We, in the past, have relied almost solely on large corporations and hardware developers to provide us with the tools we need to accomplish the role of prepress, and print production. We needed tools such as imagesetters and scanners, and companies like Linotype (later Linotype-Hell), Agfa-Compugraphic, Scitex, Kodak and Crosfield to provide us with these hardware tools. This seemed natural to the industry because most of these were long-established names in our industry anyway, and the name recognition that these large companies carried made CEOs and CTOs feel comfortable in purchases costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since the role of digital prepress evolved from these giants, that level of comfort exuded “We will be here for you tomorrow and beyond”.
Now, almost 20 years since the advent of PostScript, and desktop-based prepress, many of these big players are not as involved (or even still solvent) because of the all-purpose tools of the Macintosh or PC desktop. In the US, I would estimate that nearly 90 per cent of all prepress is composed by either the content creators (designers and publishers) on a Macintosh. While not meant to be an argument for which is better, Mac or PC (That one would take more space than the entire editorial content of a years-worth of AP), it is important to look at the ramifications this has to the software development community. Since prepress is nearly the only industry (besides more exotic industries such as genetic engineering and the like) with such a platform skew, it means that the software developers and Apple Computer are the new big players.
Think about it… a personal computer (Mac or PC) is an all-purpose tool. In the old days (20 years ago), we bought a piece of equipment that pretty much served one role. A scanner did scans, and an imagesetter output film. It is the desktop computer that has played the biggest role since then because of its immense flexibility. In the shop where I “learned the ropes”, we had Crosfield assembly systems… (880 and subsequently the 9500) costing many hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Since my role at this facility was to implement desktop prepress, I was often chided by these system operators for the “Mac Department Toys”, as they often saw them. In the mindset of the grizzled system-based prepress professional, a $5000-$10,000 computer could never compete with the industrial strength of the “System”. This was carried down to the stripping (planning) department, where oftentimes any problem that arose out of film was attributed to the desktop. I can still remember a number of my colleagues at this facility cursing the output from the “Mac Department” as “That damn Mac film”. If there was any problem at all with the output, it was immediately attributed to the “Mac” or the “toys” that the desktop had been using, rather than the probable cause, the file creator. This was in part due to the fact that the advent of the desktop to the designer increased the responsibilities of the file-creator to well beyond their capabilities and experience.
What I am all leading up to here is that the desktop is the real big player in the industry now, and the software that they run is the true backbone of today’s sophisticated workflows. Whereas a system manufacturer had to invent hardware as well as software for their solutions, the desktop had the unique advantage of not having to develop hardware at all. A desktop computer is the all-purpose tool capable of scanning, photo-retouching, assembling, proofing, and even transmitting the result, all at the drop of a hat. Companies such as Aldus, Adobe, and Letraset were becoming the systems solutions of the future, and there was little the system vendors could do to keep up. This was great news to the people involved in purchasing and implementing systems, as these solutions, because of their flexibility, could cost tens, or even hundreds of times less than their dedicated system predecessors. This cost effectiveness was not due to lack of capability, but more because they did not have to manufacture hardware from scratch, every time they came out with a new or updated product.
Now, we see even the large CTP and proofing vendors and suppliers implementing software solutions from relatively small software developers. Sure, Adobe, and Macromedia are huge software players today, with roles stemming from content creation down to proofing and plate-output. One fascinating development to me is that even large hardware and system manufacturers today such as Heidelberg, Agfa and others utilise tools from small, independent software developers such as Enfocus, Quite, and others to provide essential parts of the workflow. Agfa’s Apogee system was heavily depending upon the role of Belgian developer Enfocus’ PitStop product as an OEM embedded solution. Tools like Quite software’s “Quite a box of tricks” or “Quite Imposing” are more powerful than their affordable nature suggests. This modular approach to systems is the natural progression of the segmented roles of modern workflow. Why re-invent the wheel when someone has already done a pretty good one? I can see why the hardware manufacturers would look at such tools, with a saying I so commonly use with my clients “When I need a wheel, I go wheel shopping, it is only if there is not wheel that I invent one”. This keeps costs down, and flexibility high.
The moral of this story? Don’t discount the small vendor or affordable solution as “inadequate”. History is proving to us that: like the extinction of the dinosaurs, nothing over 20 pounds survived the cataclysm of an asteroid 80 million years ago. I am not saying that the large vendor is a dinosaur, or going away anytime soon, but I am saying that it makes sense to look at the small as well as the large in today’s planning of a system.