The list's past: on predictions

Dan Margulis

We know that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, and since we have had threads on the list’s future and present, let me comment a bit on its past, because it’s relevant to what we have just been discussing.

I have been trying to downsize by getting rid of all my magazines, scanning my own writings for archiving. Right now I’m in the late 1990s, which was a truly pivotal time in our field, more so even than today. It teaches us a lot about what’s predictable and what isn’t. Which bears on the current threads about the rapid decline in our field (predictable) and also on the question of Adobe’s responsibility to keep up with Apple (dubious).

By the late 1990s it was obvious that “desktop publishing” had replaced the old dedicated prepress systems, but a many other things weren’t so obvious. The clear consensus of writers other than myself at my magazine, Electronic Publishing, was that

*PDF, despite a lack of adoption now, was going to take over as the standard output method. (Right!)
*Hexachrome printing (adding green and orange inks to CMYK) was going to get a big market share. (Wrong!)
*On-demand printing was going to become a huge player (Absolutely!), wherefore
*Jobs would become much smaller and more targeted to specific audiences (Right!)
*Complicated color management systems would become mandatory (Wrong!)
*There would be a vast increase in large-format printing (Right!)

Myself, I got the last one wrong, but my predictions on the first five were correct.

Note that all these points related to printing, not photography or the web. Perhaps that’s why there was a consensus, right or wrong. On issues of more direct concern to us, there was a split.

*Are digital cameras ever going to replace film altogether?
*Is the web ever going to be suitable for hosting high-res images?

Now in fairness, some of the naysaying may have been to please advertisers. Film-based camera vendors were saying they were in no danger from digital. Printer vendors wanted everyone to have an expensive photo-quality printer at home, and feared online services that could do the job more cheaply. Still, some credible people were saying that digicam quality would never improve enough to match the quality of “real” cameras, and that internet bandwidth would never get much faster than the dial-up speeds then the norm.

How to avoid such delusions? Remember three rules:

*Technology gets better. We did have an internet, and digital cameras, and artificial color-correction intelligence back then, but they were ludicrously primitive compared to what we have today.

*It also gets cheaper. The prices being advertised in the magazine were breathtaking, particularly for hard disk storage, which cost around 300 times as much then as it does today.

*Convenience trumps quality. Digicams of 20 years ago were so pitiful that they couldn’t be considered for professional shots of anything that moved. But as soon as that changed, they took over rapidly, even before they really had the quality of a decent film camera.

These considerations explain why the recent collapse of the imaging industry was quite predictable. At the low end, everything is vastly better than it was when compared to “professional” quality. Paco just pointed out one example (artificial correction intelligence). And the increased bandwidth of the web makes it possible for us to work at home instead of in large plants.

Cheap, too. The computers that typical consumers used back then were too weak for serious graphics work. Based on advertising in these magazines, I’d say that a halfway decent production system, including a reasonably powerful computer, extra RAM, plenty of hard disk space, a camera, scanner and color printer, etc., would have been around $25,000 in today’s money. Today, these capabilities are routine without laying out anything extra; any housewife probably has already has the necessary equipment.

Speaking of already having the necessary equipment, we all carry smartphones. They all have fairly good cameras. A “real” camera has many advantages, but the huge disadvantage that you have to carry it around. So only the most serious photographer now does so.

These, then, are the trends in, say, the last decade. Huge incentives to shift away from “professional” tools. No more need to have your work done by somebody able to afford appropriate equipment. And much improved results for the less skilled do-it-yourselfers. Is it any surprise that the industry collapsed—as some of us predicted?

In a second thread I will discuss something rather less predictable, having to do with the thread started by Davide Barranca. Apple Computer has announced new hardware that will obsolete some of the things we currently use. What should software developers do? Is history about to repeat itself?