Computer Chronicles Revisited 69 — PageMaker, Ventura Publisher, and the DEST PC Scan Plus

Computer software giant Adobe recently made headlines with its proposed $20 billion acquisition of Figma, the developer of a popular web-based interface design application. According to Wikipedia, this is the 56th acquisition made by Adobe, Inc.–formerly Adobe Systems, Inc.–since 1990. It’s definitely been quite a ride since John Warnock started the company back in 1982 after leaving Xerox PARC to develop his PostScript printer language.

Warnock was previously a guest in a September 1985 Computer Chronicles episode covering laser printers. He made a return appearance in this next episode from October 1986 as the subject of a Wendy Woods report. Overall, this episode was the second in a two-part look at desktop publishing (DTP).

While the first part focused on the Macintosh, the emphasis this time was on the IBM PC and other MS-DOS compatibles. In the introduction, Stewart Cheifet showed Gary Kildall an issue of PC Publishing, a new magazine dedicated to desktop publishing on the IBM platform. Cheifet noted that over the past couple of years DTP had been considered the exclusive domain of the Apple Macintosh. Was it too late for the IBM guys to get into this? Kildall said he didn’t think so. DTP was a relatively new industry. He noted an IBM PC with an EGA card gave you real good graphics and there were new DTP applications coming out for both Digital Research’s GEM and Microsoft Windows, so he thought the market was now wide open.

Commercial Printers Adapted to New Age of DTP

Wendy Woods presented her first remote report from George Lithograph Company, a high-end printing firm in San Francisco. Woods said that the immense popularity of desktop publishing was a worrisome development for commercial printers, who saw it as a potentially grave threat. The time and cost saved by in-house printing of reports, training manuals, advertising brochures, or any other document was seductively appealing to organizations with large printing budgets.

Some commercial printers, heavily computerized themselves Woods noted, were striking back in novel ways. At George Lithograph, for example, the goal was to provide customers with an alternative to in-house publishing by bridging the electronic gap between desktop computer and professional printer. George provided its clients with a hardware-software package called Automated Typesetting Process (ATP Plus). The client worked through a standard, high-level word processor to compose text. A soft-touch keypad for typesetting commands was the only additional hardware. The keypad allowed the users to enter coded commands without producing visible codes in the document, making it easier to read. The customer could then send completed documents by telephone or mail to the printer, where the text was prepared for typesetting and graphics added.

Woods said that often forgotten in the heavily electronic world of DTP was the manual and mechanical aspects of printing–the specialized talents that created the artwork and the design of a document, and the massive machinery that printed the final product. Modern commercial printers like George hoped that their traditional customers would balk at making the investment in hardware and training that was required for in-house publishing. Instead, printers were adapting to the trend by integrating their systems with the new technology.

Aldus PageMaker, HP Laser Printer, and Microsoft Windows Formed Powerful Alliance

Paul Brainerd and Roger Archibald joined Cheifet and Kildall for the first of three studio round table segments. Brainerd, the founder and president of Aldus Corporation, briefly appeared at the end of the previous episode. Archibald was a product marketing manager with Hewlett-Packard’s printer division.

Kildall opened by asking Brainerd what you could actually do with a desktop publishing package like Aldus’ PageMaker. Brainerd said it allowed you to use your personal computer to integrate text and graphics and put it together on a page and print it out on a laser printer. This gave you a high-quality result that could then be reproduced on an office copy machine or at your local print shop. Kildall clarified that DTP therefore took the place of mechanical typesetting. Brainerd said yes, it did.

Kildall asked about the types of customers who were buying DTP packages. Brainerd said his customer base was very broad. There were about 30,000 users of PageMaker in its first year. These users included corporations, individuals, artists–a very broad segment of business and nonprofit organizations.

Brainerd then provided a demonstration of PageMaker for the IBM PC. (This was apparently a Beta version, as the official release did not take place until December 1986, a couple of months after this episode aired.) Brainerd said the first thing worth noting was that the program used a graphical user interface, specifically Microsoft Windows, which allowed for the use of pull-down menus.

Brainerd created a new document, a 16-page newsletter. He showed how you could change the font and typeface, which he adjusted for the HP LaserJet printer in the studio. He then showed two pages side-by-side and added 2-column guides.

Brainerd explained that the key command in PageMaker was “Place,” which meant placing text and graphics files. You could import text files from a word processor, such as WordStart, MultiMate or Microsoft Word, or even a scanned image. Brainerd placed an image of a stylized letter “A” and a text file created with MultiMate into the columns. He added that if the text were justified, the software would automatically hyphenate the text. Brainerd noted there were five different zoom levels so you could adjust the on-screen display to actual size.

Kildall asked if it were possible when editing the text to have it flow automatically throughout the entire document. Brainerd said yes, it would flow through the columns.

Kildall then turned to Archibald and asked him how important was the laser printer to DTP. Archibald said it was one of the key hardware elements, as it put in the hands of the PC user the ability to create high-quality output locally. He showed Kildall some examples of documents created with an HP laser printer, such as electronic forms that merged data, and a newsletter mixing different fonts with graphics.

Brainerd then showed his own sample documents. In addition to corporate documents, he noted many nonprofit organizations used PageMaker for creative work. He showed an issue of Oak Square, a short fiction quarterly produced in Massachusetts. Brainerd said he personally received a lot of satisfaction from seeing these types of documents.

Cheifet pointed out that Brainerd demonstrated PageMaker on a Hewlett-Packard Vectra, an IBM PC-AT compatible. Did you need an AT to run PageMaker? Brainerd said he would recommend it because PageMaker was an example of an application that pushed the boundaries. But you could use an PC XT with an enhancement to increase its speed.

Cheifet asked Archibald to explain the Document Description Language (DDL) used by HP for its laser printers and why the company picked that standard over Adobe’s PostScript. Archibald said that HP studied numerous page description languages for two years and looked at the three major leaders. The company adopted DDL because it complemented the business segment that it was targeting, i.e., people working on larger documents in networked environments. DDL also complemented the printer command language that was currently in the HP LaserJet.

Cheifet noted that HP and Aldus were also involved in an alliance with Microsoft. What was that about? Archibald said it was primarily a marketing alliance. The goal was to promote Microsoft Windows, Aldus PageMaker, and HP’s LaserJet and Vectra PC as a complete DTP package for the MS-DOS user.

Adobe Experienced Rapid Growth Thanks to PostScript

Wendy Woods returned to profile Adobe Systems and its founder, John Warnock. (This segment covered much of the same ground as Warnock’s prior in-studio Chronicles appearance.) Woods said that the American entrepreneur’s dream was to have the right product at the right time with all the right customers lined up. That was exactly what happened at Adobe Systems in January 1985 when Apple unveiled the LaserWriter printer.

Woods explained that Adobe wrote PostScript, the language that the laser printer understood and used to print out documents. By virtue of being out first, PostScript promised to become the industry standard. Warnock told Woods that PostScript had a good chance of succeeding in that goal. Clearly, there were a number of competing printer languages out there trying to catch up with PostScript, but Adobe had a good solid lead that he expected would grow over the next year.

After Apple employed PostScript in the LaserWriter, Woods said, other companies followed, including DEC, Wang, Texas Instruments, and Dataproducts, among others. She added that Adobe’s growth was measured in its growth from two people in 1982 to over 80 today–and from zero income to $12 million a year. (For reference, Adobe today employs about 26,000 people and has annual revenues of nearly $16 billion.)

Woods noted that PostScript was now used in over 50,000 installed laser printers. And without those printers, there would be no DTP revolution. Warnock said PostScript had already made a fundamental impact on the way people did publishing and printing and that would continue to grow over the next several years.

PC Desktop Publishing with GEM

John Meyer and Richard Amen joined Cheifet and Kildall for the next studio segment. Meyer, who previously worked for Kildall at Digital Research, was now president of Ventura Software, Inc. Amen was president of DEST Corporation.

Kildall opened by mentioning that Meyer was a major contributor to Digital Research’s GEM project. (Indeed, he received a $25,000 bonus for his work, according to another former DRI employee, Lee Lorenzen.) Kildall asked Meyer how he differentiated his company’s DTP package, Ventura Publisher, from the other products like PageMaker. Meyer said there were three distinctions. The first was speed. Ventura had the speed to run on an unmodified PC XT–and run very nicely on an AT. Second, there were built-in concepts that allowed a non-typesetter to get typographically correct results. Third, Ventura could do long documents like technical manuals as well as shorter documents like newsletters.

Kildall noted that one of the keys to DTP was adding pictures and drawings. With that awkward transition, he turned to Amen and asked about his company’s product, the DEST PC Scan Plus, a scanner that could read documents into a PC. Amen said his company specialized in “input” for DTP packages and word processing programs. He demonstrated by placing a paper document into the DEST scanner. Cheifet clarified that the scanner was hooked up to a Compaq 286 under the desk. The scanner could then recognize text material on the page and translate it into ASCII text for the computer.

Kildall asked about the data rate on the scanner, i.e., how many words could it read per minute? Amen said the scanner was about 20 times faster than the fastest typist could type in the same amount of text. He noted the scanner took about 15 seconds to scan the sample page.

Kildall asked if the DEST scanner could handle any type of fonts. For example, could it read a Gothic font? Amen said his scanners were programmed to read the 16 most common fonts encountered in the office and that included a wide variety of fonts. Kildall asked about the number of text errors in a scanned document. Amen said that depended on the quality of the document that was put into the scanner. If it was smudged or wrinkled, that could present difficulties.

Kildall then asked about scanning pictures. Amen explained the DEST could scan drawings and photographs. He could then select a part of a page that he wanted to scan. He then inserted a sample photograph (of a DEST employee), which Amen noted would scan faster because there was less information to process. The scanned image could then be placed into DTP software like Ventura.

While Amen helped set up a Ventura demonstration, Cheifet asked Meyer if a user had the same DTP capabilities on a PC as they did on a Macintosh. Meyer said the capabilities were almost identical. The important thing was the type of software that you purchased. He emphasized that Ventura was designed for the general user rather than the specialist.

Kildall asked Meyer about the impact of DTP software on manual typesetting. Meyer said he believed that manual typesetting would be enhanced by software like Ventura. The smart operators would include DTP as part of their offerings, so that a customer that didn’t just want to print their document on a laser printer would still have the option of using a professional print shop. Meyer then showed Cheifet a sample output of a document printed on a laser printer using Ventura.

Meyer next provided an actual demonstration of the Ventura software. He explained the use of stylesheets, allowing a user to select a block of text and turn it into a heading or subhead. He added a frame to an existing text page to show how the text automatically flowed around that frame. He then placed a picture of the space shuttle in the frame.

Meyer moved onto another sample document, a technical manual, which had a table of contents. He said Ventura could automatically generate the contents and an index. He also imported the photograph that Amen scanned earlier into a frame in another sample document, a book chapter.

Would Desktop Publishing Make Word Processing Obsolete?

Jonathan Seybold joined Cheifet, Kildall, and George Morrow for the final segment. Seybold was editor in chief of the Seybold Report, a desktop publishing industry newsletter.

Kildall asked Seybold if DTP software would eventually become word processing, eliminating the need for traditional character-based word processors. Seybold said that would probably happen in the long run. He said we’d likely to see a continuum product that covered a range of needs from doing simple memos to complex documents. So eventually the market would evolve into more complex text-and-graphic products. (Kildall quipped that eventually a home user could write a letter to Grandma and include a picture of the grandchildren.) Seybold said that DTP was really about taking what was a specialized skill that required specialized equipment and training and programming it into a computer so that everybody could use it. Morrow added this would also make people more computer-literate.

Cheifet asked Seybold why it took so long to get DTP into the MS-DOS environment relative to the Macintosh. Seybold said the Mac environment was really made for this sort of application. And that went back long before the Mac to work that was done at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, where they were actually doing desktop publishing. Now we were turning the MS-DOS machines into that kind of machine, because that was the natural sort of environment for DTP.

Cheifet asked Morrow if it took the laser printer to jumpstart the DTP market. Morrow said he thought it was. He said it was hardware that inspired software. And then software came along and dragged the hardware down into the marketplace. He cited the Apple II as an example. The Apple inspired the spreadsheet (VisiCalc), and then people started buying computers just to get spreadsheets.

Kildall said it was a combination of hi-resolution graphics with the laser printers that sparked the DTP market. Morrow retorted it was really the laser printer. After all, he didn’t consider the Mac’s display very hi-resolution. (And this is why we love George.) He added that the small, consumer-level copier with removable cartridges helped make it possible to do a low-cost laser printer like the LaserWriter, which then inspired DTP software. Seybold agreed. He added that when he saw the prototype of the LaserWriter, about nine months before its release, he went to Paul Brainerd and said, “This is what you ought to be working on,” and got him together with Apple.

AST Entered PC Business as AT&T Exited

Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access,” which he recorded in October 1986.

  • AT&T announced it would phase out the production and development of its personal computers. AT&T would now work exclusively with Olivetti, the company behind the AT&T PC 6300 and a major distributor of PCs in Europe. Cheifet said the announcement likely meant the end of the AT&T UNIX PC manufactured by Convergent Technologies. AT&T planned to shift focus towards helping its customers use a variety of computers to interface with the company’s telephone network.
  • AST Research, Inc., which made PC expansion boards, introduced its first personal computer, the AT-compatible Premium 286, which ran at 10 Mhz and featured 1 MB “Fast RAM” card. Cheifet said AST was targeting its PC at the desktop publishing market.
  • Hyundai planned to sell the new Blue Chip PC clone at discount retailers like Wal-Mart, Federated Department Stores (Macy’s), and Toys “R” Us. Cheifet said the base system would retail for $699, but a complete setup with a monitor, full memory, and a second floppy disk drive would run about $1,000.
  • International Data Corporation projected computer industry growth of under 10 percent annually for the rest of the 1980s. IDC said the computer boom might return in the 1990s when applications using artificial intelligence created new markets for personal computers.
  • A University of Colorado survey found “office automation” was a flop and that most executives felt computers had not increased productivity. Among the findings, researchers said that documents written on word processors were 27 percent longer than those written on typewriters–and documents composed on computers took 34 percent longer than those written out in longhand.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed The Idea Generator (Experience in Software, Inc., $200), a decision support system. Schindler said the program overcame the traditional steep learning curve of decision support systems “with a high degree of hand-holding.”
  • Microsoft released a new version of Word for the Macintosh, which now allowed users to move files from a Mac to a PC.
  • IBM released a new computer laserdisc package called PALS (Principal of the Alphabet Literacy System) to help adults learn how to read. Cheifet said the system could be used to teach up to 16 students at a time.
  • The publisher of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, software newsletter proposed annual awards for the best software documentation to motivate companies to improve their manuals.

Paul Brainerd’s Journey to Inventing–and Later Abandoning–Desktop Publishing

Just a brief note before I begin my analysis. The Computer History Museum conducted a number of oral histories with guests from this episode, including a 2006 interview with Paul Brainerd by Suzanne Crocker; a 2017 interview with Jonathan Seybold by Burton Grad; and a 2017 panel including Brainerd, Seybold, Ventura Software co-founder Lee Lorenzen, and former Apple executive John Scull, which was moderated by Grad and David C. Brock. I’ll be referencing these oral histories throughout the rest of the blog post.

Paul Brainerd grew up in Medford, Oregon, where his parents ran a photography studio. With that background, Brainerd later worked as a photojournalist for the student newspaper at the University of Oregon, which he entered in 1966. Brainerd eventually became editor of the Oregon Daily Emerald. He then attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, earning a master’s degree in journalism and working as editor of the Minnesota Daily.

Brainerd was also the production manager at both newspapers. While completing his master’s thesis, he took a job as an assistant to the operations director at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He remained at the Star-Tribune until 1980. During that time, Brainerd helped convert the newspaper to computer typesetting and composition. The Minnesota paper was one of the first in the country to adopt a new minicomputer-based editing system developed by Massachusetts-based Atex.

In 1980, Atex offered Brainerd a position as its vice president for customer service. Realizing that he was still an operations assistant–and quite junior in terms of seniority–at the Star-Tribune, Brainerd said he jumped at the chance to move from journalism into the tech sector. So after briefly working out of Atex’s Boston headquarters, he moved to Seattle to head up a new division charged with developing the next generation of text processing systems for microcomputers.

This project hit a wall in 1983. Eastman Kodak purchased Atex for 1.1 million shares in Kodak stock. Kodak decided to shut down Brainerd’s Seattle operation and lay off all of the engineers working on the microcomputer project.

At this point, Brainerd decided to start his own company, which would develop a new microcomputer-based newspaper layout system from scratch. Using his proceeds from the sale of his Atex stock as a starting point, Brainerd raised $100,000 in startup capital. He brought in four of his fired Atex colleagues as co-founders and started Aldus Corporation in 1984, with a goal of building a prototype and raising additional funding within six months. (Aldus was named after Aldus Manutius the Elder, a 16th century Italian scholar and publisher.)

Brainerd said the six months–and the $100,000–were nearly gone when he finally found a backer in Vanguard Ventures, where one of the partners was former Apple sales director Gene Carter. This would be the first connection between Aldus and Apple. The second was Jonathan Seybold. As Seybold mentioned on Chronicles, he played a significant role in jump starting desktop publishing on the Macintosh, which debuted in January 1984.

Jonathan Seybold’s father was John W. Seybold, who once served as executive director of the trade association representing the Philadelphia printing industry in labor negotiations. The elder Seybold later started ROCAPPI, which developed the first computer-based typesetting systems in the 1960s. After selling ROCAPPI in 1970, Seybold and son started the Seybold Report, a newsletter focusing on publishing technologies.

Jonathan Seybold later expanded the business into consulting and running a series of publishing conferences and seminars. Brainerd said he started attending these conferences while working at the Star-Tribune, acquainting him with Seybold. In early 1984, Seybold arranged for Brainerd to meet with two of his consulting clients–Apple and Adobe–where Brainerd learned about the forthcoming LaserWriter printer and PostScript language.

Brainerd decided then to pivot development of PageMaker, still in its pre-release form, to the Macintosh. Brainerd recalled he had a particularly uneasy exchange with Steve Jobs, still Apple’s chairman at the time, who wanted him to price PageMaker at no more than $89.95. Brainerd “listened to him politely” and said nothing. PageMaker ultimately sold for $495, which Brainerd said was necessary to give Aldus sufficient cash flow to invest in growing its business.

Apple CEO John Sculley was desperate to turn around the sagging fortunes of the Macintosh and the LaserWriter. John Scull–not to be confused with John Sculley–was the marketing manager for Apple’s business division. He recalled that sales of the LaserWriter had cratered from about 2,000 units sold during its first month on the market to about 400 per month by late 1985. Scull and Bruce Blumberg, who was in charge of the LaserWriter, decided that Apple had to back a page-layout program to help reinvigorate sales.

Scull said there were basically three options–the still-unreleased PageMaker, Manhattan Graphics Corporation’s Ready, Set, Go!, and Boston Software Publishers’ MacPublisher. Although MacPublisher had been the first layout software to market, Scull said it was not a WYSIWYG program, which meant it was a poor choice to showcase the Mac’s capabilities. And while Ready, Set, Go!–which was featured in the previous Chronicles episode–was technically capable, Scull said it was “just too small a group” that lacked sufficient capital to pull it off in his view. That left Aldus, which was helped by the backing of former Apple executive Carter.

Meanwhile, Brainerd was holding discussions with his board members and investors in late 1984 over how to market PageMaker. According to Brainerd, one of the board members said they needed a “simple two-word explanation” to describe their product. Someone else said, “Could it be desktop-something?” Brainerd then came up with “desktop publishing” on the spot, and that stuck.

PageMaker 1.0 officially released in July 1985. Brainerd said he had abandoned his original plan to market the software primarily to daily newspapers after taking a trip down Interstate 5 from Seattle to his hometown of Medford, Oregon. During this trip, he spoke to a number of small-town newspapers, which all basically told him they were owned by corporate chains that made capital decisions over a one-to-two-year period. Brainerd then pivoted to focusing PageMaker sales to “small businesses, offices, churches, schools, [and] small publishers.”

PageMaker quickly launched the Macintosh as a desktop publishing platform. Aldus went public in June 1987. At that point, Brainerd later observed, he was spending “less and less time doing the things I really enjoyed, which was talking to customers, understanding their needs, and working with the engineers to develop the products.” He soon tired of running a public company and asked his board to start putting a succession plan into place.

Ultimately, that led to Brainerd selling the company. He decided to actively solicit a merger with John Warnock’s Adobe. They announced a deal in March 1994. The two companies would merge in a stock-swap valued at $525 million. Warnock and Adobe President Chuck Gerschke would retain control of the combined company, which also kept the Adobe name. So it was in effect an Adobe absorption of Aldus.

The deal did hit one brief snag. Aldus had previously acquired the exclusive marketing rights to FreeHand, a vector graphics drawing program developed by Altsys Corporation. (Altsys also developed Fontographer, which I discussed in the previous post.) Altsys filed a lawsuit in April 1994 to stop the Aldus-Adobe merger, alleging the deal violated a non-compete clause in the FreeHand license. Basically, FreeHand competed with Adobe’s Illustrator, and Altsys believed the new Adobe would bury the former to protect the latter.

United States antitrust officials expressed similar concerns. So to make everyone happy, Aldus agreed to grant the rights to FreeHand back to Altsys. This allowed the Adobe-Aldus merger to close in September 1994. Less than two months later, Altsys turned around and sold itself to Macromedia. In a final ironic twist, Adobe acquired Macromedia in 2005, which buried FreeHand once and for all. (To be fair, Macromedia ceased active development in 2003.)

From Warnock’s perspective, the Aldus acquisition was about one thing–killing off competition from QuarkXPress. While it didn’t arrive on the market until 1987, QuarkXPress would eventually overtake PageMaker in the 1990s to become the dominant page layout software. Adobe didn’t have its own high-end page layout system at the time and Warnock and Geschke realized they didn’t have two or three years to develop their own product. By acquiring PageMaker, that bought them time to develop what would eventually become its successor product, Adobe InDesign, which debuted in 1999. By that point the market for PageMaker was largely dead, and Adobe quietly stopped development after releasing a final version in 2001.

As for Paul Brainerd, he remained on the combined Adobe board for a time but otherwise made a clean break with the tech industry. Brainerd spent the next 25 years pursuing charity work. In 1995, he started the Brainerd Foundation, which made grants to over 500 environmental protection organizations in the Pacific Northwest. In 2008, Brainerd announced he planned to spend the Foundation’s entire endowment during his lifetime and sunset its work by 2020. The Foundation met its goal and formally closed at the end of 2020. Brainerd’s other major post-Aldus project was founding Social Venture Partners, a nonprofit network of philanthropists, which is still in operation today.

Ventura Went from DRI Spin-Off to Forgotten Corel Add-In

The brief history of Ventura Software offers an interesting contrast to the Aldus story. While Paul Brainerd was a publishing industry veteran looking to build a company and serve thousands of customers, John Meyer and his co-founders at Ventura were ex-Digital Research employees fresh off the GEM project who created a product with one customer and eventually sold the company when there was pressure to do more.

Meyer’s co-founders, former Chronicles guest Lee Lorenzen and Don Heiskel, were the actual programmers behind Ventura Publisher. Lorenzen worked at Xerox fresh out of college and later followed his manager to DRI to work on CP/M. Lorenzen specialized in user interfaces and helped develop the GEM desktop and its associated applications. Heiskel was Lorenzen’s boss in DRI’s graphics group.

Lorenzen said the concept that became Ventura started out as an idea at DRI to build a high-end word processor that could handle graphics. (As he noted, the term “desktop publishing” didn’t exist yet.) DRI President John Rawley wasn’t interested in the idea, so Lorenzen and Heiskel decided to leave and start their own company. The departure was on friendly terms, as Lorenzen and Heiskel licensed the rights to use the GEM user interface as part of their still-undeveloped application.

Lorenzen and Heiskel recruited Meyer to join them. According to a 1983 DRI company newsletter, Meyer came to the company earlier that year from Sykes Datatronics, where he had been a product marketing director. DRI initially hired Meyer to manage its hardware group, although by the time he left in 1984 he’d been elevated to director of marketing for the company.

Meyer has an engineering degree from Stanford and a Harvard MBA, which likely made him an attractive candidate to serve as Lorenzen and Heiskel’s “front man” for the newly formed Ventura Software, Inc., which incorporated on October 8, 1985, less than two months after the three co-founders handed in their resignations to DRI. Eric Bender reported for Computerworld that Ventura planned to “develop and market computer-aided publishing software” targeting “several niches, the first being users who already own desktop laser printers.”

As Lorenzen later explained, he and his colleagues had given themselves a tight deadline to actually produce a working prototype–just six weeks. They wanted to have their program ready for the November 1985 COMDEX show in Las Vegas. Lorenzen said they built their product on top of GEM, not just because they were familiar with the software and could easily get a license from DRI, but also because it was the most efficient use of limited PC resources for their graphics-intensive application:

We had very little memory to work with. We didn’t want to run it on [Microsoft] Windows because it didn’t really work that well at that time. Windows 1.0 was not really usable, and 325 KB out of 640 KB was just to get Windows in it. Then you had to build your app on top of that. That was not going to work.

Lorenzen said he managed to build a GEM runtime that only required 24 KB of RAM. This allowed him and Heiskel to complete their working prototype by their self-imposed COMDEX deadline. Meyer demonstrated Publisher to several companies–notably Xerox, Eastman Kodak, and MicroPro (the publisher of WordStar)–at a suite at the Riviera hotel during the conference.

Ventura never planned to sell Publisher to consumers directly. Instead, Meyer’s goal at COMDEX was to identify a potential customer that could serve as the sole distributor. Lorenzen said it ultimately came down to Kodak and Xerox, and Xerox won. He said Xerox signed a deal a couple of weeks after COMDEX that paid Ventura a $5 million per year non-refundable advance against royalties–upon delivery of the product, of course. Xerox and Ventura publicly announced the deal in April 1986.

Ventura Publisher initially retailed for $895. The full title, at least according to ads from this period, was Xerox Desktop Publishing Series: Ventura Publisher Edition. The name “Ventura” was actually a second choice. Lorenzen said they originally wanted to call their company and program “Ventana,” after the Spanish word for “window.” But ventana was taken so they chose another Spanish word in ventura, which meant “good fortune.” Early reviews were largely favorable. Michael J. Miller, writing for InfoWorld, said Ventura’s features were impressive but “what’s even more surprising is its speed.” He noted that he ran the program on a PC-AT with an EGA card and “the program kept up with me quite nicely.” Another reviewer, Ted Silveira, wrote for PROFILES magazine that Ventura was a “complex program” but “very intuitive to use” and noted it was “very responsive” on his Kaypro PC running at 8 MHz.

However, Silveira also flagged a few issues. First, he said that if the user wanted to make any changes to their hardware configuration–such as adding a new graphics card or printer–they had to reinstall Ventura completely from its 11 5.25-inch floppy disks. There was also no “undo” command and the program could not make use of expanded or extended memory. It was also quite a hard disk-hog for the time, requiring up to 3 MB of space depending on the necessary printer drivers. Nevertheless, Silveira said Ventura was a “wonderful program” and quite polished for a first release.

Meyer and the Ventura team did quickly put out a 1.1 release sometime around June 1987, which existing users could purchase as a $100 upgrade. A full 2.0 release followed in the fall of 1988. The biggest new feature in Ventura Publisher 2.0 was support for creating tables inside of documents. Stephen Jones of Computerworld noted in a September 1988 report that Ventura was now considered the market leader in DOS-based desktop publishing applications, keeping even Aldus PageMaker at bay. Meyer told Jones that Ventura had shipped a total of 200,000 copies of the 1.1 version in 1987.

With the 2.0 release came Ventura Software’s only two other products, which were essentially Ventura expansion packs. The first was Professional Extension, which cost $595 and added expanded memory support and several other features. The second product was Network Server, which cost a whopping $1,295 and enabled multi-user support for concurrently working on documents over a local area network. In April 1989, Xerox announced a “3-Pak Net Workstation,” which bundled three copies of Ventura with Network Server for just $995.

Beyond these expansions, Xerox also pushed Meyer and company to port Ventura to other platforms, notably Microsoft Windows and Presentation Manager, the graphical interface for IBM’s OS/2 operating system. Xerox announced an OS/2 version at the April 1989 COMDEX show in Chicago. But as 1989 dragged on, so too did the relationship between Ventura and Xerox. Rachel Parker, writing for InfoWorld in October 1989, reported that Xerox decided to spin-off the unit responsible for marketing Ventura Publisher into its own standalone business, dubbed Xerox Desktop Software. Larry Gerhardt, an industry veteran “with no background in consumer software,” came in to run the new subsidiary.

Gerhardt bluntly told Parker, “The relationship with Ventura was not alive,” and that the existing contract–the one that guaranteed $5 million a year in upfront royalties–“did not provide incentives for Ventura to bring new products to the market.” Meyer was publicly supportive of Gerhardt’s leadership, stating “he has tremendous focus.” But Craig Cline of the Seybold Report told Parker that it might be too late for Xerox to do anything more with Ventura Publisher: “The challenge Xerox has always had is that if any other company had the Ventura product, they would have made a success of it.”

But the reality was that Ventura remained a small software development house content to produce its sole cash cow. According to Lorenzen, the company never expanded beyond five employees. In addition to the three co-founders there was a fourth ex-DRI engineer who wrote the printer drivers and an office manager. The three engineers kept the software updated while Meyer wrote all of the documentation in addition to serving as CEO.

Lorenzen later recalled that after the 1989 COMDEX show, Meyer tried to convince his partners that they should hire more people and build a bigger software company. Heiskel was vehemently opposed. Lorenzen said that he wasn’t eager to spend the next several years “mediating between these two very strong individuals.” Fortunately, he said someone at Xerox–I assume he meant Gerhardt–offered to buy them out.

In March 1990, Xerox formally acquired the Ventura Publisher source code and associated intellectual property rights for $18 million. Ventura Software itself did not immediately fold. Instead, the company renamed itself DLJ Software, Inc.–reflecting the first initials of the three co-founders–and Meyer, Lorenzen, et al., continued to finish up work on Ventura Publisher 3.0 for GEM, Windows, and OS/2. (A separate team hired by Xerox did a Macintosh version.) After completing that work, DLJ Software quietly dissolved on October 22, 1990.

Xerox Desktop Software subsequently renamed itself Ventura Software, Inc., and moved its 180-person operation into a 57,000 square-foot facility in San Diego. In 1991, The new Ventura introduced Ventura DataBase Publisher, a program that could be used to format and extract information to and from a database. That same year nu-Ventura released Ventura Publisher 4.0.

But Xerox didn’t seem to have the heart to keep going in the consumer software business, especially as Microsoft Word and other word processing programs had started to match legacy DTP packages like Ventura in features–and surpassed them in terms of ease-of-use. In August 1993, Xerox sold its rights to Ventura Publisher, Ventura DataBase Publisher, and all other related technologies to Ottawa, Ontario-based Corel Corporation for approximately $10 million. The second Ventura Software folded soon thereafter as it no longer had any products to sell. At the time of the sale John Meyer, described in the Ottawa Citizen as a “consultant near San Jose,” said the combination of Corel and Ventura Publisher was a “marriage made in heaven.” (There’s not much in terms of public statements from Meyer after this second sale of Ventura, and as far as I know he’s retired and still living in Monterey, California, today.)

At the very least, Ventura seemed to be getting out of a bad marriage. InfoWorld reported in October 1993 that Ventura Publisher had “suffered greatly” since the Xerox acquisition and the product–now on version 4.1.1–could no longer “compete against either QuarkXPress or PageMaker when it comes to today’s high-end needs.” The core product was still the same after five years, InfoWorld noted, and recent enhancements and added features failed to “fix that basic problem.”

Corel did quickly release its first version of Ventura–now called Corel Ventura 4.2–in late 1993. This was likely the last release based on the original source code developed by Lorenzen and Heiskel. The following year, Corel Ventura 5.0 came out with substantial changes to the interface and structure. Corel skipped to a 7.0 when it released the first 32-bit version of Publisher for Windows 95 and Windows NT in 1997. By this point the program came as part of a $995 double-CD-ROM package that included a suite of applications including WordPerfect, the venerable word processor acquired by Corel from Novell in 1996.

Corel continued to push updates to Corel Ventura until 2002, which marked the final 10.0 release of the product. Corel subsequently merged what was left of Ventura into its own flagship CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, which is still available today. Ironically, the Ottawa Citizen suggested in 1993 that the original CorelDRAW was itself an unofficial spin-off of the original Ventura Publisher. Apparently, Corel’s developers started out by adding drawing features to Publisher, which led to them creating CorelDRAW as a standalone product.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of October 23, 1986.
  • Roger Archibald had a long career with Hewlett-Packard, joining the company sometime in the late 1970s. He left in 1998 to join StorageTek for three years, but returned to HP in 2000 as vice president and general manager of its storage software division. Archibald left HP for good in August 2003 and worked for Colorado-based COPAN Systems for five years before briefly running his own company, GaggleSoft, and retiring in the early 2010s.
  • I didn’t learn much about the DEST Corporation. The original company was apparently started sometime in the late 1970s and went bankrupt in 1989. Several former DEST managers (backed by venture capital) then formed the New DEST Corporation, which carried on the original company’s desktop scanner business until that company’s dissolution in 1999. Richard Amen went on to run two other companies. Indicast and APX, in the 1990s, before transitioning into the real estate business in the 2000s.
  • Like most people involved in computer publishing during the 1980s, Jonathan Seybold eventually sold his Seybold Report to Ziff-Davis in 1990. Much like Michael Tchong from the previous episode, Seybold said he clashed with Ziff’s management and he left the company after his contract expired in 1995. Seybold then co-founded PGP Inc. with Phil Zimmerman, the author of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption protocol, which is still in use today, although the company only lasted a couple of years. Seybold later retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was involved in an unsuccessful effort to save the College of Santa Fe.
  • George Lithograph started in 1925. It managed to adapt to the computer desktop publishing market quite well and by the 1990s was still one of the largest commercial printers in northern California, reporting annual sales of around $42 million. In 1999, Connecticut-based Printing Arts America (PAA) acquired George as part of a venture capital-backed buying spree of regional commercial printers. As it turned out, acquiring 11 companies via debt just prior to the early 2000s recession was not a savvy business strategy. PAA entered bankruptcy in 2002, which led to the closing and liquidation of George Lithograph, according to Printing Impressions.
  • The Idea Generator was developed and published by Experience in Software, Inc., a company started in 1983 by Roy Nierenberg, a former attorney with the U.S. federal government. Niernberg authored all of the programs published by his company, which remained in business until 2019.