HTML – the new ABC

When considering the evolution of the digital world which has so many far-reaching consequences, it is interesting to reflect on the trail-blazing products and services that have emerged to much fanfare and often disappeared without trace. This occurs to me in light of a comment made by Ali Blackwell of Decoded at the TransFUSION conference on 4 December. He felt that HTML is so established as a standard that it would be the only format that could be relied upon into the years and decades ahead. Perhaps because of early decisions made to share and facilitate access rather than looking to protect IP and ‘monetize’.

So, over a career which started when there were Apricots as well as Apples, what has been made indispensable, set the standard and then just as quickly been relegated to the scrapheap:

Floppy disks (5.25″ and truly floppy then 3.5″ and 1.44Mb capacity): When Apple designed a computer without a floppy drive this made an early commitment to the internet and email as a means to share. My first copy of Word fitted on a a floppy disk and did 95% of what I need it to do today – progress?

SyQuest: The first real way to transfer large files – the 44Mb capacity of the cartridges was huge when your Mac may have 16Mb of RAM and 100Mb hard disk. It grew up to support the new community of desktop publishers through the mid-late 1980s who needed to supply files to printers. This is a pre-PDF world were application files, fonts, images and graphics were all supplied.

ZipDisk: Iomega developed a range of storage options but perhaps the best known, certainly in the design/production community was the 100Mb and later 250Mb ZipDisk cartridges. The drives plugged into your SCSI port and even became an option on desktop PCs. It pretty much killed off the SyQuest cartridges overnight.

Freehand: The discontinuation of support for Freehand by Adobe (after it had passed from Aldus/Altsys to Macromedia then the the growing behemoth of Adobe) in favour of it’s own Illustrator (which Neville Brody famously and with good reason called ‘the instrument of the devil’) was perhaps the most emotionally-charged chapter in software development. Many graphic designers ‘grew up’ with Freehand and loved its simplicity, intuitive tools and the ease with which you could create graduated blends of colour. Pretty much the Pepsi and Coke of drawing packages, if you started out using Freehand you found Illustrator hard to adjust to. I wasn’t the only one, there were many activist groups that protested and even Creative Review published Freehand Anonymous but Adobe was not for turning and graphic designers of a certain age still lamenting its passing.

PageMaker: In the mid 1980s Aldus Pagemaker was the king of desktop publishing. Requiring very few upgrades, the package offered a similar level of simplicity to Freehand and until the emerge of a rival – Quark XPress which was by comparison, complex, expensive and subject to complex dongle protection – was the only choice. Sadly for Aldus, Quark also provided Xtensions to allow developers to automate publishing (particularly in catalogue production) and quickly became the standard for designers. Both Adobe InDesign and Quark cannot match the elegance and simplicity of PageMaker.

Newton: The Newton created the personal digital assistant product category and was developed by Apple in the John Sculley era for $100m. Sadly for Apple the design and aspirations far outshone the technical delivery with functions such as handwriting recognition that simply didn’t work – and openly mocked in contemporary popular culture even appearing in The Simpsons. I attended the launch of the product and everyone in the room wanted one at any price. It wasn’t to be but part of the development team went on to develop the iPod operating system.


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