Postscript 3 - the new design standard

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What the new version will offer

Postscript - the publishing foundation

Tom Arah looks back on the history of Postscript and asks what the future holds for version 3.0.

It's no great exaggeration to say that the computer-based publishing industry was created in 1985 thanks to Adobe's development of Postscript. It was this PDL (Page Description Language) that enabled the user to reproduce on paper exactly what they had produced on screen. Prior to the launch of the Postscript-based Apple LaserWriter, the Apple Mac had been little more than an expensive toy; now with the invention of desktop publishing, it had a real purpose. The rest, as they say, is history.

The beauty of Postscript was that it was platform independent. This meant that applications could support the same language and therefore the same printers whether they were based on Mac, PC or UNIX systems. More importantly, Postscript was device independent. This enabled the user to design a page and output it on their own personal desktop printer or send the same file to a high resolution imagesetter to produce the plates necessary for commercial print.

The design power Postscript opened up to the desktop user was awesome. With its ability to handle scalable fonts, high quality scanned photographs, complex vector graphics and any layout that was thrown at it, the PDL soon established itself as the bedrock of the whole design-to-print industry. The language is now so pervasive that it is estimated that over 75% of commercial print is produced with it. Even this does not satisfy Adobe and in the announcement of the latest plans for Postscript version 3.0, Fred Schwedner, senior vice-president claimed the company's goal was for "every page printed to use Adobe technology."

I'll return to this new version shortly, but first it's important to ask whether Postscript has a future at all. After the glowing introduction this might seem a rather perverse question, but it's also a very serious one - particularly in the light of the recent announcement from HP that they are to cease licensing the language. If Postscript is really so fundamental, why have the world's largest and most important printer manufacturer decided they no longer need it?

A Victim of its own success

The answer is that Postscript has been a victim of its own success. The advantages it offered were so huge that the operating system makers could not afford to ignore them. All the advantages Postscript offered on the printer, from scaleable fonts to halftoning effects, have since been implemented on the computer. It's no coincidence that the breakthrough version of Windows was 3.1, the first to offer WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) display and output on any printer.

Over time, this move of functionality from printer to computer has become more pronounced. In the past, with early versions of Corel Draw for example, if you wanted to have special fill effects the only way this could be done was through the Postscript options and the only way you could see what they looked like was to print out the page. Nowadays Postscript fills are virtually redundant, replaced by the infinite number of user-definable and viewable vector and texture effects. Increasingly, the Postscript option is looking dated.

It can also seem comparatively slow and expensive. Bargain-basement printers driven directly by the operating system's own GDI (Graphics Device Interface) or by their own PDLs can often outperform their Postscript equivalents which must first translate each page into Postscript on the computer and then rasterize it back out again on the printer. When put this way, users are being asked to pay a high premium for identical functionality and lower speed. These are undoubtedly important points to bear in mind and for the average office-based desktop printer - HP's main business - Postscript is definitely becoming increasingly hard to justify.

However, for the design professional, there is still one completely overriding reason to stick with Postscript: compatibility. This is one lesson I learnt to my cost when I invested 6,000 in a LaserMaster plain-paper typesetter some six years ago. At the time its advantages seemed compelling with blisteringly fast, high-resolution output. In many ways too, the LaserMaster's own PDL was more advanced than Postscript, allowing the use of transparent graphics for example and so avoiding the nightmare of creating clipping paths. Sadly, although the LaserMaster output was good, it wasn't up to colour separations or tint work so these still had to be sent out for typesetting. This meant that Postscript was often the ultimate destination for output even though the LaserMaster was used for proofing. Suddenly I was again reduced to creating clipping paths, but now with no way to proof them!

While in some ways the Postscript language might have drawbacks compared to others, the fact that it works so uniformly and reliably across all supporting platforms and output solutions gives it an unbeatable edge. With over 300 devices ranging from desktop printers to imagesetters and slide recorders and over 5,000 supporting applications, Postscript is the important common denominator behind the whole industry. It is absolutely crucial to have a single standard that ensures quality and consistency across the board, and Postscript fills that role.

Postscript's place right at the heart of printing is safe then, at least as far as the professional industry is concerned. However, the criticisms remain serious and are mounting. In particular Adobe are in severe danger of completely losing the desktop printer market. If Adobe's aim to have every page printed with their technology is not to sound very hollow, version 3.0 is going to have to pull out all the stops. The problem is how can it? What new direction can Postscript 3.0 take to re-seize the printing initiative? Version 1.0 invented WYSIWYG output and made any black and white layout achievable. Version 2.0 brought the same quality control and consistency to the use of colour. What new ground is there for Postscript to break and can the latest version meet Adobe's previous high standards?

New Ground

Apart from some minor new features that will mainly be of interest to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and network administrators, Adobe has grouped the new functionality into two main categories, "Enhanced Image Technology" and "Advanced Page Processing". Enhanced Image Technology is primarily concerned with improving the quality of output. To achieve this, Postscript 3.0 recognises image objects and automatically optimizes processing to deliver the best possible quality. We are told that resulting improvements will be seen in the areas of "3D, photo quality, gradients, true colour and image compositioning".

Adobe are deliberately vague about the benefits as they do not want to impact current Postscript printer sales. The actual operators and language specific features are therefore not going to be publicly disclosed until the second half of the year when the product is itself available. Fortunately however, to coincide with the announcement of the new Postscript, Adobe have chosen to publish a number of third party endorsements from their OEMs, and these are rather less coy. Based on these, and reading between the lines, it is possible to make some informed speculation.

The support for 3D images is a natural step forward. Postscript as it stands is a very 2D-orientated language, naturally enough as its output always ends up on that most 2D of surfaces, paper. With the increasing spread of 3D on computers this has led to a major bottleneck with extremely intensive data processing necessary to create effects like realistic shading. New operators for dealing directly with 3D shapes will both improve the quality and speed up the processing of such objects considerably.

The biggest increase in output quality across the board will come from a simple increase in the number of possible colour levels. The current system of dividing any colour up into 256 levels, resulting in the 256 gray scales and 16.7 million (256 x 256 x 256) RGB colours, is so common that it almost seems a fact of nature. In fact, of course, it is a very convenient but completely arbitrary decision based on the amount of information that can be stored in a single computer byte. By removing this limit, at a stroke, Postscript 3.0 will be able to offer higher quality photographic reproduction, much smoother gradients and true colour spectrums.

In terms of improvements in image compositioning, it looks like the major change will be the integration of trapping within the RIP (raster image processor). The registration of colour-separated plates demands that any artwork must have slight overlaps around touching objects of different colours. At present this is largely left to the designer who can easily spend as long trapping their work as they did in creating it in the first place. Moving the trapping process into Postscript's own handling of objects is a big step forward and will remove a major design headache. It will also presumably signal the end for high-end and expensive software solutions such as Trapwise.

Enhanced Image Technology

While "Enhanced Image Technology" will improve the quality of output, "Advanced Page Processing" is designed primarily to speed up the processing. The main improvements will come through the optimised handling of separate objects, but other simple features such as a wider range of resident fonts to match those of all the leading operating systems will also help matters considerably. Until systems start coming off the production line, however, it will be impossible to tell just how much faster Postscript 3.0 will be.

Based on these announcements, it might seem that Postscript version 3.0 is little more than version 2.0 with a few bells and whistles. Of course developments like improved quality, ease-of-use and speed aren't to be sneezed at, and features like integrated trapping will be of enormous benefit to the prepress industry. However, on first sight, there doesn't seem to be anything revolutionary to bear comparison with previous versions. In particular, there seems to be no compelling reason to halt the corporate move away from Postscript. What Adobe desperately need is a big idea, something to capture the imagination.

The Web

The biggest clue to what this could be, comes from the Postscript 3.0 marketing slogan, "The printing system for the wired world". Yes, it's the omnipresent Internet. So what can Postscript offer the Internet and vice versa? Reading the press pack again, there seems to be just one relevant new technical capability, "the ability to directly process Web content including HTML and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files".

Again at first sight, this is less than gripping. By its very nature, HTML is amazingly limited in design terms. Using a Postscript printer to output HTML is like using a pile-driver to crush a nut. PDFs certainly offer more design control and other features, but the ability to output them already exists on both Postscript and non-Postscript devices. The new PDL might be able to "manage individual pages" within a PDF document, but that doesn't sound likely to set the world on fire. At this stage, Postscript 3.0 might be seeming like just another lame attempt to clamber onto the Internet bandwagon.

PDF and Postscript Combine

Further thought, however, begins to open up an entirely different scenario. To understand this new vision, you have to stop thinking of Postscript in isolation as a purely print-based language. Instead, Postscript 3.0 is best seen as a merger between Adobe's two main existing technologies, the PDL and PDF, into a new combined multi-purpose document exchange standard. What this means in practice is a complete paradigm shift away from the existing work practice of print-and-distribute to a new practice of distribute-and-print-if-necessary . Through its PDF, Adobe will offer all the advantages of the electronic medium with inexpensive and on-demand distribution, archivable and searchable text and so on, while through its PDL it will also offer all the advantages of hard copy with unrivalled design quality, consistency and compatibility.

Of course you could argue that exactly this system already exists and, more to the point, that it has already been proved a failure. Most users will have come across PDFs and most users will probably have been annoyed by them. Recently for example, Adobe has stopped including hard copy documentation when they send out programs for review. Because the PDFs take so long to print, a 500 page book like the PageMaker manual would tie up a printer and computer for most of the day. An ASCII version of the text would actually have been of more practical use!

With what would effectively be a dedicated PDF printer, however, the situation could be very different. By removing the bottleneck, Postscript 3.0 would allow the system to become what it was always intended to be, a fast and efficient high-quality delivery solution. Moreover, the ability to manage individual pages suddenly makes sense. By adding imposition controls, an advanced Postscript 3.0 printer would be able to output a job like the PageMaker manual as a ready-to-read book. Suddenly print-on-demand starts making complete sense.

The Supra Future

For this to happen, a large number of the new Postscript 3.0 printers will have to be of a very different kind to the desktop varieties that dominate today. Instead they will be dedicated production printers, based on Adobe's new "Supra" architecture, with amazing throughput, good-enough colour, automatic imposition and quite probably integrated finishing. For the end-user this will mean that they can work in any application on any platform to produce a PDF. They will then be able to check their work both on-screen and via hard copy produced on their own printer (whether Postscript or not). They will then be able to send the file down the line to be output. This will be done directly without the need for any expensive platemaking and so will finally make the dream of inexpensive, short-run, full colour publications a reality.

It is this cutting-out of the middle man that will be one of the most significant features of direct digital printing. For all its advantages for platemaking, Postscript 3.0 is likely to signal the death of the lower end of the prepress industry. Automatic trapping might be a huge step forward for typesetting, but for one-pass digital printing it becomes entirely redundant. Large sections of the existing design-to-print industry will be replaced by - or more probably turn themselves into - simple pay-for-print providers.

Ironically then if Postscript 3.0 succeeds, the language that seemed to offer so much for the current print industry and so little for the corporate world, will have very different effects. For the existing print industry it will be a double-edged sword, opening up huge new opportunities, but creating considerable turmoil and no doubt casualties along the way. For the corporate world, on the other hand, it can only bring benefits. Currently 6% of industry's total costs is spent on printing - an absolutely vast amount of money. A large proportion of this will be spent on full colour, short-run publications such as internal newsletters, annual reports, promotions and so on. These are ideal candidates for the savings offered by on-demand digital printing of exactly the number of copies required.

More importantly, the combined Postscript/PDF solution offers a host of other benefits for business (covered in some detail in issue 24). In particular, by making the newsletter or report available over the corporate intranet, the end-user can get their hands on the information instantly and for minimal cost. Only if they need a hard copy for reference will they have to resort to print. With the PDF's in-built advantages of searchable and editable text and now browser-based delivery, the new system can even be extended into automatic data warehousing.

Suddenly from apparent dodo, Adobe's combined PDF/PDL solution comes to be seen in an entirely new light as a revolutionary new document technology straddling the worlds of electronic and hard copy delivery and offering best-of-class quality and consistency in both. Of course, we still have to wait and see if Adobe and its OEMs can actually deliver on the promise, but at least the intention is becoming clear.

Deliver and print on demand

The move from print-and-deliver to deliver-and-print and the growth of direct, on-demand, digital printing are both absolutely fundamental and mark a permanent shift in favour of electronic publishing. These developments are too large to be attributed to, or controlled by, any one company. On balance though, I think it's fair to say that Adobe are doing more than anyone else to anticipate and harness these changes and to create a high quality and robust foundation on which the computer-based publishing industry of the future can be built.

Contrary to reports, the death of Postscript has been much exaggerated..

Tom Arah

April 1997


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