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Mainstream Publishing Tries PCs

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Now and then there is an opportunity to sit back and take in the broad view of personal computing. Most recently it came at something called the Seybold Seminar in San Francisco.

Jonathan Seybold is the leading consultant on computer technology for the publishing industry: newspapers, magazines, catalogues, telephone books--you name it.

It is an industry that is at once threatened, captivated and seduced by the desktop publishing phenomenon that was created on the Macintosh and is trickling over to IBM and compatible PCs.

Seybold told his San Francisco audience that he believes publishing is the highest purpose to which personal computing aspires. He has a sweeping vision of what publishing encompasses that includes the familiar paper products plus mixed-media publications that promise to combine video, sound and hypertext in a form that only a computer could produce or utilize.

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Most larger newspapers and magazines published today, including The Times, use special computer terminals running special software on minicomputers in systems created and sold by a handful of companies that serve only the mainstream publishing industry.

But that is beginning to change. Publishers noticed that they could buy off-the-rack PCs and Macintoshes with a lot more power for fewer dollars than they have been spending for those custom-made systems. The Chicago Tribune has a contract to replace its editing terminals with Compaq 386S PCs, and the New York Times is preparing to fill its newsrooms with IBM PS/2 machines.

I didn’t hear of anybody planning to put out their paper with WordPerfect, but many are or will be using Xywrite III, a PC-based word processor that began life several years back as an imitation of the minicomputer-based Atex publishing software used at many newspapers and magazines. In just one example of how personal computing has turned things topsy-turvy, Atex is now buying Xywrite software and selling it to newspapers that want to use both PCs and Atex.

At Time magazine, a system is being developed for tracking the advertising and editorial content of each issue on Macintosh IIs. In London, the Evening Standard tabloid is being largely created on Macintosh computers, and the paper has an ambitious plan that will take it directly from the Mac to the plates for the printing presses with no manual steps in between.

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The Evening Standard hopes the result will be an elapsed time of no more than 10 minutes from when an editor finishes with a breaking story until it is in the papers coming off the press.

None of this is happening without a lot of controversy, difficulty and expense, however. Large newspapers are spending $15 million to $20 million for their next-generation systems. Obviously, we’re talking about a lot more than just dropping a PC on every reporter’s and editor’s desk.

Personal computing has created a revolution in the publishing business and as is true in any revolution, there is strong disagreement among the participants about which direction to take.

Most of the best desktop publishing software available today runs only on the Macintosh, but there is a strong current of opinion (or hope) that software for IBM will soon be as good or better. Since there are many more PCs than Macintoshes, developers think they could see a lot more software. But the OS/2 operating system and its graphic Presentation Manager display will first have to catch on in a big way.

The OS/2 fans are chasing a moving target, however, with Microsoft announcing that a more powerful version is coming next year that will run only on computers with Intel 80386 microprocessor chips.

A countervailing attitude is that neither Mac nor OS/2 have the strength to store, move and keep track of the massive amounts of data required in mainstream publishing. That is the view espoused by those who believe that the UNIX operating system that runs on minicomputers is the best answer. They unfortunately are hampered by the several different versions of UNIX that prevent universal compatibility among such systems.

So I looked and I listened and I concluded that there are about as many different ways to go about publishing as there are publications. Maybe more.

Meanwhile, back at the Los Angeles Times, we had our own little battles to fight. We discovered that the new IBM PS/2 Model 30-286 computers we had bought would not work with the Hayes 1200-baud modems installed inside them.

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What’s going on here? Hayes modems and IBM PCs have been working as reliable computing teams for years.

IBM won’t detail what went wrong, but a spokeswoman said they had discovered that the new, supposedly PC/AT compatible, machines couldn’t recognize the existence of the Hayes modem. A software patch is to be ready by the end of the month, and a hardware fix is in the works for yet-to-be manufactured 30-286s.

Coming in the midst of the Seybold Seminar, as this incident did, it gave me pause as I wondered how much of what I already take for granted in personal computing will have to be reinvented or at least repaired as we move into a complex new future.

Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O’Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


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