Worth the Wait?

Professional designers will have to define the NeXT DTP market: shrinkwrapped or modular

by Eliot Bergson

For design professionals who took the plunge and chose the NeXT years ago as their publishing platform, the recent appearance of shrinkwrapped DTP applications is both a blessing and a reminder that more is needed. For others, the answer is to mix and match NeXT application capabilities, system enhancements, and development tools to build a modular publishing environment of their own.

"We're seeing the beginning of 'just-in-time' publishing," says Les Krzyzanowski, general manager in Los Angeles for Crestec, an international documentation concern with NeXTs in several offices around the world.

"I can access a document in L.A., have it translated in Japan, and bulk printed in Taiwan."

Custom environments
At Crestec's headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, Hugh Ashton has placed 25 NeXT machines at the heart of his publishing network. An early NeXT enthusiast, the British-born head of systems project development oversees the publication each month of up to ten service and owner's manuals, in seven different languages, for motorcycles, typewriters, and marine engines. Ashton has written custom software to take formatted chunks of manuals he has stored in a database and import them into FrameMaker.

He is unifying his printing solution as well. Crestec has installed three Xerox DocuTech printers in its L.A. office and is working on custom software to drive the new direct-digital printer, which uses a Kurzweil scanner to compress data at 600 dpi, instead of a light-sensitive camera, and can act as scanner, output device, and copier. "We can get customers to abandon offset for short print runs," says Ashton.

This type of "custom publishing environment" fits in precisely with NeXT's vision of publishing on the platform, according to Dave LaDuke, manager of publishing markets. It supports NeXT's overall marketing strategy of mission-critical custom apps. And because printing and publishing will increasingly rely on heterogeneous networks of high-tech machinery, says LaDuke, "we'd like to be in the middle of a mixed environment to run prepress file management, queue management, Post-Script-error checking, high-resolution image replacement, compression, networking, billing."

And with the emergence of third-party modular solutions and shrink-wrapped apps, NeXT is concentrating on assuring that software integrates into publishing environments as seamlessly as any hardware might.

A headache in disguise
"With the NeXT, I can play with design as if I had a pile of papers on the table windows on the desktop to go wild with," says Eddie Lee, a designer at Square Two in San Francisco. The machine has allowed him to try different ideas far more quickly than he could on a Mac, greek text in the proper font, and scan images on comps, all of which help him secure high-tech clients who want faster turnaround and use of the latest industry products.

"People love the NeXT," says Sheila Henriques, a designer at Outline Graphic Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It gives us a chance to look real- ly good. We're viewed as a professional studio that's in it for the long haul."

But enthusiasm is tempered by reality. Lee points to the need for a universal separation program and an image-editing program like Photoshop. While waiting for these gaps to be filled, he ports work over to the Mac. Henriques says she has art suppliers or a printing house add special effects.

Both are also frustrated by the lack of service-bureau support for NeXT files. "I can design until the sun goes down, but if I can't go to a service bureau and get four sheets separated, it's maddening," says Lee.

Andrew Vyrros, design director for several early issues of the BANG Newsletter, says he "had to do lots of reality checks on the output to make sure everything was all right." Vyrros encountered font-downloading conflicts, disappearing disk space as images swelled the NeXT-generated swapfile, and PostScript incompatibilities between the NeXT and RIPs even at bureaus that had GatorBox connections to Mac networks.

Designers see the appearance of software like Adobe Illustrator, Appsoft Draw, and Altsys Virtuoso as a validation to go with the NeXT but feel that additional shrinkwrapped apps will lead to wider acceptance of the platform and more service-bureau support. "As tools become available, the NeXT will become much more attractive for desktop publishing," says Vyros. "In the long run, it will be the superior platform."

Crafting success
Sergij Foski knows what it's like to try and sell a platform that lacks publishing software as a publishing solution. With Victor Husary, his partner at Skeleton Crew USA, a system integrator in San Francisco, he has forged a deal to bring 100 NeXTs to Lubljana, Slovenia.

"[The client] wanted to go with something more 'stable' and get a few NeXTs," says Foski. "There's another company in Lubljana that has 30 Macs. They have to kick their RIP to work, run around with disks, troubleshoot a broken network. I told them they didn't want that."

The deal involves a $4.2 million loan from the International Finance Corporation, an affiliate of the World Bank, to remodel the editorial and publishing system of the Delo Group, Slovenia's largest publisher. When changes are complete at the national daily paper, local daily, and 12 magazines, Skeleton Crew hopes to secure more funding to revamp Delo's reproduction house and printing plant.

The editorial system will rely on RightBrain's PasteUp as the DTP tool, a custom redmark system for editor/author interaction, and custom news-feed-capture software to grab wire-service text and images and distribute them within the system.

In an attempt to keep user acceptance as high as possible, Foski is writing code for the redmark software to drive old Linotype typesetting machines still in place. He is also writing a Slovenian version of the software that will contain hooks to other Delo software.

"Programmers know PostScript but they have to think like typographers or editors. You have to port the knowledge of each craft to desktop publishing," Foski says.

NeXT's LaDuke acknowledges that there is "a lot of intelligence of craft out there, but the economics of the market haven't allowed shrink-wrapped-app developers to bring it to market. That's why modular development is very important, so people can develop the small stuff and get it linked to what's already out there."

Users might very well be trapped between their own craft requirements and developers' market needs, but the middle ground may prove fertile: Users will have a unique chance to drive this emerging market. Because not all sites can afford systems integrators like Skeleton Crew, developers will be forced to work on shrinkwrapped solutions at the expense of modular solutions, according to Bruce Webster, chief technical officer of Pages Software in San Diego. "No one at NeXT has really made a compelling case for the Objects-R-Us methodology," he says.

A better solution, Webster says, will be the publication of agreed-upon API standards, so developers all speak the same language. Users will be assured a high degree of functionality in shrinkwrapped apps, a friendly learning curve for customization, and interapplication communication.

This could prove to be a winning strategy. "We could have lots of headaches communicating between third-party apps. We'll pick ones that allow us to integrate them with others," says Skeleton Crew's Foski.

More than just good looks
Some users, like Sheila Henriques, have professional concerns that NeXT never dreamed of when it built the first Cube. "The aesthetics of the machine help us because clients expect this look from design studios. We sell image and they want image," she says.

But others know that, in the end, it's not just how the NeXT looks, but how it allows a craftperson to achieve his or her goals. Whether the DTP solution on the NeXT is primarily modular or shrinkwrapped, "it comes down to this," says Sergij Foski: "There are old guys who have to learn the system and accept it. You can put a NeXT on their desks, but they have to use it. If they push the keyboard away, you lose."

Eliot Bergson is associate editor at NeXTWORLD. He was a typesetter for eight years.