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McIlroy--Managing Mixed Platforms

November 1998
Desktop publishing is nearly 14 years old. Since day one, there's been a bitter rivalry between the Apple Macintosh operating system (OS) and Microsoft's DOS. The rivalry continued when Microsoft advanced from DOS to Windows. For much of that time, users were forced to choose sides. Either you were a Macintosh maniac, and thought that PCs were for blockhead MIS types, or you had a PC preference, and thought Macs were just toys for kids.

A little-discussed development of the last few years has been the change from an either/or world to a mixed-platform world. It's becoming increasingly common to find designers and publishers who use both Macintoshes and PCs, rather than choosing sides. Reflecting this change, publishers and prepress shops are started to accept PC files with open arms, where they used to look at PC disks like something the dog brought home.

I think that several factors have contributed to the change. First of all, Windows is now nearly equal to the Macintosh operating system in terms of support for publishing. All the major publishing software operates under Windows, in a manner very similar to the Macintosh. Arguably the only major issues for publishers between the two OSs are the Mac's generally better support for color management and for scripting. But few publishers use color management or scripting, so the difference seems very slight.

The Fall and Rise of Apple
Another factor was Apple's near collapse of the last few years, ended only recently by Steve Jobs' deft moves to get the company back on track. Just 10 months ago, I was predicting that Apple wouldn't make it through 1998 without merging or being acquired. MIS types, long anxious to rid their corporations of Macintosh computers, finally had potent ammunition with which to fight. "Look," they said, "Apple's nearly out of business—we better get these Macintoshes out of here." So a slow trend towards the PC-ification of the publishing world was hastened by Apple's own inept behavior.

In a way it's intriguing that there are any Macs left in publishing. Some analysts think the explanation lies in people's general disinclination to change. But I think it's more of a tribute to the essential quality of the Macintosh OS, and the ease with which non-technical types can master it, and work with it, day by day.

Publish magazine has been covering these developments since the early days of the revolution. This past October, Publish moved its coverage of the battle into a new dimension with the launch of a new conference business. Called "Connections 98," the two-day event looked at the challenge of "understanding the strategic benefits, workflow advantages, and technical requirements of integrating Macintosh, Windows and UNIX platforms into a single network."

I took on the interesting challenge of pulling together the conference program. The editors and the sponsors working with the magazine suggested two different approaches to the conference content. The first was to take essentially a workflow perspective. This would involve examining day-to-day production issues, such as digital proofing or computer-to-plate, and revealing them from a specific "mixed-platform perspective." I thought there was a lot of merit in the idea, but perhaps too many issues to cover in a short conference.

The second approach was to look at issues that were specific only to mixed-platform publishing, and to examine them in detail. I opted for the latter approach.

What lessons emerged from the conference?

The first lesson is that there are indeed a range of problems and challenges that are very specific to mixed-platform publishing, and that those issues need to be addressed independently of other production problems. In the most extreme case, issues of moving fonts and graphics between Macintosh and Windows computers are anything but seamless and automatic. The problems are definable, but they are also numerous, and somewhat complex.

It was also very clear at the conference that mixed-platform problems have as many roots in human emotion as they do in technical challenges. During the conference I posited that while few publishers would ever resist being pulled away from their Windows computers, the same could not be said for Macintosh publishers. As one attendee said, "They'll get my Macintosh when they pry it away from my cold, stiff fingers."

The emotional issue is an intriguing one. Macintosh loyalists, myself included, tend to see ourselves as the true keepers of the computing flame, and make a tacit assumption that Windows users are computing heathens. But more than one conference attendee observed that it all depends on where you start. John Timblin, who heads the electronic publishing department at Radio Shack, formed his group around the PC, and says that his designers and production artists are every bit as chauvinistic about their Windows computers as the toughest Mac lovers.

A lot of the challenges surrounding mixed-platform publishing have to do with servers. The majority of Macintosh publishing networks no longer rely on Macintosh computers as servers. Windows NT is the favorite, followed by UNIX, and then by the Mac. As friendly as Macs may be for publishing, UNIX boxes from Sun, Silicon Graphics and others make far better servers, better than Windows NT. While Windows NT is the fastest-growing server platform, UNIX is more versatile and stable, albeit potentially more difficult to configure and maintain.

The Days of Dominance
By the end of the conference, it was clear to me that Apple's days of complete publishing system dominance have ended. The Macintosh is still the preferred computer for high-end graphics professionals, but the Windows platform is making fast inroads into servers and into Web publishing applications.

At the same time, and for the first time, I started to feel OK about the changing landscape. Brands can polarize customers, but a range of choices has its own freedoms. I started to feel that the mixed-platform future might just be a good thing for all of us.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and serves as program director of Seybold Seminars. He welcomes comments at


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