Just when it appeared that Adobe had the DTP market back in its hands with InDesign, the XPress maker is looking surprisingly fighting fit.

It seemed as though another once-mighty tech titan was bloodied and pinned against the ropes, taking body blows and head punches. As it had itself given a sound beating to former DTP champ Adobe PageMaker, QuarkXPress was now about to hit the canvas in inglorious defeat.

In the face of the rapid take-up of Adobe’s excellent InDesign page-layout application, Quark had done little to resist. Indeed, its policy appeared to be to drive its customers into Adobe’s arms. For years, while InDesign struggled to reach a professional level of usability, Quark refused to add much-needed modern functionality to XPress, charged too much for upgrades, pooh-poohed Mac OS X, applied draconian installation limitations, and offered diabolical customer service.

Worst of all, the company continually refused to listen to my pleas to reduce the size of the screen-obscuring Tabs palette – which included a football-pitch-sized amount of blank, useless, infuriating, constantly-having-to-shift, get-out-the-way, can’t-see-what-I’m-doing, dead, empty space.

But since the appointment of new company CEO Kamar Aulakh, Quark has made a series of rapid strategy shifts, such as reintroducing its QuarkAlliance program, offering heavily discounted education pricing schemes, and relaxing usage rights. Suddenly, Adobe looked like the industry monolith.

And now Quark has announced a significant free update. QuarkXPress 6.5, which is to be available as a free (yes, free!) upgrade to registered users, offers a host of new features, including QuarkVista’s non-destructive image-manipulation features – that Quark cheekily states means you can “forget about expensive image-editing software”.

Version 6.5 lets users import native Photoshop (PSD) files into XPress, with complete control of the original image layers. XPress can optimize images for output by applying scale, crop, angle and skew transformations, and can perform graphic file-format and colour-space conversions as well.

InDesign is the more able product for many design studios and creative agencies, but the majority of DTP is still carried out in often-ancient versions of XPress. The company tells me that it still has many registered users plugging away in XPress 3.1, which I remember using when Billy Ray Cyrus and Michael Bolton ruled the airwaves. Some fools may even be using versions between 4.0 and 4.1.1 – software so buggy that David Attenborough has nearly finished his exhaustive 16-part documentary on it.

Quark has held onto marketshare not because of progressive customer-focused policies or even XPress 6. InDesign is pulling in new users at a rapid rate, but if a huge chunk of XPress users won’t even upgrade to versions 4, 5 and 6 what are the chances that they’ll jump ship to completely different software?

User fears of re-training, hardware updating, and losing control of massive archives of XPress-generated jobs has kept Quark alive for the past few years. But if the company makes good on its promises for a much-improved QuarkXPress 7 next year, the battle for ever-more functional, sophisticated and simple-to-use DTP software will benefit us all.