Mac v PC: A History Lesson

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The development of the GUI-based design platform

Tom Arah gives credit where it’s due in the development of the modern GUI-based PC design platform.

The 10 th anniversary of the launch of PC Pro looked like the perfect opportunity to see just how much the worlds of computing and design have changed over the last decade. Accordingly I dug out my back copies (I know it’s sad but history will thank me) and was duly amazed.

Amazed not at how different things were back then, but just how similar. OK, clock speeds and capacities have all grown exponentially, but a modern user transported back to 1994 would feel pretty much at home with the Pentium/Windows 3.1 platform. With a little bit of effort they could even get themselves online and join the Web revolution (a process soon to be made much easier with the arrival of the web-friendly and 32-bit Windows 95). And while it was too early for today’s web authoring packages such as Dreamweaver and Flash, the choice of print-oriented publishing and graphics software would be very familiar too with all today’s major names – Illustrator, PageMaker, Photoshop, Quark, CorelDRAW – already there in place with the single notable exception of InDesign.

Reading these early PC Pros you could easily be fooled into thinking that the PC has always essentially been the modern, friendly and creative platform it is today – issue 1 even carried an article on making the most of desktop video. Eventually though I found one tiny reminder of the truth in the form of an advert for dBASE 5.0 for DOS and suddenly the repressed memories came flooding back. While little truly fundamental has changed over the last ten years, go back another ten years and you are in another world completely, a world dominated by the DOS-based dinosaurs such as dBASE, WordPerfect, and Lotus 1-2-3. Read a PC magazine from 1984 and you won’t find a mention of any of today’s creative design software because none existed. In fact with low resolution screens working in text mode and software driven by keyboard commands the whole concept of visual computer-based design simply couldn’t exist.

But 1984 was the very year that this changed forever. It’s a well-known and much-loved story: the launch of the Apple Mac changed the entire face of computing and in the process created the computer-based design industry. And it did it with a smiley face – the image that greeted users on boot up, instead of the less-than-welcoming MS-DOS C:\ prompt. It was the first sign of the Mac’s underlying GUI (Graphical User Interface) which totally changed the way users interacted with their computer. With its revolutionary WIMP (Windows Icon Menus Pointer) interface, Mac users now controlled their software by selecting menu commands with a mouse rather than having to remember dozens of arbitrary keyboard combinations or dot prompt commands.

The Apple Mac’s success was built on its WYSIWYG GUI.

From the designer’s perspective, the Mac was even more revolutionary than this - after all, a Graphical User Interface could also be used for producing graphics. Key to the success of the Mac was the inclusion of MacPaint, a bitmap-based painting program which suddenly made it clear that computing could be both creative and enjoyable. And the Mac’s bitmapped display wasn’t only useful for graphics. Thanks to it, the Mac’s bundled word processor, MacWrite, was able to display its nine fonts at six different point sizes and in five different styles onscreen just as they would print - the Mac’s black-on-white display even mimicked the paper output. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) computing was born and the designer was in heaven.

The comparison with the character-based DOS world could hardly be more stark and Apple drove home the point brilliantly with Ridley Scott’s famous “1984” advert in which the Mac’s launch was symbolized as a young female athlete, bathed in light - and sporting an eye-catching pair of red shorts - breaking into a cavernous auditorium filled with monochromatic drones and hurling a hammer to smash the giant TV image of Big Brother that stares down on them. The message was clear: the old DOS days of corporate drudgery were dead; the future of computing lay with the creative freedom and individualism of the Mac.

Of course it didn’t turn out quite as Apple had planned. Again according to the legend, Bill Gates had been invited by Steve Jobs to see the Mac in development, saw the threat it posed and the opportunity it represented and simply stole the idea. With it, he produced the grossly inferior Windows which he then foisted on a gullible but grateful public, so stealing the future that rightfully belonged to Apple. The revolutionary flame crushed by the dark forces. It’s certainly a great story, but of course it’s as much myth as legend. In particular setting the story as effectively a battle between Apple/Jobs (good) and Microsoft/Gates (evil) is something of an oversimplification. More importantly, it ignores the seminal contribution of others.

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that the Mac did not come out of the blue, invented by the visionary Jobs alone in his garage. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually founded Apple Computer Inc. back in 1976 so by 1984 the company had already produced a number of systems including the very successful Apple II – incidentally the machine which, thanks to VisiCalc the first spreadsheet, inspired IBM to come up with the Mac’s eventual nemesis: the IBM PC. In fact Apple had even already produced another GUI-based computer, the LISA, which had completely bombed in 1983.

More importantly, Jobs and Apple didn’t actually invent the idea of the mouse-driven, design and graphics friendly GUI at all. The real credit for this belongs to a host of people including Ivan Sutherland who produced SketchPad the first (light-pen driven) graphics application in 1963 and Doug Engelbart who produced the first mouse in 1965. Top of the list though are the engineers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) who developed the concept of the visual WIMP-based GUI in the early to mid 70’s and produced the proof-of-principle Alto in 1978 and the more mainstream Xerox Star in 1981 (check out www.parc.xerox.com/about/history/ for the full and astonishing timeline).

The developments at Xerox PARC led to the pioneering but ill-fated Xerox Star.

Ironically, Steve Jobs was invited to PARC in 1979 to see the developments much as Bill Gates was to Apple, and was inspired in much the same way. The undeniable importance of the Apple Mac wasn’t that it invented the WYSIWYG GUI but rather that it fine-tuned and popularized the concept at a price that, compared to the Alto, Star and Lisa, made it affordable. But only just. For $2495 (at 1984 prices remember) you got an 8MHz processor, a single 400K floppy disk for all storage, a tiny 9”, 512 x 342 pixel, monochrome display and, most problematic of all, just 128K of RAM (in addition to the built-in 64K ROM) to hold programs and data including those memory-hogging bitmaps. This still outscored the PCs of the day but working in a graphical environment ate up memory and processor cycles so the Mac wasn’t exactly speedy and only capable of producing documents of a few pages at most. And with no expansion slots, PC-style cloning or even mail-order sales (decisions that Bill Gates would be crucified for), you were buying into a closed and proprietary system.

The consequence was that, while those that could afford it undoubtedly loved their Macs, they weren’t exactly flying off the shelves. Essentially the Mac was an expensive designer toy destined to go the way of the Lisa before it unless a killer app could be found. Thankfully the equivalent of VisiCalc for the Apple II appeared when a small start-up company called Aldus launched PageMaker in 1985. This took the Mac’s WYSIWYG display and fully exploited it by enabling users to place text and graphics wherever they wanted on the full screen page layout, much as typesetters manually laid out their galleys. The appeal to the design community was naturally immense and the “Desktop Publishing” revolution began (a term coined by Paul Brainerd the head of Aldus and another brilliant piece of marketing).

But hang on. Something very important was still missing – output quality. Seeing your work onscreen was an excellent boost to creativity and productivity but the final product was the page as printed by the dot-matrix Apple ImageWriter, and while this was fine for in-house printing that was its limit. MacPaint images, for example, were initially limited to a fixed size of 576 x 720 pixels - the size of a standard 8 x 10 inch sheet of paper at 72 dpi (half the ImageWriter’s maximum 144 dpi). The solution also came in 1985 in the form of the Apple LaserWriter, one of the first laser printers – a technology originally developed at Xerox PARC - designed for the personal computer market, though at $7000 it was really only affordable to workgroups taking advantage of the Mac’s recently added Ethernet networking – technology again originally developed at Xerox PARC.

Compared to the ImageWriter the LaserWriter’s 300 DPI output was a revelation, but still no replacement for traditional typesetting. As such, what really made the LaserWriter revolutionary was its printer controller. Thanks to a shrewd investment by Steve Jobs this was based on Adobe PostScript, the page description language devised by John Warnock and Chuck Geschke as an extension of their work on “Interpress” at – you guessed it - Xerox PARC.

The beauty of PostScript is that it describes everything about the page layout programmatically and mathematically. This has huge practical and creative advantages. To begin with it enables graphical elements of the page, such as logos, to be defined absolutely precisely as vectors and in 1985 Adobe launched the first version of Illustrator to enable these EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) files to be created and incorporated into the DTP workflow. Even more importantly, the very shape of the letters that make up the text on the page can also be described as PostScript-based outlines.. This mathematical approach means that PostScript “Type 1” fonts are scalable so that LaserWriter users could suddenly specify any of the included typefaces (Times, Helvetica, Courier and Symbol) at any size. And buy in further faces from the Adobe library as needed.

The crucial role of PostScript code is often forgotten.

Even more significant is the fact that the PostScript code describing each page is by its very nature “device-independent” meaning that exactly the same layout can be output on any PostScript-enabled device - and therefore at any resolution. As such the last piece of the jigsaw fell into place with the uptake of the PostScript-driven Linotronic imagesetters. This meant that the Mac-based designer could now produce a page layout onscreen in PageMaker including embedded Illustrator vector graphics, proof it on a LaserWriter and be absolutely confident that they would see exactly the same design output in final typeset-quality from the Lino. With the arrival of PostScript, the circle was closed and at last the Mac could be used to produce the professional design work that was necessary to justify its cost.

Crucially though PostScript’s universal and open nature meant that exactly the same was true of any system. There was nothing magic about the Mac; similar desktop publishing set-ups could be achieved on other systems. So what about the PC side of the story? Here the common understanding that, following his visit to Apple, Bill Gates simply copied MacOS as Windows, exposed the failings of the DOS world and reaped the benefits is once again steeped in myth.

To begin with, as we’ve seen, the concept and benefits of the GUI were well-known and appreciated by system developers if not the public at large, long before the Mac arrived. And the PC was changing accordingly. Mouse-based interaction was becoming increasingly common as shown by the launch in 1983 of the Microsoft Mouse designed to control applications like Microsoft Word. Other developers were rushing to produce mouse-driven GUI overlays for MS-DOS with VisiCorp, the publishers of VisiCalc, winning the race with VisiOn which provided integrated spreadsheet, graphing, word processing and database apps all running in their own windows. Incidentally VisiOn was introduced at Comdex in 1982 and Bill Gates apparently sat through the demo three times before rushing back to headquarters…

The first mouse-driven GUIs for the PC such as VisiOn weren’t WYSIWYG.

VisiOn and its PC GUI rivals, QuarterDeck’s DESQ and IBM’s TopView, all boosted productivity but couldn’t seriously be compared to the MacOS/MacWrite/ MacPaint combination, because each still ran the screen in text mode. However there was nothing inherent to MS-DOS to prevent developers from handling a bitmapped display as Z- Soft’s PC Paintbrush and later Publisher’s Paintbrush showed (and unlike the Mac these could manage colour of a sort). Clearly what was needed was a combination of the mouse-driven, windowed GUI and the bitmapped WYSIWYG display and the first company to put the two together was Digital Research with its GEM (Graphical Environment Manager) overlay for MS-DOS which was launched soon after the Mac in Spring 1984.

There was no question then that Microsoft would have it all its own way with its plans for Windows. And when Windows 1.0 was finally released on November 20, 1985 - almost two years after Microsoft’s original announcement - it wasn’t only inferior to the Mac, it was inferior to GEM. With its basic combination of calendar, notepad, card file and so on it was seen as little more than an expensive and needlessly graphical productivity aid running alongside the real MS-DOS based workhorses. Not surprisingly, it met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. However Windows received a much-needed boost from a surprising quarter when Apple chose to sue Digital Research for infringing the Mac’s look-and-feel with GEM, but allowed Microsoft to licence its technology.

Ultimately the fundamental reason that Windows 1.0 failed to take off was simple: it didn’t enable users to do things that they couldn’t already achieve with the character-based MS-DOS apps – and achieve considerably faster once you’d climbed their learning curves. Microsoft was in dire need of a killer application and in January 1987 Aldus again came to the rescue by porting PageMaker to the new environment. It was a major step forward and feather in Windows’ cap, but this time it was by no means a clinching argument. Not least because there was actually a more powerful DTP solution for the PC in the form of Ventura Publisher which ran on an embedded version of GEM .

The first release of Windows didn’t set the world on fire.

The tide didn’t finally turn until December 1987 when Windows 2.0 was released. This took advantage of the greater processing speed of Intel’s 286 processor and offered expanded memory support. It also saw a reworking of the GUI including overlapping windows and file icons which prompted Apple to sue Microsoft for infringing its copyright though, based on the earlier licensing deal and Xerox PARC precedents, this was eventually rejected. Most importantly, the platform was now fast and stable enough to attract major applications including, naturally enough Microsoft’s Word and Excel along with other third-party productivity apps such as the word processor Ami. Significant too, for designer and business user alike, was 1989’s launch of CorelDRAW which filled and extended the Illustrator vector drawing role on the PC.

Momentum was building and with 1990’s Windows 3.0, which again took advantage of the new 386 hardware standard and in particular the ability to address memory beyond 640K, the platform reached critical mass selling more than 10 million copies. Crucially it also offered a new Software Development Kit to help developers write and port their applications to take advantage of this enormous new market. For the designer this was particularly significant as it led to the arrival of the previously Mac-only giants such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Macromedia FreeHand and Quark XPress to challenge PageMaker, CorelDRAW and Ventura (which had also jumped ship from GEM to Windows).

However there was still one element missing from the GUI on both the PC and Mac that was particularly relevant to the graphic designer – scalable onscreen fonts. This was clearly Adobe territory and the company was keen to licence its Display PostScript technology to both Microsoft and Apple. However neither company was ready to give up such central control - or the money involved - so in a surprising twist, and in the middle of their court case, they agreed to collaborate. Microsoft would write TrueImage, a PostScript-style print engine, while Apple would create TrueType, a PostScript-style font technology.

In the end Microsoft failed to deliver its side of the bargain (so ensuring the continuing central importance of PostScript to the professional designer), but Apple did produce TrueType. And made a brilliant job of it too as, despite their poor reputation, high quality TrueType fonts are actually superior to their Type 1 equivalents particularly for onscreen use where their advanced hinting means that the shape of each onscreen letter is effectively hand-crafted to the number of pixels available to display it. When Apple’s TrueType technology was incorporated into Windows 3.1 in April 1992, the improvement over the previous system of font mapping, which did its best to provide the closest bitmapped match, was immense. At last WYSIWYG computing finally lived up to its name for local and commercial print and onscreen too.

With the incorporation of Apple’s TrueType font technology in Windows 3.1, the WYSIWYG circle was complete.

By 1994 the WYSIWYG GUI revolution was complete, the MS-DOS days little more than a memory and the Windows PC an effective design platform. And that’s where we - and PC Pro - came in.

Tom Arah

September 2004


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