor improvements planned which we could outline here, if that would be interesting.

Merge engine “pitch”

Em’s merge/update engine, used by both WordsFlow and DocsFlow, is a highly sophisticated piece of software, employing real technology breakthroughs. I don’t think anything this ambitious and effective has ever been attempted, and I’ve been around the electronic publishing world since 1975.

You can see how the merge engine works in a variety of situations in the “WordsFlow walk-through” video above.

One thing that may not be emphasized enough in the walk-through is that the merge engine can handle content edits within moved blocks. That’s one of the breakthroughs that made merges reliable, and it will work arbitrarily deep as long as the content can be matched up properly. For instance, imagine a word within a sentence within a paragraph within a chapter within a book. If the word is changed, that change is retained regardless of the movement of the sentence and paragraph and chapter. (E.g., the chapter moved in Word, the paragraph moved in InDesign, the sentence moved in Word, and the word changed in InDesign.)

The engine’s author, John Whitney, has been working with 3-way update/merge for years, starting with a popular open-source diff-merge library he developed as a teenager. He is without a doubt one of a handful of the world’s experts on the challenges of, and solutions for, 3-way diff/merges.

We have a huge test suite for imports, exports, and merges, which means that we can make changes and improvements with confidence.

WordsFlow “pitch”

WordsFlow’s “live links” would be a killer feature for InDesign: in terms of improving the day-to-day work lives of the great majority of InDesign users, they could be easily one of the most impactful features added since InDesign was released.

Even with this power, WordsFlow has a disarmingly simple user interface. It could even be reduced to a “live link” checkbox in the standard File > Place… dialog (enabled for appropriate file types), and that would be the only user-visible change, other than the two-way export/update menu items.

WordsFlow has been battle-hardened over past 5+ years, with many man-years invested in development and real-world honing, based on thousands of users worldwide. You can see the history of bug fixes and improvements over the years at this link, and how the product has developed based on feedback: WordsFlow release history.

Even with several thousand users world-wide, we get very few support requests these years, and the majority of those are newbie InDesign issues or standard Word issues (e.g., style-mapping, or default-font-on-export). Going back over two months of customer support tickets in early January 2018, the only real issue that’s come up is endnote support in CC 2018, which we’re working on.

So, in some sense, we’ve done all the groundwork to make this a rock-solid, simple-to-use major product feature for InDesign.

DocsFlow “pitch”

DocsFlow’s live/dynamic links to Google Docs documents and spreadsheets would be another killer feature for InDesign, and is what InDesign really needs to step up its integration with the larger world of the cloud.

Google Docs is pretty much the only game in town these years for shared editing of documents and sheets (we’re not sure why other mainstream solutions like Office Live haven’t really caught on), just like InDesign is really the only option for page layout and production. The marriage of the two is exceedingly powerful, and the value of the combination will only grow as more and more people turn to online shared editing.

Except for Google Suite/Team Drive, Google Docs is zero cost per seat, which makes it doubly attractive to many organizations who are facing the issue of how to connect a distributed workforce into their production processes.

DocsFlow also shares WordsFlow’s very simple UI: a Place from Google Docs… is all that’s required to place and link to a Google Docs document/spreadsheet. From that point on, everything is done with the normal InDesign link management UI. For now, DocsFlow has its own File sub-menu, but if it were integrated into InDesign, it could simply have a Place from Google Docs… alongside the normal Place… in the File menu.

DocsFlow shares its merge engine with WordsFlow, and thus shares the same critical feature: updating dynamic links never loses work on either side (editing and production).

So the two major features together–live links to online Google Docs documents, and 3-way merge on link update so no work is ever lost, allowing production in parallel with editing–are an unbeatable combination.

Introduced a year earlier than WordsFlow, DocsFlow has benefited from 6+ years of real-world development and hardening. Again, you can see the history of bug fixes and improvements over the years at this link, and how the product has developed based on feedback: DocsFlow release history.

With 6 years of product feature and reliability stabilization, the only real issues we see at this point are occasional (every few years) changes to the Google Docs API, for which they always give plenty of warning. We also recently added Team Drive support, which required some small API changes on our side.

One major implementation issue with DocsFlow we had to tackle is the cost of link status updates of potentially dozens or hundreds of links, as driven by InDesign’s normal linking machinery. We developed our own multithreading scheme that efficiently checks remote link status in the background without affecting the foreground UI thread, which has been proven rock-solid at larger user sites.

The other major challenge for a linking system based on remote document status and content is the sheer volume of information potentially exchanged to keep the InDesign side up to date, and to that end we’ve developed some sophisticated caching machinery, along with using Google Doc’s “change notification” APIs, to minimize the communications involved.

Like WordsFlow, we’ve done all the groundwork to make this another rock-solid, simple-to-use major product feature for InDesign.

DocsFlow has also been engineered to make it reasonably straightforward to add new cloud back-ends, like Microsoft Office Live, if the demand ever materializes.

WordsFlow and DocsFlow: a larger whole

The two products together form a synergistic “whole,” sharing a merge engine, and covering both traditional Word/Excel-based workflows as well as more modern cloud-based authoring/editing workflows based on Google Docs and (in the future) other systems.

Both of them enable the kind of “bring the editors and authors into the production cycle early and keep them there” workflow that is capable of speeding up and streamlining the production process.

Em Software “pitch”

As the founder of Em, and a grizzled software industry veteran, I’ve worked with some of the best people in the industry over the past 40 years.

During my high school years, I worked with some of the early PC pioneers (Dan Fylstra in particular, who started VisiCorp, the publisher of the very first successful PC app, VisiCalc), and attended classes with Bill Gates in college (he was a year behind me; I used to tease him in the computer center late at night that this whole “PC thing” was less interesting than all the mainframe power we had available on the very early ARPAnet (pre-Internet) at the time). I helped Dan and Carl Helmers start BYTE Magazine in the mid-70’s. My college roommate was #8 at Microsoft and tried to lure me out there at the time.

After grad school at Columbia, I joined the brand-new Fairchild/Schlumberger Artificial Intelligence Lab, staffed by a Who’s Who of AI researchers at the time, mostly from Stanford (SRI) and Berkeley.

Chuck Geschke, whom I had known as an undergrad (I worked on extending his CMU PhD thesis to Harvard’s research language EL/1) brought me in to an interview for a founding position at Adobe (before he even left Xerox) but I had just started working at Imagen, a Stanford spin-off founded by the protégé of Don Knuth, the grand old man of computer science, and others from Stanford. Doing some networking consulting on the side for Hewlett-Packard, I got to collaborate with Len Bosack, then at Stanford, right before he founded Cisco Systems.

I spent last half of the 1980’s as an early employee at Multiflow, a Yale spin-off building VLIW (very long instruction word) mini-supercomputers, with some of the best architecture and systems people in the world from Yale, Princeton, Carnegie-Mellon, etc., who later went on to populate Intel, DEC, Hewlett-Packard and spread the VLIW technology we had developed.

Since founding Em in January 1990, I’ve spent the last 28 years deeply embedded in the electronic publishing software development world, the first decade primarily with QuarkXPress, and since then with InDesign.

I write all this not to brag or name-drop, but to simply show that, given my background, I’ve had the appropriate experience to judge Em’s engineering team of Chris Roueche (previously a core QuarkXPress developer) and John Whitney (hired right out of college, but already an experienced open-source developer) as some of the most talented developers in the world–each was only brought on board after years of searching for the right person. As a result, the DocsFlow and WordsFlow products represent world-class engineering, and would certainly be stand-out, major additions to the InDesign product.

But of course, dig in, evaluate the products yourselves (we’re here to help any way you like), and judge us by the quality of what we’ve done, rather than taking our word for it.

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