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The History and Eras of Desktop Publishing

written by: •edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 2/18/2010

From dot matrix printers to high speed laser printers, from stacked feed paper to the Internet, Desktop Publishing has come a long way. Some of the battles for dominance between software makers are as intriguing as any spy movie. Well, almost.

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    When Did it First Start?

    What we currently refer to as Desktop Publishing (DTP) has a history dating back to the mid 1980s. Some will argue that the Pixel work station produced by the company Scitex, actually started the DTP revolution with the introduction of its work station in 1982. But personally, I consider this system to be a professional printing system, and don't feel it fits into the "desktop" concept. It was a rather large, free standing computer, and was not designed for home or small business use.

    The Apple Lisa So let's start where most people in the DTP field would consider the "birth" of DTP. During the mid 1980s there was an awesome convergence of technological stars. Four companies were primarily responsible for the birth of DTP. Apple Computer launched the Apple Lisa in 1983 with a user friendly graphical user interface (GUI) and a mouse. The very next year, Apple launched the Apple Macintosh. Adobe, founded in 1982, released PostScript, a page description language that allowed software to talk to printers in a more complex manner to include graphics and text on the same page. Canon dropped the ball by not properly marketing the laser printer they invented, so in 1984, Hewlett Packard developed the LaserJet desktop laser printer and marketed them directly to home computer users and small businesses and soon dominated the field. In 1985 Aldus Pagemaker (later bought buy Adobe) allowed designers to design their page layouts in WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) format, and the Apple LaserWriter was launched, pushing Apple to the forefront of the desktop publishing world.

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    Apple's Macintosh Plus

    The Apple MacPlus In 1986, Apple launched the Macintosh Plus. Many people who used an Apple Macintosh for  DTP and Graphic Design became fiercely loyal to Apple, while PC users flocked to Ventura Publisher, which was also launched in 1986. This is probably the beginning of the PC vs Mac rivalries that still exist today. Debates raged over which platform was the best, with Apple users claiming that the Mac was superior in user friendliness, color accuracy, and prepress, while PC users pointed to the open architecture of the PC as its chief benefit.

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    Quark Released in '87

    In 1987, a new player arrived on the scene. Quark launched QuarkXpress 1.0 while Adobe launched Illustrator. Not to be outdone, Aldus released Freehand 1.0 the next year. Even though PageMaker was the first professional DTP application, QuarkXpress soon became the new standard.

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    The First LaserJet Printer In the late 1980s, FrameMaker, a very sophisticated and powerful application, evolved slowly from demo-ware for the Sun Microsystems Unix platform, to a fully commercial application and Frame Technology Corporation was born. Due to the success of DTP on the Macintosh, FrameMaker was soon ported to the Mac and later to the PC. But FrameMaker was designed for large documents such as technical references and maintenance manuals. By producing an inexpensive version for the Mac and PC selling for about $500, they cannibalized their own Unix customers, who were willingly paying $2,500. In 1995 Adobe purchased FrameMaker as Frame Technology Corp nearly went bankrupt. Adobe managed to keep FrameMaker alive by turning the focus back to technical writers. But eventually, FrameMaker was no longer the king of DTP and in  2004 Adobe ceased support of FrameMaker for the Mac. The software does not run under Mac OS X and no significant upgrades have been released.

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    The LaserJet I InDesign is the successor to PageMaker, which was acquired with the purchase of Aldus in 1994. By 1998 PageMaker had lost almost the entire professional market to QuarkXpress 4.1, released in 1996. After fighting off a buyout attempt by Quark, Adobe began work on a new DTP application and released it as InDesign 1.0 in 1999. Ironically, InDesign soon surpassed QuarkXpress in sales and popularity and has arguably become the top DTP application available today.

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    The Present and Future of Desktop Publishing

    Desktop scanners, digital cameras, and high performance home computers have made DTP easier and more practical than ever, and several newcomers have joined the fray, including Microsoft Publisher and Serif's PagePlus. Several of today's word processing applications also claim to offer DTP capabilities.

    Where is DTP heading in the future? It's hard to say. Many professional graphic designers point out that it takes more than software and hardware to produce top-notch, professional work. So it seems unlikely that DTP will completely take over the publishing world. But at the same time, it is allowing more and more businesses to handle projects in-house, without the need of the more expensive professional graphic designers. With the move to publishing on the Internet, the future is wide open.