History of DTP
Tom Arah looks at the surprising history of professional desktop publishing and the current state of play.
The generally-accepted wisdom is that desktop publishing (DTP) was invented by Steve Jobs and Apple with the launch of the Apple Mac in 1984. It’s certainly true that the Mac’s Graphical User Interface (GUI) enabled bitmapped fonts, images and layouts to be both viewed onscreen and printed – a whole new world compared to character-based PC systems.
However the received wisdom is wrong on at least two counts. To begin with, the real credit for the WIMP (Windows Icon Menus Pointer) interface and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) computing belongs to earlier pioneers such as Doug Engelbart who invented the mouse and especially to the researchers working on the extraordinary Xerox Alto and Xerox Star systems at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) during the 1970s. Apple’s genius was to take these ideas mainstream and to use them to create a user-friendly personal computer.
1984’s Apple Mac broke the mould of computing and made DTP possible
At launch the Mac was certainly friendly but it was by no means a platform for serious DTP. Yes, using MacWrite you could mix graphics and text and see fonts onscreen much as they would print but the choice of faces was limited to just nine bitmapped fonts at six different point sizes and in five different styles (including typographically dreadful outline and shadow options). More importantly, anyone using the low resolution 72-dpi dot matrix ImageWriter would hardly have thought that the existing publishing industry was about to be revolutionized. In fact a PC connected to a daisywheel printer produced far more professional results!
What enabled the Apple Mac to transform itself from expensive executive toy into publishing power house was the launch of Adobe PostScript in 1985. Adobe was set up by John Warnock and Chuck Geschke two developers from Xerox PARC and PostScript was their rewrite of the InterPress project that they had worked on. PostScript was a Page Description Language (PDL) that described the layout of each page and the actual fonts used programmatically in terms of vectors. Crucially this meant that any application on any platform could output a PostScript print file that could then be sent to any supporting device so providing instant platform-, software-, device- and resolution-independence.
PostScript code – unglamorous but essential
However running PostScript was no easy task and originally only looked viable in the context of dedicated hardware running advanced and expensive imagesetters such as the Linotronic 100 and 300 – it certainly wasn’t possible on the original Mac. However over a fateful health food breakfast Steve Jobs persuaded Geschke and Warnock to license the technology to Apple for use as the controller in its new laser printer - another device first invented at Xerox PARC. The resulting Apple LaserWriter, also launched in 1985, with its 12 MHz processor, 512KB of RAM and 1 MB framebuffer was a far more powerful system than the Mac itself and ultimately even more significant.
It was the Apple LaserWriter that brought PostScript into the mainstream and so made professional DTP possible. It offered three huge advances. By providing scalable fonts that could be used at any size and enabling other Type 1 fonts to be added it liberated the potential of computer-based design. At the same time the leap to 300 dpi ensured that local output quality was no longer embarrassing and was even good enough for low volume, low budget work. Most important, the LaserWriter’s PostScript underpinning meant that exactly the same layout could be proofed at 300dpi and then imageset at, say, 1250dpi or 2540dpi for high quality, high volume commercial print.
All that was needed now was an application to unleash PostScript’s full potential. The solution also arrived in 1985 from a small company called Aldus Corporation run by Paul Brainerd. Brainerd came from a newspaper background and fully appreciated the potential of “desktop publishing” – a phrase he came up with to describe computer-based setting and layout. Originally however the Aldus business plan focused on providing a relatively expensive newspaper production system costing $500,000. It was Steve Jobs again who evangelized the possibilities and market potential of what he called “democratic publishing” and persuaded Brainerd to broaden the appeal and to lower the price of its PageMaker application – though Brainerd eventually compromised on $495 rather than the $99 that Jobs was pitching for.
With Aldus PageMaker the last part of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place -and just in time too as, without a killer application, sales of the Mac were suffering and the system was facing likely oblivion. With the Mac-based PageMaker outputting to PostScript-based LaserWriters and Linotronics the advantages of DTP were so compelling that the DTP revolution exploded into life. Previously to produce, say, a newsletter you would have needed a skilled operator to key in all text and the necessary formatting codes on an expensive typesetting system that would then output long strips or galleys of formatted text. These would then be manually cut into blocks and pasted onto layout grids along with graphics that had to be scaled and screened using a special process camera. Now using PageMaker you could take your word processed text and computer-based images and recreate the manual paste-up process onscreen, interactively dragging and resizing galley-style text blocks and graphics. It was infinitely easier, more efficient, more flexible, more creative and cheaper.
PageMaker recreated traditional paste-up onscreen
From its origins DTP became strongly associated with the Mac but in fact the platform-independence of PostScript meant that other GUI-based systems such as the Atari and Amiga were equally capable of running DTP applications. The real prize was the mass market that the IBM PC represented. All that was required was a GUI and, in a shameless copy of Mac OS, in late 1985 Microsoft grafted on its graphical Windows-based interface to its character-based MS-DOS. Version 1.0 and 2.0 were pretty pitiful affairs and the experiment looked doomed to die but, fatefully, Aldus chose an embedded version of Windows as the platform to which it ported PageMaker in 1987. And with a major application Windows got the impetus it needed to survive and eventually thrive. In other words, having saved the Mac, PageMaker now saved Windows!
But PageMaker certainly didn’t have things all its own way. Before Windows became all-conquering, other developers were working on alternative GUIs for the PC of which the most successful was the GEM (Graphical Environment Manager) interface designed by a team led by Lee Jay Lorenzen who brought his GUI experience from Xerox PARC to Digital Research Inc (DRI). Soon afterwards Lorenzen and two other DRI developers, Don Heiskel and the visionary John Meyer, broke away and in 1986 launched Ventura Publisher a DTP application which ran on an embedded version of GEM. And PageMaker soon faced further competition back on the Mac. In 1987 Tim Gill, who had set up Quark Inc with $2000 from his parents, used the experience he had gained working on the Juggler word processor for the Apple II to launch a new DTP application, QuarkXPress.
By the late 1980s each of the three pioneering DTP giants was in place and fighting for dominance. So which was the most powerful? Surprisingly the answer has to be the least well-known: Ventura Publisher - and by quite some distance. Where PageMaker was built on freeform text blocks, Ventura was built on the concept of frames – one for the underlying page into which text flowed automatically and others for overlying and embedded text and graphics. Even more powerful was the separation of style and content with tagged word processed files and style sheet brought together to produce the final publication. The result was extraordinary publishing efficiency. Back in the late 80s I remember taking a dBase print-to-file output, running it through the character-based PC Write to automatically add tabs, tags and box characters then simply loading the results into the GEM-based Ventura as ready-formatted, multi-page, vertically justified, tabulated, ready-to-print pricelists. Trying to do the same with either of today’s market leaders would be a nightmare.
Ventura’s frame and tag-based architecture made it
well suited for longer documents
Unfortunately Ventura Publisher was ahead of its time. Whereas in these days of XML and CSS the benefits of separating style and content are fully appreciated, at the time it often seemed more trouble than it was worth, making file keeping and formatting unnecessarily complex – the need to create a new tag to apply to a single paragraph was particularly irksome. The real problem though was Ventura’s reliance on GEM. When Xerox took over development in 1990 it recognized the problem and version 3.0 was rewritten for Windows, Mac and even OS/2. Initial interest was feverish but the code was buggy and with no immediate benefit to entice existing users to shift from GEM, sales collapsed. The program never fully recovered and in late 1993 Corel, which had started life as a Ventura solutions provider, bought up the application. Corel re-engineered the program from scratch as a 32-bit Windows application but the process was less than smooth and market share continued to fall. The latest release Corel Ventura Publisher 10 was shipped in 2002 and still offers extraordinary power but another release is looking increasingly doubtful.
With Ventura suffering, PageMaker began cleaning up on the PC and as the only cross-platform DTP application its sales boomed – rising from $12 million in Aldus’ first year of operation to $100 million in its fifth. However all was not as rosy as it appeared. PageMaker’s hands-on, page-based approach was attractively simple and familiar, but it wasn’t well-suited to high-end and regular publishing where efficiency was key. It wasn’t just the underlying metaphor, the code itself proved difficult to update and the program came to seem increasingly old-fashioned. In 1993 the company posted quarterly losses and in 1994 Brainerd sold Aldus to Adobe. This gave Adobe a foothold in the world of DTP application software and PageMaker another lease of life, but the writing was on the wall. After an unhappy attempt to graft on frame-based handling, Adobe PageMaker was forced to reposition itself as a business publisher intended for occasional office users rather than professional designers. The most recent release was 2001’s PageMaker 7 and another is looking increasingly unlikely.
Against the odds then the eventual winner of the first DTP war turned out to be the Mac-only, expensive, late arrival QuarkXPress. Curiously it was these apparent drawbacks that proved to be the program’s greatest strengths. While theoretically PostScript was platform-independent, outputting a PostScript PS file to the imagesetter was like working half blind – it was much easier and safer to output directly from the application itself and all outputting bureaux ran on Macs. Moreover, for high end publishers QuarkXPress was reassuringly expensive – publishers simply didn’t want their multi-million pound operations to be built on $99 or even $495 software. Most importantly, with its comparatively late start, QuarkXPress was able to learn from both Ventura and PageMaker to provide reasonable frame-based rigour and efficiency with acceptable hands-on flexibility – the perfect fit for regular publications working to deadline.
QuarkXPress offered efficiency and creative flexibility
Ultimately what really made the difference was that QuarkXPress was lucky. By the time the company finally got around to producing the by-now essential Windows release with version 3.1 in 1992, Ventura and PageMaker had effectively hit the buffers. QuarkXPress was left as the only serious high-end cross-platform DTP application and became dominant in the same way that Adobe did in the photo editing market with Photoshop. Success breeds success and Quark skills became a must-have for the aspiring designer so cementing Quark’s dominance. And with no real competition, Quark didn’t need to do anything to maintain its position – which is pretty much what the company did, milking Quark 3 with minor and expensive point releases for five full years before 1997’s version 4.
By comparison Adobe was going through a difficult period. With the advent of scalable TrueType font handling in both Mac OS and Windows, the biggest immediate selling point of PostScript printers was lost. Inevitably PostScript licensing revenue fell and Adobe’s 1993 attempt to reinvent the technology as PDF (Portable Document Format) a universal exchange format and centerpiece of the paperless office failed to take-off as planned. To continue benefiting from PostScript, the company desperately needed a DTP application. However, after buying up both PageMaker and the frame-based technical documentation software FrameMaker it found neither a suitable base for further development.
Essentially Quark was creaming off all the PostScript-based earnings that rightfully belonged to Adobe and in 1997 the company rubbed salt in the wounds by launching a surprise bid for its rival. Quark presented its move as a way of merging the market-leading DTP application with its natural partners, Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat, which made a lot of sense on paper. However the real surprise was the anger with which the design community reacted. Enough was enough. Quark had exploited its DTP dominance for too long, no-one wanted it to do the same across the entire roster of professional design software.
In any case it turned out that Quark’s bid was not quite as public-spirited as it had sounded. In fact the main reason for the bid was naked self-interest – Quark wanted to ensure that Adobe divested itself not just of PageMaker but of its secret “K2” project. K2 was the name that had been given to an entirely new DTP application begun by Aldus when the company had realized that PageMaker’s approach and code had no long-term future. With K2 it seemed that QuarkXPress was finally going to meet its match and expectations were extraordinarily high when two years later in August 1999 Adobe’s “Quark-killer” InDesign finally shipped…
So the disappointment was particularly keen. Yes, InDesign 1.0 offered some impressive new features such as in-built PDF export, multi-line composing and optical kerning and advanced core frame-based control complete with the ability to nest frames one within another. However other crucial features such as table editing, footnote handling, multi-chapter books, text-on-a-path and so on were all missing. Most disappointing of all, for a supposed next-generation DTP application, InDesign felt distinctly old-fashioned and strongly reminiscent of PageMaker – hardly surprising considering InDesign’s long gestation and Aldus origins.
After the “Quark killer” hype subsided, the truth was that very few users were tempted to jump ship by InDesign’s first release or by the 1.5 follow-up in early 2001. It looked as if the program might go the way of PageMaker and Ventura, but in January 2002 InDesign 2.0 was launched and it was a revelation. Alongside true cell-based table editing, book handling and XML import and export, InDesign broke entirely new ground in the DTP arena by adding support for transparency. Critically this support didn’t rely on rasterizing to bitmaps but was PostScript-based so that, wherever possible, objects were kept as vectors so ensuring pin-sharp imageset output.
InDesign 2 expanded the potential of PostScript-based page layout
Support for vector-based transparency and for soft-edged alpha channels in imported Photoshop PSD images, enabled InDesign’s users to produce better, more attractive work – which is what the designer’s job is all about. Quark had to respond and it did so within days releasing QuarkXPress 5 - which was truly dreadful! In terms of new print power all that it offered was belated and underpowered layer handling and grid-based tables. Instead the whole release was focused on grafting on sub-shareware standard web design capabilities – an extraordinary misjudgment. And 2003’s version 6 was little better compounding the problems by introducing a new file format capable of holding multiple print and web layouts. It was all unnecessary complication and wasted effort – has anyone ever seen a web publication produced directly with QuarkXPress?
Suddenly the trickle of users jumping ship became a flood and InDesign began outselling QuarkXPress. It seemed as if the second DTP war had been decisively won with Quark effectively ceding the commercial print high ground - especially when Adobe began leveraging its general design expertise by bundling InDesign with Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat as the combined Creative Suite. It began to look inevitable that QuarkXPress would go the way of Ventura and PageMaker - but surprisingly that’s not been the case. Quark’s continued survival was originally due to the huge inertia of publishing institutions reluctant to change their workflows, but this only provided a period of grace. To have any long-term future Quark needed to change radically – and that’s exactly what it has done.
The first sign of this was 2004’s QuarkXPress 6.5 which, with its inbuilt picture retouching effects, finally added some new print-oriented design power that all users would benefit from and, even better, which InDesign lacked. Moreover the release was provided as a free upgrade for Quark’s longsuffering users. Much more significant was the recent launch of version 7 which was everything that most users had once hoped for. In particular it finally saw QuarkXPress catch up with InDesign in terms of core transparency support so ensuring that both applications are again competing on a level playing field in terms of end results. And with new features, such as the ability for multiple users to work on the same project simultaneously, and a more streamlined interface that highlights InDesign’s palette-based bloat, QuarkXPress 7 can even claim to offer a more productive working environment, especially for its core market of regular publishing workgroups.
With Quark successfully refocused both on high-end print and its customers’ needs there’s even a reasonable chance that in future releases it will again pull ahead of InDesign. After all, while Quark now recognises that its survival depends entirely on providing the most productive professional DTP application, Adobe has other battles to fight - absorbing its recently-acquired web-based Macromedia applications while defending itself against the imminent Expression and XPS-based challenges from Microsoft. For the moment though the DTP crown still rests with InDesign which is perhaps fitting considering the crucial roles that Adobe and Aldus played in the birth of DTP. Somehow though I can’t help feeling that there are more twists and turns ahead.
PostScript: The Apple Mac and Apple LaserWriter popularised the idea of wysiwyg computing, but they hid a core mismatch – while PostScript’s print output was built on vectors, QuickDraw‘s screen display was fundamentally raster-based. When forced out of Apple in 1985 Steve Jobs sought to close the circle by working with Adobe to produce Display PostScript for his next-generation NeXT computer, but it was too ahead of its time to prosper. Twenty years later it looks as if both Apple and Microsoft have now got the message, and truly vector-based, resolution-independent GUIs are finally set to go mainstream.
Tom Arah is the webmaster of designer-info.com. He has been a professional designer working with computer software since 1987. He also offers training and consultancy and since 1997 has been the contributing editor covering design issues for PC Pro, the UK's biggest-selling (and best) computer monthly.