Publishing OS - NT or not NT?

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Is NT the best publishing platform?

Tom Arah recognises the importance of Adobe Type Manager and explains why he's not making the move to NT just yet.

ATM is an issue under NT

In my last article I looked at the hardware issues involved in upgrading. This month I'm going to concentrate on what was actually a far harder decision; the choice of operating system. For a long time now it's been clear that, for the network user, Windows NT has been the obvious platform offering security, reliability and power. Now with Windows 95 beginning to look its age, Microsoft have started pushing NT Workstation as the high-end option for the standalone user. As a publishing and graphics user working on my own I clearly fall into this category so should I make the move to NT?

In the long term the answer is a clear "yes". Publishing and graphics applications are intrinsically amongst the most demanding so the performance benefits of a truly 32-bit environment can really come into their own. More importantly, in terms of sheer power, NT offers multiple processor support. This has to be the way to go to seriously ramp up speeds while at the same time avoiding instant obsolescence. SMP is also the unbeatable advantage NT offers over the current MacOS making it the potential unified platform of the entire industry.

If NT is the clear option for the future, why not start benefiting from it now? This was certainly my thinking when it came to researching potential set-ups, but I soon came across problems. The only systems being advertised with NT Workstation pre-installed were Pentium Pros. To an extent this made sense as the Pro only shines with NT, but for graphics work the Pro's performance gain is minor compared to that of the dedicated MMX. It was slightly worrying that the push to NT seemed to have pushed a lot of users down an apparent dead-end.

Device Problems

Rather more sceptical about the benefits of being a pioneer, I investigated further. In fact most suppliers were also happy to install NT Workstation on their MMX systems - though obviously at a price. Problems though arose as soon as I began expanding the specification. Determined not to skimp on storage, I was looking for both a JAZ drive and a CD Recorder pre-installed. It turned out that while the JAZ was now supported, the CD-R was far more of a problem.

The HP SureStore was the cheapest CD-R on offer, but I was told that it simply wouldn't run under NT. This completely baffled me. It's clear that the NT market is primarily corporate and what could be more corporate than a CD writer or, for that matter, Hewlett Packard? To my mind, it would make more sense if an HP CD-R didn't support Windows 95 rather than NT. Something must be very wrong when a leading edge user is prevented from using leading edge hardware by the supposedly leading edge operating system.

Eventually I accepted that I would have to pay an extra 100 for a CD-R that could run with NT, but the experience made me look into the NT compatibility of my existing peripherals. This was a nasty shock. My main Postscript printer was fine, but my Epson for colour proofing was not supported and neither was it likely to be in the near future. Even worse it turned out that my existing scanner wouldn't work. I had blithely assumed that the TWAIN interface would mean that a generic NT driver could support all compatible devices. This isn't true at all and the scanners that can be used with NT are actually the exception rather than the rule.

Of course many would say that I should have expected this as NT's lack of support for plug and play is well known. That's true, but "plug" doesn't come into it - these essential devices simply can't "play". After living with Windows 3.1 I'm fairly happy to install drivers and even to set switches but, in these cases, that's not an option. NT just doesn't support a large swathe of the printers and scanners on which the industry is built. In practice this meant that to upgrade to Workstation I would also have to "upgrade" my perfectly good colour printer, scanner and tape backup.

Software Problems

Extra cost is an important factor - very important when it's over 1,000 - but far more fundamental is the issue of compatibility. In terms of hardware there are always alternatives, but in software this just isn't the case. So far I hadn't given this much thought as all the major packages - PageMaker, Photoshop, Corel Draw - have boasted support for some time. I was rather surprised though to find just how many of the packages on my shelves were Windows 95 specific. Some of these, such as Hijaak 95 and FontMonger have been genuinely useful and might be again.

Looking at the programs that had managed to survive on my system was even more worrying. There are a whole range of programs and utilities that I rarely think of, but which I would seriously miss. No doubt many of these would make the transition smoothly, but I would be worried about some, such as my DOS-based accounts package. Others though, such as the ColorDrive utility for handling colour palettes and improving colour matching, simply wouldn't work. Even worse I would finally have to leave behind one of the few programs I use most days - my ancient file manager, Xtree for Windows.

ATM and Font Management

In fact there is only one program that I definitely do use every day and - although I would be completely unable to work without it - it is the last program I remembered to take into account. Adobe Type Manager (ATM) is the crucial utility that works behind the scenes to render the all-important *. pfb Postscript Type 1 typefaces on-screen. Before its arrival - and I remember the days well - type was shown on-screen by bitmapped versions of Times and Helvetica with the final paper output coming as a complete, and often unpleasant, surprise. Of course Microsoft has long since offered its own system for scaling its own TrueType fonts but, for external and therefore Postscript-based output, the *.pfb still reigns supreme and ATM remains essential.

Publishing without ATM then is unthinkable which is why it is crucial that the program should work with NT. It doesn't - or at least not at the time of writing. This really is a crucial point that any serious publisher contemplating the move to NT should know about, but it is a fact that seems to have been deliberately obscured. Even in the Adobe Type Manager 95 manual, for example, no mention is made of NT whatsoever. Instead it is left to the PageMaker 6.5 readme file to break the bad news:

ATM is not currently available for Windows NT 4.0. You can, however, load Type 1 fonts via the Windows NT 4.0 Fonts Control Panel. A TrueType outline is created for screen display and you have the option of using either the TrueType clone for printing, or the original PostScript outline (.pfb). This conversion process is not directly supported by Adobe. If you encounter problems with the TrueType versions of these fonts please contact Microsoft Technical Support for help with the conversion process.

Now it's impossible to tell from this whether the process really is suspect or if it's just Adobe - quite reasonably - trying to protect its interests by casting doubt and passing the buck. The one thing I do know is that until the route from an NT machine with Type 1 fonts through to successful typeset output is proved to be 100% reliable, I don't want to go near it. Even as the system currently stands on Windows 95 systems, there are more than enough potential problems between disk and film. There is no way I want to give the typesetter a built-in "well-it-must-be-your-NT" excuse. Absolutely nobody is better at casting doubt or passing the buck than a typesetter with faulty output.

For the lack of a utility that costs around 30, my supposedly top of the range publishing system could be rendered practically useless. Postscript effectively is the operating system of the publishing industry and I don't want my computer's to be pulling in a completely different direction. I can see why Microsoft would prefer to handle screen matters themselves, but the publishing process must be 100% compatible and consistent all the way from screen to paper. Now suddenly it seems that any move to NT isn't just going to be inconvenient and expensive, it could seriously limit functionality and affect my daily bread-and-butter work. Good grief, at this rate I might be better off with an Apple after all!

The Verdict

For the Office-centred, networked user it's clear that NT's security, reliability and performance gains more than compensate for the pain involved in upgrading, but for the standalone publisher this just isn't the case. The increased security measures are more likely to be an irritation than a benefit on a single system. The improved reliability would certainly be welcome, but it's only on a network that system crashes are likely to be calamitous. Finally the potential performance gains are just not exciting enough with the claimed 20% improvement puny compared to the gains offered by MMX. Pushing NT Workstation as the most advanced operating system for standalone users is as much a con as pushing the Pentium Pro as their ideal processor.

At least it's clear that NT Workstation won't be a dead-end like the Pentium Pro and I'm not giving up on it quite yet. After all, the situation can only get better with the pain lessening and the benefits increasing. The new universal driver model will allow developers to produce a single driver that will work with systems running both Windows NT and 95. Eventually NT 5.0's plug-and-play should finally put the compatibility issue to rest - although no-one seems to be guaranteeing backward compatibility with existing peripherals. At the same time, the advent of the multiple processor Pentium II and Deschutes should finally deliver enough power to make whatever pain is left worthwhile.

Even more importantly from the publishing perspective, there seem to be encouraging signs that Adobe and Microsoft have finally stopped pulling in different directions over NT and are beginning to pull together. The development of a combined PFB/TrueType font format was the first step and, as I write, a press release has just arrived announcing a jointly developed Postscript driver for the operating system. This will prevent the ridiculous situation of competing drivers with different capabilities (see box out) and will offer unparalleled compatibility and reliability with no room for excuses.

This is excellent news for the publisher. It looks like Microsoft has finally appreciated the importance of Adobe's Postscript. Moreover, with the announcement that ATM for NT should be shipping by the time you read this, it looks like Adobe has finally appreciated the importance of Microsoft's NT. Suddenly the future looks a lot brighter. From poor relation, it looks as if NT will truly become what it always should have been - the most advanced platform for publishing.

Until that platform is firmly established, however, I've decided to wait.

Adobe Type Manager Box Out

Professional publishing is built on Type 1 fonts and as such it is built on Adobe Type Manager (ATM). The program is very easy to forget, however, because it is more or less invisible. It quietly loads every time the system starts and seamlessly and painlessly takes care of rendering Type 1 fonts to the screen. If any program is taken for granted, this is it. Adobe clearly felt the same and recently tried to bring it out of the shadows with a Deluxe version 4.0. This adds support for Microsoft's TrueType format and offers new options for viewing and printing sample sheets and for managing font sets. The idea is to move ATM away from behind-the-scenes rendering and to make it the centre of all font control.

Sadly the new features are a bit of a mess. Adobe - as it has shown with other products like Photoshop - is excellent at producing a program's core engine, but constantly lets itself down when it comes to usability. If I'm designing a newsletter, for example, I want to be able to instantly see what the masthead title would look like in a range of faces and to print out my own samples to see how they would work as body copy. In ATM this just isn't possible. There is no on-the-fly font preview so each font has to be opened individually into its own window and the options for customising the single sample sheet are minimal.

At least these controls work, unlike those for managing font sets. By grouping fonts into themed sets - all handwriting style fonts for example - multiple typefaces can theoretically be switched on and off with just a few clicks of the mouse so saving on system resources and simplifying font selection. Creating the sets is certainly simple, but I was bewildered to find that switching them off had absolutely no effect. When the same thing happened to Adobe's support technician I knew it wasn't just my problem. When he tried to sell it as a feature - after all wasn't it better to still be able to access the font! - I knew I was on my own.

The problem stemmed from the fact that I was using the Microsoft Postscript driver that ships with Windows 95. This stores information on all installed Type 1 fonts in the win.ini file. Worse, it stores the entire list of fonts and font metrics for each installed Postscript printer so that my win.ini was getting near its 64k limit. Rather than warning me of this, it seems that ATM just threw up its hands and did nothing. To be fair to Adobe the win.ini size restriction is not of their making, but the fact that they'd never come across this problem shows the limits of their PC-based testing.

The solution is to change your printer driver. You need to install the latest version 4.1.1 of the Postscript printer driver produced by Adobe itself in conjunction with Microsoft. Bizarrely Adobe chose not to include this on the floppy version of ATM, but apparently it is on the CD version and can be found bundled with a number of recent Adobe products such as Photoshop 4.0 and PageMaker 6.5. Alternatively you can download it from the web site. The major advantage it offers is that, since all font information is stored in its own database file, the link with win.ini is broken.

This means that the creation of working font sets should become possible, but I again hit problems. While I could now switch off my Type 1 fonts, all my TrueType fonts remained unaffected. While Type 1 fonts came and went, the full range of TrueType fonts was always there to be chosen so that ATM seemed to be actively encouraging the use of the rival and inferior font format! In the end I decided to call it quits and to forget about font sets completely. At least, thanks to the new Adobe driver and the lifting of the limit on the number of fonts installed, this is no longer such a problem.

To be honest I feel a lot more comfortable with ATM out of the limelight and back in the shadows. ATM is a core part of all professional computer-based publishing work and at all costs it must be rock solid. As such, the pig's ear Adobe made of ATM Deluxe - or at least its PC incarnation - is frankly frightening. After such an effort, I can understand why Microsoft should try to completely bypass ATM through NT's conversion of Type 1 fonts into TrueType equivalents. However, that's not the way to go either. The publishing industry doesn't want a closed monopoly, but neither can it afford the incompatibility and uncertainty inherent in competing standards.

With ATM 4.0 and NT 4.0, Adobe and Microsoft have both tried to go their own way, but have simply ended up showing their limitations. Thankfully it looks like both companies have recognised this and are now pooling their respective skills to work together. This is already clear in the combined printer drivers, but hopefully it will go much further. Type 1 onscreen rendering is too important to leave either to a semi-detached utility or to a conversion patch. In fact I don't think I'm going to feel truly comfortable until Adobe and Microsoft both announce the merger of ATM technology directly into the operating system - preferably simultaneously.

Tom Arah

August 97

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