Chris Heric recalls the pinnacle that once was desktop print productionI recently ran across my venerable old MacWorld, and MacUser magazines from a 1987 vintage.
Now that more than 20 years has elapsed since they were published, I thought it would be useful to put into perspective the prices and prevalence of the hardware that we now take for granted. Not only things like storage, memory, and CPU horsepower, but also peripherals, and software have changed dramatically.
The computers which began the desktop publishing revolution are mere shadows to the literal supercomputers that we now use to surf YouTube, and Google maps. We paid dearly for those early computers, and I would like to share these comparisons in order to put perspective as to what we can do now for so much less investment.
Digital Print preparation used to be a non-trivial investment or effort, and we often forget that when looking at the extremely affordable modern solutions without comparison.
Let’s take a look at MacUser 1987 (All prices in 1987 US dollars):
Storage: ’Lightning fast Winchester storage: 20Mb for only $995.00, or go professional with more storage than anybody could use, a whopping 74Mb with a 60Mb tape backup only $4,699.’
The Mac II : “Macintosh II has colour, oh boy does it have colour.
640x480 resolution colour. (the stock video card was 16 colours, with a $2,400 upgrade to 256 colour) all at a blistering fast 15 megahertz.” (Even the slowest of modern computers are more than 1,000 times faster.) And it could be had with the Apple High-Resolution 12” monitor and 1Mb of RAM for about $10,000. Memory: This quote from page 77 of the April 1987 of MacUser makes it particularly timely. “There is room on the Mac II motherboard for 8Mb, but might be able to address 128Mb of RAM on the motherboard (using 16Mb chips, which may be available in the ’90s) And, it’s possible to build the RAM up to 2Gb by filling all the slots with RAM cards. Those numbers are so staggering they made me break out laughing when I first read the specs. What could anyone possible do with 2Gb of RAM? Nobody knows yet, because the option has never existed, but it makes the imagination run wild with the possibilities.” By author Michael D. Wesley (It is now common for a modern computer to come with 2 Gb of RAM upon purchase… and modern Mac can address terabytes of RAM.)
Scanners or ’Digitizers’: The limited option available in the early days of desktop publishing in the world of image acquisition into computer led to high prices for what we now see as unacceptable capabilities. A 4-bit (16 gray) or 8bit (256 gray) Microtek scanner went for between $1,700 and $3,000, and don’t even think about desktop colour scanners yet.
Laser Printers: An Apple LaserWriter Plus would run you a cool $3,600 for a 300dpi monochromatic printer with a glacially slow print engine. This device, however, is what we owe almost the entire existence of digital print production to, as it was a true PostScript device for the public. (The rest of course is history.) It is Apple’s decision to implement Adobe’s PostScript into this device that I credit a great deal to the success of electronic prepress and the eventual world of digital print production, which we now live in.
Why this nostalgic rant?
The point of my nostalgic rant is twofold:
1. That doing desktop publishing was pushing the limits of personal computing power 20 years ago. While colour prepress was nearly out of the question at these early stages, it ushered in the desktop publishing revolution that evolved into modern digital print production. Fast, easy, and cheap and now, ubiquitous.
2. That people will fill all the storage or memory they are provided with. Nature abhors a vacuum, and given immense capacities of modern hard drives, people have a habit of filling them with music, digital photos, and movies, despite their almost unbelievable capacity.
(Thereby much diluting the overkill factor, but replacing it with a capability onslaught.)
So, while indeed we have obtained all those fantastic capacities predicted by these authors, we have also vastly increased the capabilities of our computers, and subsequently their needs. Anyone who has had a digital camera and a computer for a couple of years knows what I am talking about.
Computers make storing things easy, and modern devices are ever better capable of filling up and taxing our computers. As we have added capacity and capabilities to our computers and tools, so have we added to the roles our tools take on. It would have been laughable to think that one could keep a number of full-length movies on one’s phone.
The end result of all of this is that we have lost touch a bit with what it took in the early days – only 20 years ago – to compose even the simplest of pages digitally. It was difficult, and took expertise, and a good chunk of capital investment to play in those heady days of “Wow, I just got a near magazine quality page out of my computer.” A greater than $20,000 investment was required to have a true colour-capable computer, and a limited proof.
A modern much more capable computer 1000 times faster and 1/10th the cost is easily obtainable at any number of retail outlets currently.
It is amazing. Throw a 100Mb 17-layer A4 sized page Photoshop image at even an entry level iMac, and it will rip right through it without a whimper.
We need to remember: that task used to mean leaving the computer on over the weekend to process.
It has become an instant real-time operator role.
So, with a fond thanks to my wife for letting me keep 25 year-old magazines around for the purpose of reflection, I can firmly say that we indeed have reached the pinnacle of the needs for professional print production on the desktop, and the bottleneck is no longer how fast a file could be processed on your desktop. Perhaps this is why we have evolved into workflow hawks, looking to shave a few seconds of user-operation from every job in order to make more revenue.
Perhaps because we no longer have to wait on the computer, we have to look elsewhere to streamline the process, but I can firmly pronounce the modern desktop computer to be one of the best bargains going, and one of the few tools that we use in our industry that literally has scaled in performance many times while reducing it’s cost by 90 per cent. Do I want a faster computer? Yes. Why? Because it will do more stuff.