The Macintosh and Desktop Publishing, Part One
Originally Published: Apr. 17, 2003
We can look at Apple's introduction of the iMac (the Internet Mac) and its digital hub philosophy to see the opportunities that lie ahead. But in 1985, these type of technologies were nothing more than a dream. Apple's prosperity was due in a large part to the Apple II. But how long could the old workhorse keep the company profitable? It was already obsolete. Even though most schools still used it, how long before the cheap clones began to chip away at that market? Many schools wanted the Macintosh but it was still way too expensive.
In 1985, Apple seemed trapped by its own success. The Macintosh was the greatest advancement in home computing since that advent of the microchip but it seemed no one wanted it. John C Dvorak, San Francisco Examiner, remarked on February 19, 1984, "The nature of the personal computer revolution is simply not fully understood by companies like Apple (or anyone else, for that matter). Apple makes the arrogant assumption of thinking that it knows what you want and need. It, unfortunately, leaves the 'why' out of the equation - as in 'why would I want this?'"
That was exactly the problem. Why would anyone pay so much money to purchase a computer with a GUI? What value did it offer over an IBM or Apple II computer, which for a fraction of the cost could perform adequately enough to get the job done? This type of myopic thinking is the same mentality that has fueled the argument that many have made about Windows over Mac OS. But in 1985, few people had enough experience with desktop computers to make this kind of value judgment. There was simply no basis of comparison. Unless Apple could find a new market, which seemed utterly unlikely, it would be squeezed from all sides. Apple could only hope to introduce product upgrades or occasional new products to try and slow the long inevitable decline to oblivion.
Salvation for the Macintosh came from the most unlikely of places. The LaserWriter, Apple's laser printer, had almost not made it to market. Jobs initially hated the idea. It was a masterpiece of design, but at $7000, it seemed unlikely that anyone would pay for a printer that costs twice as much as the computer it serves. But the team pressed on, and the LaserWriter, despite its lofty price tag, sold in increasing numbers. Its closest competition, the wonderful new $30,000 laser printers that served IBM mainframes, could not match it for cost.
The LaserWriter was based on a Canon printer engine and Motorola's 68000 chip. At 12 MHz, the chip was in fact more powerful than the Macintosh's 8 MHz 68000. For all practical purposes, the LaserWriter was a computer in which the display and keyboard had been replaced by a printer mechanism .
The LaserWriter found a home with those that "got" the Macintosh's GUI. If the home market was cold to the idea of the Mac, who was buying it? It turned out to be an interesting group composed primarily of graphics-oriented professionals. The Mac's greatest champions turned out to be the people who needed it most: advertising agencies, designers, publishers, and owner of newsletters. The Macintosh was a different type of computer and the visual world understood it immediately.
But a Mac and a LaserWriter alone wouldn't get anyone very far. The last piece of the salvation puzzle came from software developers. Two of the most influential companies in the industry got their start on the Macintosh platform, a platform in which they helped define.
Paul Brainerd, from Seattle Washington, started Aldus. He was convinced that he could duplicate the most sophisticated forms of publishing on a low-cost personal computer equipped with the new laser printers. He called his idea "desktop publishing." His product, called PageMaker, revolutionized the publishing industry. The Macintosh was everything that Brainerd had dreamed of: a composing room and a printshop all on a personal computer with a laser printer at a total price of only $10,000.
John Warnock, a former Xerox PARC researcher, founded Adobe at first to build high-end printers, then computer workstations, and finally software. Adobe's initial business thrust was to use Warnock's understanding of graphics to generate typefaces on computer screens - type ultimately being just another form of graphics. The result was PostScript, perhaps the most influential software program in computer history.
PostScript enabled computer users to at last escape the world of a single typeface in only a single point size that could only be capitalized and underlined for emphasis. PostScript allowed computer owners to pick from scores of typefaces, adjust character size as needed and switch to italic or bold or shadow at the press of a key.
In its own way, PostScript was just as exciting as PageMaker, and it had many times the potential user base. Like PageMaker, it required a crisp, bit-mapped display and a precise laser printer to really show its stuff. PostScript made the Mac special, not just clever. The marvelous thing about PageMaker and PostScript was that they went together beautifully and in turn, they could only work well on the Macintosh. The combination of desktop publishing and a graphical user interface sent waves of delight and terror, respectively, through the market and the competition.
The Macintosh had found its niche. John C Dvorak's question, "Why would I want this?", now had a clear and compelling answer. The Macintosh of the 1980's was primarily a desktop publishing machine. Its GUI simplified the life of users, but the GUI alone did not make the Mac a viable platform. Apple's clever machine changed the desktop publishing world forever and eventually came into its own as a home computer for the rest of us.