The story of iPaper

My first PC Pro Real World column came out 150 issues ago – grandly entitled The Future of Publishing, it dealt with the differing demands of print and web publishing, and how good design and universal delivery could be reconciled. That column (see remains surprisingly relevant today, because the merger of page and screen is once again at the top of designers’ agenda.

The story of iPaper

Good design for the web was already an issue in 1996, but the designer’s environment back then was very different: dominated by just two print-focused applications, Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress. PageMaker (originally developed by Aldus) had kick-started the DTP revolution ten years previously by using Adobe’s PostScript language to let cheap wysiwyg PCs drive hi-res photosetters, but it was QuarkXPress that fully capitalised on the PostScript revolution by identifying the richest and most important market – publishers of brand-name newspapers and magazines that needed top-quality output to attract advertisers and readers. Quark’s XPress 3.3 totally dominated this sector and, having conquered quality print publishing, the company realised that its customers wanted to move their brands online to start tapping a new global audience.

Quark’s proposed solution was QuarkImmedia, a new technology that consisted of two components. The authoring tool let designers convert print projects into multimedia projects by adding audio, video and interactive buttons and hotspots, and then QuarkImmedia Viewer enabled end users to see the results. At 700KB in size, this viewer could be embedded into the publication, so it could stand alone. For example, PC Pro could let its readers choose between a static, bath-friendly paper version or an interactive screen-based version on the cover disc. While such value-added electronic re-publication is useful, it doesn’t tap all the benefits offered by the web, and what really made QuarkImmedia stand out was online delivery. With built-in IP support, the Viewer was effectively a browser for QuarkImmedia-based sites. It was a heady prospect, as I noted in that first column (“imagine the constantly updated net version of PC Pro!”) and, if successful, Quark looked set to dominate high-end web publishing just as it did print.

Unfortunately, QuarkImmedia was wildly ahead of its time: modems had barely reached the breathtaking speed of 33.3Kbits/sec, making audio or video delivery an unrealistic dream, and its delivery format had a glaring central flaw: to support crisp type and layouts, QuarkImmedia projects were delivered as rasterised bitmaps. This is a terribly inefficient way to deliver text, as the launch of Macromedia’s vector-based Flash would soon demonstrate, and it obstructed the most fundamental web benefit of searchability. As final straws, the file format was proprietary and could only be produced using QuarkImmedia itself, and both tools were Mac-only, with Windows support vaguely promised for the future.

I expected QuarkImmedia to fail, and sure enough never even saw it in action. However, the principle was sound and I thought I knew what would replace it – Adobe’s Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format). PDF provides unbeatable typographic and layout quality, and can be created by any application that can print. Most important, though, Adobe made the cross-platform Reader application available for free, so that it was already approaching ubiquity. PDF was already a near-perfect electronic paper replacement, so all that remained was to make it interactive and internet-friendly, to turn ePaper into iPaper.

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