A brief history of DTP

The accepted wisdom is that DTP (desktop publishing) was invented by Steve Jobs with the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, but this is wrong on at least two counts. To begin with, while Mac’s GUI (graphical user interface) permitted bitmapped fonts, pictures and layouts to be viewed on both screen and printer – a world away from character-based PC clones – these twin concepts of WIMP (Windows Icon Menus Pointers) and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) had in fact been pioneered years earlier, most notably by Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse, and by Xerox researchers working on the Alto and Star systems at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970s. Jobs’ genius was to take the ideas mainstream by creating an affordable, user-friendly PC.

A brief history of DTP

More importantly, at its launch, the Mac was by no means a platform for serious DTP. Sure, you could mix graphics and text and see different fonts onscreen, but in just nine bitmapped fonts, six different point sizes and five styles (including those typographical atrocities “outline” and “shadow”). And with output limited to the 72dpi dot matrix ImageWriter printer, it was hard to imagine the first Macs revolutionising the publishing industry – a PC connected to a daisywheel produced far more professional output! What transformed the Mac from an expensive executive toy into a publishing powerhouse was the launch of Adobe’s PostScript in 1985. Created by two ex-PARC programmers, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, PostScript was a page description language that described the layout of each page and the fonts to use programmatically in terms of vectors. This meant that any application on any platform could output a PostScript print file that would print the same way on any supported device: true platform, software, device and resolution independence.

However, PostScript was demanding and was originally intended to run on expensive, dedicated hardware such as the Linotronic 100 and 300 imagesetters – the original Mac just wasn’t up to the job. Fatefully, over a health food breakfast, Jobs persuaded Geschke and Warnock to license the technology to Apple as the controller for its new laser printer (another device invented at Xerox PARC). The result was the LaserWriter, launched in 1985 with its 12MHz CPU, 512KB of RAM and 1MB frame-buffer – a far more powerful computer than the Mac itself and, arguably, more significant too. The Apple LaserWriter took PostScript into the mainstream and made professional DTP possible by offering three huge advances: scalable fonts that could be used at any size; 300dpi resolution local output that was good enough for low volume, low budget work; and, most important, the ability to output exactly the same layout for proofing at 300dpi, then to image-set it at, say, 1,250dpi or 2,540dpi for commercial printing.

All that remained was for some new application to unleash PostScript’s potential. That arrived in 1985 too, from the tiny Aldus Corporation whose owner Paul Brainerd came from a newspaper background and thus grasped the potential of “desktop publishing” (the phrase he coined to describe computerised layout and setting). The original Aldus business plan was for an expensive newspaper production system costing $500,000, and it was Jobs again who evangelised the potential of what he called “democratic publishing” and persuaded Brainerd to broaden the appeal of his PageMaker application by lowering the price – Brainerd eventually compromised on $495 rather than the $99 that Jobs was pitching for.

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