Today in Tedium: It’s easy to forget now, but desktop publishing was an immensely innovative thing when it emerged within the computing industry in the early ’80s. While at its heart a mishmash of hardware and software cleverly combined for a single goal, it was an empire builder, one that helped create new businesses and improve the status and positioning of existing ones. And with the decline of print as a medium, it can feel kind of old hat, but lots of stuff still gets typeset every single day. And while we’ve landed on a few standards, a lot of desktop publishing tools failed to make to it the present day. So in a continuation of our list of things that didn’t make it, Today’s Tedium takes a look at 10 early examples of desktop publishing software that you probably don’t remember desktop publishing was a killer app nearly 40 years ago and you were in diapers back then … if you existed at all. (Oh yeah, quick reminder of what makes things obscure, from our point of view.) — Ernie @ Tedium
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1. Xerox Alto
Platform: Groundbreaking-but-failed computer platform that inspired the GUI-based world in which we live
Target audience: Theoretical
This one is likely going to be controversial with someone, which I fully admit is true. It is controversial. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong.
Looking at the Xerox Alto, the computer that inspired Apple to create the Macintosh, as a machine that could be used to lay out and publish things might to some degree fudge the “desktop publishing” definition for some, but the case for it is pretty strong. First, one only has to point to Xerox’s legacy in copiers and printers as being compatible with the needs of a publisher.
Additionally, computer historians who have researched this stuff in-depth, such as Ken Shirriff, have convincingly made the argument that the Alto represented a desktop publishing platform before desktop publishing was given that name, citing the fact that the handbook for the computer was actually laid out using the computer, the Alto’s typography capabilities, and that the publishing tools were commercialized, albeit poorly.
“The Macintosh owes everything from the WYSIWYG editor and spline-based fonts to the bitmapped display and laser printer to the Xerox Alto,” Shirriff wrote on his blog in 2017. “Of course, Steve Jobs deserves great credit for making desktop publishing common and affordable with the Macintosh and the LaserWriter, something Xerox failed to do with the Xerox Star, an expensive ($75,000) system that commercialized the Alto’s technology.”
If it’s good enough an argument for Ken Shirriff, it’s good enough for me.
2. The Book Machine
Platform: Dedicated machine based on Sirius microcomputer
Target audience: Professional
One of the earliest examples of a computer built around typesetting, this machine, produced by Prefis, could capably set type on a page at sizes between 6 points and 48 points, in a variety of forms—including paragraph and headline sizes. It produced disks capable of managing phototypesetting tools without needing any additional steps, meaning its use case was working with existing phototypesetting technology rather than its own separate thing like many DTP tools of the era were.
It was ambitious, but you very much paid for that ambition. At the time, it went for £5,980, roughly $8,000 based on exchange rates of the time—and £17,363 today ($19,129). Not cheap, especially for a machine dedicated to typesetting.
In a 1984 piece in the FID News Bulletin, the outlet tried to make sense of who the audience might be for such a tool, and came up with this:
So who will use the Book Machine? It is after all a do-it-yourself composition system and most authors restrict their role to writing and leave composition to printers. The answer Prefis believes is that there are many authors of technical and educational material who would prefer to format and arrange their own material.
This turned out to be correct! But they didn’t use the Book Machine, a non-WYSIWYG desktop publishing tool, to do it.
Target audience: Professional
Released just before the far-better-known PageMaker, this early tool was one of the first software-based desktop publishing tools for the Mac, being released a year before PageMaker and anticipating the interest in such a technology on the market. While nowhere near as polished as many later tools, it nonetheless pointed the direction in which the Mac software market would go.
The man who developed this groundbreaking tool, Bob Doyle, is arguably as notable as the desktop publishing software he developed. An astrophysicist-turned-inventor, he had a bit of a track record for being ahead of the curve on things, based on his Information Philosopher website. Even before signing up to become a MacOS developer, the onetime NASA employee had helped to develop a successful business around a tool that added sound to Super 8 film, then was responsible for developing the popular electronic handheld game Merlin, then developed a miniature terminal. He later went on to build a reputation as a digital video expert and took part in developing some of the earliest podcasts.
Yet this man doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.
4. Aldus PageMaker
Platform: MacOS, IBM PC, Windows, OS/2
Target audience: Professional
PageMaker, of course, is not some obscure failure on this list. It was in many ways the first real desktop publishing application that many professionals worked on, becoming a hugely popular high-end publishing tool, the one that ended up defining the industry. If PageMaker did not exist, the Mac might not have had the killer app that allowed it to become a success. That it “didn’t make it” simply reflects the fact that it is no longer made.
However, because it was at the top of the mountain, it was a target of competition from players like QuarkXPress, which benefited from newer architectures and could leapfrog past PageMaker from a feature standpoint. (Quark, a desktop publishing behemoth of the ’90s that is still very active today, wanted to buy PageMaker to bury it.) Even an acquisition of Aldus by Adobe in the mid-’90s—an acquisition that made sense because of Aldus’ implementation of Adobe’s PostScript language—couldn’t stem the tide.
The software was allowed to fade out in the mid-2000s, a victim of the move to Mac OS X. Its direct successor, Adobe InDesign, has more than made up the ground that PageMaker lost in the mid-’90s.
5. The Newsroom
Platform: Apple II, IBM PC
Target audience: Educational/consumer
If the name of this application makes you think of the Aaron Sorkin show, apologies. I promise you, it’s unrelated.
This early application, akin to The Print Shop (a tool that, despite waning influence, is not on this list because it is still actively sold), made it possible to inexpensively make printable newspapers that you could then share with your friends—the ultimate ’80s thing to do with a computer.
While promoted with newsroom imagery, the tool was truly designed for kids.
The tool was published by Springboard Software, a company that had a very Brøderbund-like approach to the software it produced.
6. Clickart Personal Publisher
Platform: DOS, Windows
Target audience: Prosumer
This application lived a lot of lives under a lot of names, but the very first of those names was Clickart Personal Publisher. As WinWorldPC notes, the software was later resold under the names PFS:First Publisher and Easy Working Desktop Publisher.
As implied by the numerous rebrands, the software wasn’t exactly successful, but it did draw attention for being one of the first PC-centric applications built for desktop publishing.
As an InfoWorld review noted:
For $185, Clickart Personal Publisher gives you the tools to enhance text and electronically paste graphics in a screen environment that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Macintosh. You see your document on your color or Hercules-compatible system exactly as it will be printed on a dot-matrix printer, or with optional additional software, on a laser printer.
This may not be the first publishing system on the IBM PC, but it’s the first true page layout program in this price range. We were impressed and surprised. It’s sold as a modest newsletter maker, eats up memory and processing power with a hearty appetite, and is clearly intended for light-duty work, but it does an amazingly good job on many levels.
(One downside, the InfoWorld review notes, is that the driver for laser printers, a key element of desktop publishing in its day, is sold separately.)
Platform: Commodore 64, Apple II
Era: Late ’80s
Target audience: Prosumer
This desktop publishing application, an extension of the popular GEOS operating system for the C64 and Apple II, was a fairly robust desktop publishing tool for tis time, especially given its focus on lower-end 8-bit platforms. It is not quite to the level of PageMaker, of course, but it nonetheless was far more sophisticated than you would otherwise be able to get from machines of this vintage, meaning that it extended the lives of these systems beyond what would have otherwise been possible.
As a letter-writer to the Apple II magazine InCider put it in 1991: “When you consider geoPaint and geoPublish, not to mention the many desk accessories available, GEOS is more powerful than AppleWorks.”
The surprising part: Despite its age, it is technically possible to have it output a PDF if you have access to a more modern machine and know what you’re doing, as this 2017 YouTube clip shows.
8. Ventura Publisher
Platform: DOS, GEM, OS/2, MacOS, Windows
Target audience: Professional
While the desktop publishing revolution was largely happening on the Mac, PC users got many of the benefits of that revolution thanks to Ventura, an application that in some ways was ahead of its time, by utilizing style sheets and XML-style document codes. This approach is used by other desktop publishing programs, such as InDesign, today.
This tool, first developed by a group of former Digital Research employees (as reflected by the fact that the application was compatible with the DR-developed GEM), grew in influence thanks in large part to an affiliation with Xerox, which at one point bought the program after the original producer shut down. In the early ’90s, Ventura found its way into the hands of Corel, which was surging in influence at the time, where it became part of the CorelDRAW suite.
These days, Corel sells its CorelDRAW application as having dedicated page-layout capabilities, making Ventura Publisher, last sold in 2002, redundant.
9. Timeworks Publisher
Platform: IBM PC, Atari TOS, GEM, Microsoft Windows, Acorn Archimedes, MacOS, Apple II
Target audience: Prosumer
Released soon after Ventura Publisher and priced significantly less, this early entrant into the PC world also crossed the streams more aggressively than some other platforms, appearing on Atari- and Acorn-based machines. It did have a Mac version—even if, like Ventura, its claim to fame was that it was a good option for people who didn’t own Macs. (Like Ventura, however, it was originally built to work with the GEM interface.)
This application was sold under a variety of names, with the most common ones beyond Timeworks Publisher being Publish-It!, DESKpress, and KeyPublisher. (One has to wonder, given the importance of cross-compatibility in the publishing sector, if this complex naming situation ended up harming it in the market.)
The magazine ST-Log, focused on Atari machines, pointed at Timeworks’ struggles with kerning (or adjusting the spacing between text) as a reason why it was not truly a professional-grade program:
Kerning—minute adjustments between letters—is another issue where the Publisher is inferior to Ventura. You can kern individual letters but there is no provision for automatic document or paragraph kerning. Even had they simply provided automatic kerning for the 20 most commonly kerned pairs, it would have vastly improved the program. Lack of kerning is most noticeable in Postscript and typesetter output, where fonts carry correct kerning information in their data file. A quick glance through the Publisher’s manual shows that they did not use their own program to create it, because the manual is properly kerned throughout.
This, unfortunately, also drags the Publisher’s output down below the requirements of professional publishing, since no one is likely to engage in the Herculean task of manually kerning a 300-page document, much less a single chapter. And, simply put, professional documents demand kerning.
As any graphic designer will tell you, kerning separates the pretenders from the real deal.
10. Serif PagePlus
Target audience: Prosumer
The British company Serif Europe has done an effective job of rebranding itself in recent years as Adobe’s most ambitious competitor in the graphic design software space, thanks to its popular Affinity line of applications—Designer, Photo, and Publisher. These tools feel very modern and are aimed squarely at “switchers” who don’t like the software-as-a-service approach utilized by Adobe’s Creative Cloud.
But for those who aren’t quite as familiar with Serif as a company, they may not realize that the firm has actually been producing layout software for more than 30 years, with PagePlus being one of the most prominent examples of a Windows-centric page layout program before its retirement in favor of Affinity Publisher. As a 1993 review of the tool in Compute! noted, PagePlus punched well above its weight class despite being priced as a budget option.
“Some other low-end page-layout packages don’t support style sheets, and creating long documents with their many different text formats is entirely too much work. Some high-end DTP programs. such as Ventura Publisher and Frame Maker, have style sheets, but you need a lot of perseverance and tenacity to define and use their style sheets,” the review stated. “PagePlus 2.0 simplifies the process by doing away with a zillion options most people don’t use.”
In that spirit, it’s nice to see that a company that was building a good but perhaps unsung tool is getting its flowers in the modern day.
Of course, as anyone who has ever worked primarily in CMYK or had to deal with press runs will tell you, publishing technology can get extremely silly and specific over time.
Proprietary tools may end up being used in some places not because they were the best at doing page layout, but because they could handle the whole newsroom. Many a designer in the newspaper industry could tell you about the horror stories of CCI Layout Champ, a tool designed for print layout that went basically unused outside of large newspapers. The reason these tools were used was because they represented one part of an end-to-end solution, something that could handle literally hundreds of stories on a daily basis.
These were not tools built for the kind of expression that a good page layout tool is capable of. They were built to manage to processes of large companies—which meant organizational flexibility topped creative desire.
Newsrooms had to use tools that matched their ambitions, even when those tools felt clunky or even kludgy. And I’m sure a lot of other ultra-clunky desktop publishing applications targeted at narrow businesses and priced accordingly are not on this list but probably could be if I had more room. (To say nothing of the more technical publishing tools out there, like the open-source LaTeX system and the active-but-somewhat-sleepy Adobe FrameMaker.)
But I do think that the arc that we have here really shows just how quickly desktop publishing came to dominate the way we work, as well as how quickly the winners were decided.
It wasn’t a given we’d all we using InDesign to lay out recipe books or that Quark would somehow hold on despite upsetting Apple, but it makes sense that everything shook out the way it did relatively quickly.
After all, print shops ain’t got time for your nonstandard documents.
Feel like you just learned an absurd amount of things about the history of desktop publishing? Sorry about that, better tell someone else so you can talk about it with them. (Seriously though, thanks for reading.)
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