DTP Today: 1995

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, April 1995

The word 'revolution' gets over used... for everything from a new minivan to a new skirt length. Like other areas of commercial life prone to media hype, the computer industry has not been immune to this tendancy towards over-exaggeration.

Nevertheless, DTP, short for desktop publishing, has been one of a few areas by which personal computers have revolutionized the world of work and play.

Prior to the coming together of the Macintosh, a laser printer, and dtp software in the mid-80s, graphics and design were relegated to high-priced professionals using higher-priced equipment. And personal computing in a business environment meant text mode word processing and spreadsheets.

Aldus Pagemaker version 1 changed all that for ever... (I was going to say 'for good', but the graphics professionals might disagree that anything that has resulted in so many documents using so many fonts can be called 'good').

Suddenly, documents could be produced in-house with camera-ready layout... ready for printing. Or if a lower resolution was okay, simply laser print the original, and send it for photocopying.

And as laser and inkjet printers came home, so did page design. School and church bulletins took a big leap past the PrintShop/dot matrix era of the early 80s (if I see one more blocky teddy bear, I'll scream!)

Like other great democratizing movements, not everything, or even most pages produced could make claims to great design-- but slowly, there;s been an improvement, as amateurs discovered the value of white space, and keeping the number of fonts per page under control.


Today, the DTP revolution has slowed down, moving to a more mature phase. Like many MAC-based areas of computing, there has been a movement to Windows-- in fact, Aldus PageMaker migrated to the Windows environment as early as 1987, making it one of the first power applications on that platform.

Today, the classic heavy-weight Mac applications all have nearly-identical clones that run on Windows PCs... Pagemaker and Quark XPress for page design, PhotoShop, Illustrator, and the like for graphics and photo manipulation. Much of the exciting stuff has moved from the strictly page design programs (like Pagemaker or XPress) to the illustration programs (like Adobe Illustrator) and on to photo manipulation (with Adobe PhotoShop supporting a whole sub-industry of add-ins and hardware enhancements).

In the sub-universe of PhotoShop professionals, the Mac continues to be the platform of choice. Some of this is conservatism-- yes, yesterday's revolutionary is today's standard-bearer. But there are still good reasons for the Mac-centrism. While the main applications are available for Windows, the wide range of add-ons available on the Mac have been much slower to migrate. And Mac hardware and software remains better integrated-- a vital necessity for users who need to hop between programs.

As well, if you need to send your work to a professional service bureau, for high-resolution output (2400 dpi linotype, for example), you'll find PC files treated as second-class citizens at best. Service bureaus still are not used to working with such files, and many, if they work with PCs at all, will have a lone machine abandoned in the cornmer, surrounded by a host of Macs.

With the price of a fully equipped Pentium still a couple of thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped PowerMac, there are pressures towards change, but DTP remains a Mac strength.

In professional circles, a growing focus has been towards colour output. Here standards are still emerging (watch for WIN95 to include Kodak colour-matching built-in, for example). Professional-level software has begun to include the capability to properly trap output for colour separations, while the slow drop in colour laser prices, and fast improvement of low-end colour inkjets have made colour output more possible for more users.

Another area of change has been the strengthening of low-end options for home and small business-- users who have no pretense of being professionals, but need to create attractive documents from time to time. While the high-end has remained dominated by Mac users, the large installed base of Windows machines has attracted vastly improved low-end software.

Two products of note include Microsoft's Publisher (now in version 2.0), and PagePlus, from Serif.

Publisher was the pioneer in Microsoft's Wizard concept-- helpful super-macros that walked a user through the entire design process, resulting in a usable document (or in Publisher's case, paper-airplane or origami swan). The resulting documents are surprisingly usable, considering their automated ancestry.

PagePlus lacks Publisher's Wizards (or its annoying moving van cursors, for that matter). What it succeeds at is bringing most of the features of high end programs (incuding colour support, for example) to home users in a relatively simple-to-learn package, for a deciding low-end cost ($99 US). If you're interested, there's a free limited working version of PagePlus (maximum four page documents) available for a phone call plus about $10 shipping (call 603-889-8650 for more information).

Combining one of these programs with a low-cost laser or colour inkjet, and many users will find that they can produce everything they need, right on the desktop. And using PagePlus's higher end features, gives them lots of room to grow, with the possibility of producing almost professional-quality output.

DTP may no longer be revolutionary-- the next fad may be electronic hypertext publishing (including Internet Web pages). But whether producing a leaflet or two with Publisher, or taking the plunge into the depths of PhotoShop, it remains an area where individuals can build some basic standards of good taste into a career, and do it on their desktop.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan