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Postscript: Apple’s Killer App

October 19, 2004

A public radio commentary

In September CBS News retracted a claim that they had documents describing George Bush's National Guard service. Their news anchor, Dan Rather, announced they were forgeries. I've waited for the political fervor to subside to share with you what these documents really reveal: It isn't anything about politics, or even journalistic ethics - the documents capture the fusion of three events that gave us the age of the personal computer. In fact, the clues to the story are captured in the spacing between the letters.

Unlike a typewriter, which gives each and every character the same amount of space, the spacing between letters in the forged documents differed - the letters "t" and "a", for example, were closer together than the "S's" and the "p's." This is called "proportional spacing" - a concept was central to the rise and ubiquity of the personal computer, especially the early 1980s Apple.

Sales were sluggish at first for the computer, until a "killer application" came along - that's the computer industries lingo for a piece of software so powerful and so essential that everyone needs to have it. That software turned the computer into a sophisticated printing press. Just as the Apple computer appeared, two researchers founded a company called Adobe and developed the laser printer. The key to this printer lay in a revolutionary computer programming language called "Postscript", which allowed the PC to control every aspect of a printed image. Central to their vision was developing typefaces - a typeface, after all is nothing more than a very carefully executed drawing.

Now, it may seem odd to focus on letter spacing, but that's been a holy grail of the printing industries since its beginning. Early type setters pictured themselves as weavers of words and their text setting machines like looms. They sought to weave the text as beautifully as possible: No careless spacing of letters, but to create instead a block of text that appealed to the eye -- in fact, some think the name for a written page came from "textus" which means cloth.

Now neither Apple nor Adobe would have amounted to much without a third event. A small start up company named Aldus created the program called PageMaker. This turned out to be the "killer application" that ignited the PC revolution: It gave birth to desktop publishing. Within a year this trifecta of laser printer, PageMaker and the personal computer revived the struggling Apple brand and turned Aldus and Adobe into rich companies.

Together they created a graphic revolution that rivals in impact Gutenberg's printing press. So, we may overlook, as did the forger of the National Guard memos, the matter of a fraction of a hair's worth of spacing between letters, but in doing so we skip over the spark that ignited the PC revolution.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises