Macs revolutionized desktop publishing

Desktop publishing was the killer app that got me started with Macs.

At every newspaper and magazine where I'd worked dating back to the mid-1970s, the production systems were big, expensive monsters that cost millions. First there was "hot type," so called because it converted molten lead into individual letters. Then there were early "cold type" computers that did away with the lead, but not the cost. Atex was the go-to editorial production system in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was basically a hopped-up DEC VAX, with prices to match. An Israeli startup called Scitex had an interesting system that worked with PCs, but it too cost $1 million and up.

And then came Macs. For a few tens of thousands or less sometimes much less a newspaper or magazine could get a few Macs and a new software package called QuarkXPress. This was revolutionary stuff. It was not only comparatively cheap, but also used the same what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) model as other Mac apps, allowing editors and production staff to see page layout in real time.

Wow. Before that, everything was text-based. Doing composition on an Atex involved an arcane markup language without any WYSIWIG, a time-consuming and error-prone process. Typically it'd take anywhere from four to 24 hours before editors would see page proofs, followed by multiple rounds of corrections.

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With QuarkXPress on the Mac, everything was instantaneous. If an editor or art director didn't like the look of something, it was easy to change. Newspaper and magazine design got a lot more flexible and creative. Sometimes the results were visual disasters, sometimes they were lovely but no one argued with the cost and time savings.

I didn't switch from PCs to Macs until much later, in late 2003, but then I wondered why I'd waited so long. I'd been playing with various Unix-like OSs since the mid-1980s, and now here was a platform that offered all the Unix tools, plus a graphical interface that ran all the usual business productivity applications (in fact, I think the key Microsoft Office apps started life on the Mac). And when I really do need to run something on Windows, I can either fire up a virtual machine or use Microsoft's Remote Desktop Client. I haven't needed to touch a Windows machine for a decade.

The hardware's great too. I used to buy a new IBM (now Lenovo) ThinkPad once a year; now, I buy a new MacBook Pro every three years, though I could easily go four years or more.

For me in 2014, the Mac is cheaper, it can do more, and it works really well. It's nice to see those benefits haven't changed since the early days of desktop publishing.

Newman is a member of the Network World Lab Alliance and president of Network Test, an independent test lab and engineering services consultancy. He can be reached at dnewman@networktest.com.

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