It was 1989 when Adobe cofounder John Warnock memorably decried Apple and Microsoft’s joint effort to circumvent true Adobe PostScript as a requisite for PC publishing. The stage was the Seybold publishing conference at
Still, Warnock had a point! Apple and Microsoft had haphazardly come together around a font standard code-named “Royal” and a strategy to develop a PostScript clone (these were later trade-named TrueType and TrueImage, respectively). A software pied piper named Cal Bauer had promised an easy path around genuine Adobe PostScript technology, and he somehow convinced the usually circumspect executives at Microsoft and Apple to follow it. (It was during the John Sculley era at Apple, who coincidentally employed a Royal-evangelist lieutenant named John Scull.)
Back then, the Seybold conference was no stranger to controversy. At the same venue just three years earlier, HP attempted its own publishing-language end run, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously declared HP’s PDL tactics (document-description language, or DDL, instead of PostScript) to be “brain dead.” And between 1986 and 1989, Apple and IBM announced an unlikely alliance to develop PowerPC-based products at the Seybold conference. Even though this announcement was only marginally related to publishing, in those days it seemed that if a company had something weighty and controversial to announce, Seybold was the place to do so, so the show had long sparked discussion and debate among attendees.
But the 1989 “mumbo jumbo” blowup was probably the show’s most memorable, and here we are again, 17 years later, with Microsoft poised to introduce its new Windows Vista operating system, which includes a built-in portable document format built around industry standards (XPS stands for XML Paper Specification). One easily derived prediction is that the software giant’s clout will soon eradicate the currently entrenched document format, Adobe PDF. Another contrary take is that XPS has too many restrictions (it is really not cross-platform, for example) and that PDF is too well-established in the marketplace. Sounds like the same arguments bandied about in 1989!
It is amazing that many of the same players are still involved, although the scenario has evolved from the classic love triangle of the late 1980s between Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft to more of a face-off between Adobe and Microsoft. Apple, it could be argued, is the platform of choice for the publishing industry, but the company is not central to this fight. HP, the leader in desktop printing back then, remains an interested party. A list of new, smaller companies such as Global Graphics, Monotype, Quality Logic, Software Imaging, and Zoran have a role in the XPS/PDF debate and may benefit from the XPS momentum, provided they can respond quickly and proficiently to market demands.
Despite the many similarities between the situation in 1989 and today, I’m not saying things haven’t changed—things have changed radically. The biggest difference is the character of the “documents” being described by the XPS and PDF standards. In 1989, publishing was nearly synonymous with printing. Today, and for a long time now, publishing includes electronic formats, and the documents described may never be available in hard copy. PDF was developed as a PostScript by-product in the early 1990s, and despite its strength and industry-standard status in the printing market, its real growth has been as an electronic exchange format, boosted by the emergence of e-mail and the Worldwide Web. Although document portability is part of both yesterday’s and today’s debate, back in 1989 file exchange in publishing was largely accomplished via Syquest cartridges and FedEx shipments.
Today, the pervasiveness of PDF is staggering. Adobe reports an installed base of 600 million Acrobat readers; 20 million individual PDF documents are available on the Internet; and the IRS reports that 1.3 billion PDF tax forms have been downloaded since 1996. Those numbers alone make XPS knocking PDF off its perch as the dominant file-exchange format seem to be a monumental and unrealistic goal indeed, at least in the near future.
I predict that there will be a role for both PDF and XPS, but it is safe to say the technologies will follow a path with many twists and turns. Since the momentous 1989 Seybold show, PostScript clones have caught on, but TrueImage never found widespread market success. TrueType fonts live on today, and while Display Postscript is a distant memory, Adobe subsequently created Acrobat and PDF.