Don’t stop at the top

Volume 5 no. 8 (August 1987), page 13

If you read much of the literature being produced about the microcomputer revolution, you know that every once in awhile you will come across an article in which the author gushes about how current microcomputers are so much more powerful than the minicomputers or mainframes of just a few years ago.

I read these articles, too, and like you I sometimes get the feeling that the author had run out of other things to write about, so he trotted out the old stand-by topic. I mean, we all appreciate the power brought into our lives by microcomputers, don’t we? Consciously or unconsciously, don’t we all stand somewhat it awe of these little boxes?

I know I do. Each time I sit down in front of my computer I marvel at the speed, the storage, the versatility … you know the list. Of course, as with any other kind of magic we tend to get spoiled. Demanding more. Expecting more. Word 3.01 took almost a minute to repaginate my proposal. Sometimes it takes HyperCard four seconds to pull up the card I want out of my 400 kilobyte stack. I downloaded the file, all right, but it took nearly twenty minutes. These comparatively insignificant expenditures of time become unspeakable transgressions against us by the gods we have created.

And then every so often, I get to see something that puts it all back into perspective.

The thing that did this for me most recently was shopping for an integrated text, graphics, and page lay-out system for the publisher I work for. Our requirements are fairly typical for the magazine industry: we have around three dozen people (editors, artists, and typesetting personnel) who need to be linked together electronically, and who need powerful tools for putting out high-quality magazines in a timely manner.

When I came on board back in July of 1987, they had only recently decided that computerization was something desirable. The person in charge of the process was not opposed to buying Macintoshes, he just wanted to see them work first. There were other vendors who seemed to have systems that were perfect for our application, and all would be given an opportunity to audition their wares. Fair enough.

Several months later we saw our first system, one offered by Xyvision. We all trudged out to GTE in Thousand Oaks to see a typical installation and sit through the dog-and-pony show. After hours of demonstration we filed out. I knew I hadn’t seen anything spectacular, but no one else in our organization has as much computer experience as I, and it was difficult to tell if the others had been impressed. One thing about the system impressed all of us, however, and that was the $1 million price tag. Yikes!

The next demonstration promised to be more interesting. Compugraphics, a leading supplier of typesetting equipment, claimed to have the solution we were looking for. They created a special slide presentation for just for us, walked us through the publishing system of the future, and proudly delivered the entire package neatly wrapped.

I was terrified. Not only was the system exceedingly crude in many ways, my rough estimate indicated this dream system was going to set us back $1.2 million. Double yikes!

By the time the Macintosh demo rolled around, our little steering committee had lost some steam. After sitting through hours of Xyvision and Compugraphics demonstrations, nearly everyone else found something else to do the on the morning we were all slated to show up at Businessland in Westwood. At T-plus twenty minutes, the only ones in attendance were one of the art directors and myself. I called the office to remind the managing editor of our commitment. Thirty minutes later, one typesetter showed up. Great.

If the folks at Businessland were disappointed, it never showed. The four representatives on hand for the demonstration stayed for the entire show, even though they outnumbered us. Because I already knew Mac word processing and networking, we voted to concentrate on the mechanics of page lay-out, using Quark’s XPress to give our art director and typesetter a feel for what was possible.

Two minutes into the demo, the art director was hooked. Five minutes into the demonstration, she was raving. Ten minutes into the demonstration, the typesetter was hooked. At the end of the demonstration, he was asking Businessland salesperson Jim Perkins for a price on a Mac II for his personal use.

Back at the office, the art director was adamant: In a few unhurried minutes she had seen more capabilities in XPress on the Mac than in hours and hours of previous demonstrations. She wanted to storm the executive offices and demand that the publisher see the Macintosh system. On our way to see the publisher, the typesetter asked if he could join us! I don’t know about you, but I find that typesetters are normally suspicious of Macintoshes because there are so few arcane typesetting codes involved. Within minutes of our return, the entire office knew that the Mac demo had been something very special. The price, based on Mac IIs for everyone, Ethernet, a VAX file server, and software, came in at less than $300,000.

Yes, our company has a very nice profit-sharing program, but that is not what excites me most about the Macintosh system. What excites me is the dichotomy between the traditional systems, in which big-machines are brought down to the customers from on high, and microcomputer systems, in which human-scale machines are pushed to the nth degree by the incredible pressures of competition and user demand. Xyvision claims 250 customers for their system, Compugraphics about the same number. For big systems, these are not bad numbers.

In microcomputer terms, these numbers are vanishingly small. The bottom line? We are fast approaching the point where firms such as Xyvision and Compugraphics are going to have to make sweeping changes in the way they do business or go under.

A full demo of the Macintosh system is scheduled for next week. I am preparing for it by creating some HyperCard stacks that will organize style and usage conventions and back issue indexing. I will have photocopies of articles in which other publishers have raved about Mac-based systems, as well as some slightly more technical articles on the power and value in Macintosh networking.

In short, I will be loaded for bear. But if the second demo goes as well as the first, I may not have even to open my mouth.