A brief history of DTP

Aldus PageMaker was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and just in time too, because without any “killer application” the Mac faced market extinction. With the Mac-based PageMaker outputting to PostScript-based LaserWriters and Linotronics, the advantages of DTP became so compelling that it sparked a revolution. Before DTP, to produce, say, a newsletter, you’d need a skilled compositor to key in the text and formatting codes on an expensive typesetting system that output long strips or galleys of formatted text. These would then be cut into blocks with a scalpel and pasted onto layout grids, along with the pictures that had to be resized and screened with a special process camera. With PageMaker, you took word-processed text and scanned images and recreated this manual paste-up process on the screen, interactively dragging and resizing blocks of text and graphics with the mouse. It was easier, more efficient, more flexible, more creative – and much cheaper.

A brief history of DTP

Thanks to Pagemaker, DTP became strongly associated with the Mac, but in fact PostScript’s platform independence meant that any other GUI-based system, such as the Atari or Amiga, was equally capable. The real prize was the volume market of IBM PC users and, in late 1985, Microsoft provided a potential DTP platform by grafting its graphical Windows interface over the top of its character-based MS-DOS. Versions 1 and 2 looked pitiful and the experiment seemed doomed, but fatefully Aldus chose an embedded version of Windows as the platform to port PageMaker to the PC in 1987. That one major application gave Windows the impetus it needed to survive and eventually conquer the world. So, having already saved the Mac, now PageMaker saved Windows.

However, at the time, there were alternative GUIs for the PC, the most successful being GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) – designed by more PARC alumni, led by Lee Jay Lorenzen. In 1986, Lorenzen joined Don Heiskel and the visionary John Meyer to create Ventura Publisher, a rival to PageMaker that ran on an embedded version of GEM. In 1987, PageMaker faced competition on the Mac itself from Tim Gill’s QuarkXPress, and by the late 1980s all three of the pioneering DTP giants were fighting for dominance.

So which one was the most powerful? Surprisingly, the answer has to be the least-known – Ventura Publisher – and by quite some way. Where PageMaker employed freeform text blocks, Ventura was built around “frames” – one for the underlying page into which text flowed automatically, and more for overlaying and embedding text and graphics. More powerful still was its separation of style from content, using tagged text files and a stylesheet that came together to produce the final layout, enabling extraordinary publishing efficiency. Back in the late 1980s, I could take a dBase II print output file, run it through the character-based word processor PC Write to automatically add tabs, tags and box characters, then simply load it into Ventura as ready-formatted, multipage, vertically justified, tabulated, ready-to-print pricelists. Doing the same with either of today’s market leaders would be a nightmare.

Unfortunately, Ventura Publisher was too far ahead of its time – nowadays, XML and CSS fully exploit the benefit of separating style from content, but back then many people found it more trouble than it was worth, making file housekeeping and formatting unnecessarily complex. Having to create a new tag to apply to a single paragraph was particularly irksome. The real problem, though, was Ventura’s reliance on GEM, which Xerox recognised when it took over development in 1990 and rewrote version 3 for Windows, Mac and OS/2. Initial interest was feverish, but the code was buggy and offered little immediate benefit to entice existing users away from GEM, so sales collapsed, never to fully recover. In late 1993, Corel (originally a Ventura solutions provider) bought the program, but Ventura’s market share continued to fall. The latest release of Corel Ventura Publisher 10 shipped in 2002 and still offers extraordinary power, but further releases look doubtful.

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