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InterviewBITS: A Conversation with David Blatner

The Macintosh universe is filled with as many characters as models of the Macintosh. For an easy example, the Macintosh surely wouldn’t be what it is today without the personality that Steve Jobs has brought to it (both good and bad). In the field of desktop publishing, David Blatner quickly came to prominence with The QuarkXPress Book back in 1990. Since then, he’s written seventeen books on topics ranging from QuarkXPress and Photoshop to virtual reality and the number pi. During that time, he’s accumulated much Macintosh hardware and software: his office resembles an archeological dig of Macintosh history, with finds like a ThunderScan scanner (a device inserted into an ImageWriter printer instead of a ribbon) and a 128K Macintosh sharing space with a Radius PressView monitor and PowerBook G3 (not to mention miles of various cables). For this interview, I asked about his view of the Mac’s evolution, the projects that interest him, and why Quark, Inc. sometimes seems to hail from a strange alternate universe.


  • [Jeff] How did you get started with Macs and desktop publishing?

[David] I started with desktop publishing earlier than most: Back in 1978, my stepfather worked for Xerox PARC, and when I would visit him there I played on the Alto machines (these are the machines that later inspired Steve Jobs and company). I used word processors, learned about leading and fonts, created vector-based artwork, and printed on color laser printers. As a teenager, I had no idea that these things didn’t exist in the "real world." However, though I got my first Macintosh in 1984, I didn’t really start working in desktop publishing professionally until I worked at the LaserWrite service bureau in Palo Alto, CA, in 1986 and 1987.

  • [Jeff] Are there things that you saw at Xerox PARC that haven’t come through in the real world?

[David] Yeah, those big floppy disks that were about 18 inches in diameter and were probably the inspiration for the Star Wars Millennium Falcon ship… I never got a chance to use those outside of PARC.

Seriously, no: everything I saw as a kid at PARC and the Stanford Research Institute [SRI, where Douglas Englebart’s lab had previously produced the first mouse and windowing system – see "Douglas Englebart: More Thoughts from Cassandra" in TidBITS-459 for what he works on now. -Adam] in the mid 1970s has come to pass. I saw some of the first speech synthesis and piano keyboard-to-computer interface tools, which are commonplace now. Ethernet, the mouse, color draw programs (code-named Griffin, if I recall), color laser printers, photocopiers that had touch-screen displays…. These things sound boring today. I wish I could stroll through PARC’s halls and peek into the labs now.


  • [Jeff] What about futuristic things you didn’t see at PARC or SRI, such as virtual reality?

[David] I still think virtual reality is one of the best ways for humans to interface with a computer, and I’m sure that we’ll see it used more in the future – only no one will call it "virtual reality" because the term has become tainted.

  • [Jeff] You’ve done your part to help VR along. What was the story behind your virtual reality book?

[David] In the early 1990s, Steve Roth (a former Macworld contributing editor and author of several books, including Real World PageMaker) and I decided to work on a non-computer book, one that would have a wide trade-market appeal. We both enjoy popular science, and virtual reality was just in its infancy (some people would say that it still is). We worked with a specialist in the field, Steve Aukstakalnis, to write Silicon Mirage: The Art and Science of Virtual Reality.

It was a fun project, and it received critical success (the man who coined the term "virtual reality," Jaron Lanier, wrote the foreword and said that this was the first book that really explained the subject well). However, it was certainly not a big seller and it soon went out of print. When I worked out how much money I made on it, I realized that I had actually worked for under minimum wage for many months. Sigh.

Curiously, we have seen the book quoted in many articles on virtual reality over the years. So apparently someone must have bought it!

Now, I can see that Silicon Mirage was just the beginning for me. In 1997 I wrote The Joy of Pi, a small gift book all about the lure and lore of the number pi. It’s clear that I will be writing more non-fiction popular-science books in the future.


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  • [Jeff] For many of us, getting started as an author is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. How did you get started?

[David] Soon after I met Steve Roth in 1989, he hired me to do some production work on a book he was writing for Peachpit Press (HP ScanJet Unlimited). I owned a better laser printer than he did, so I ended up printing a lot of proof pages for him. Although I had never written a book or magazine article before, Steve urged me to think of books that I might be interested in writing. I suggested a book on QuarkXPress, and he winced, explaining that he had just signed a contract with someone else to do a QuarkXPress book.

However, the original author was unable to complete the book due to health problems, and I was later asked to step in and finish it. I ended up writing 600 pages in about four months, and The QuarkXPress Book went to press. I was so excited about having written a book that I was surprised when the publisher actually sent me a check! I was being paid for writing? How strange! Even more exciting was when they asked me to do another book… then another… and so on.

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  • [Jeff] In many ways, the Web has supplanted desktop publishing as the hot field associated with computing. Has desktop publishing progressed so far that it has lost its allure?

[David] No, it has simply become part of the landscape. People just do desktop publishing without thinking about it anymore. When aviation was young, going on an airplane ride was a big deal and people would dress up for the occasion. Now, it’s just a fast way to get from point A to point B. Desktop publishing is just another way of transporting information now, and while people get all excited about the Web now (though rarely to the point of getting dressed up to code HTML), it, too, will become just part of the publishing landscape before too long.

However, remember that lots of people and companies make money with desktop publishing and then use that money to fund their Web activities.

  • [Jeff] Publishing has gone from very high end, where only highly specialized professionals could do it, to desktop publishing at the masses, but now it seems to have crept back up to the high end in terms of knowing enough about the process and software in order to do it right. Is this the fate of all sorts of publishing (Web, etc.)?

[David] I’m not sure I entirely agree with you. While a lot has changed in the publishing industry over the past 10 years, one thing remains: individuals are more empowered than ever before. That’s what this industry is all about: "power to the people." Sure, there is a high end industry, and there are people who become specialized to the point of geekiness. However, there is little that is outside the capabilities of a single person and a Mac.

  • [Jeff] Quark has a reputation for being, well, tell us about Quark’s reputation. Do they treat you any differently than the rest of us downtrodden masses?

[David] Although I have written a number of books on other topics, many people know me best for my work with QuarkXPress. Obviously, over the years I have developed a good relationship with Quark and the people there, including Fred Ebrahimi and Tim Gill (who jointly co-own the privately held company). While Quark has gained a reputation for being difficult to work with (and for), they have always been really pleasant to me.

It’s true that Quark still does things that are painful to watch. (For instance, when QuarkXPress 4.0 shipped, they refused to give free upgrades to anyone who bought the earlier version, even if they had bought it the day before they shipped the new version!) But they really are changing and doing some cool stuff, too. The important thing is that they’re trying, but it’ll take a long time before the industry’s perceptions change.

  • [Jeff] Since we brought up that book, let’s talk about success. You’ve had some wildly successful books (The QuarkXPress Book, Real World Photoshop), and some less-than-successful books (Silicon Mirage, Real World QuarkImmedia). Being a book author isn’t a guarantee of a steady income, obviously. How important is financial success versus critical success versus popular success?

[David] Steve Roth made it clear from the very beginning: each book is a crap shoot. I coauthored the virtual reality book mostly because I thought it would make money – it did not. I coauthored Real World QuarkImmedia mostly because I really loved the software and had a blast writing it (it also did not make money). These experiences made it clear that writing for the love of it is much more important (and fun).

  • [Jeff] How do you deal with the ups and downs of the field?

[David] I don’t really know how I deal with the ups and downs. I just keep pushing ahead.

  • [Jeff] You’ve been a part of the Mac industry since the early days. What are some observations you’ve learned about the industry, or just about the Mac?

[David] I’ve learned that after 16 years, the Mac and the PC are still in exactly the same roles: The Mac is the elegant tool, and the PC is the tool that the majority of people use. It’s still astonishing to me that people use PCs. It’s like using the butt end of a screwdriver in place of a hammer. It’s like using a old ballpoint pen instead of a rollerball. It’s like using VHS instead of DVD… I could go on like this for a while.

However, I’ve also learned that the Mac OS has become almost as complex as Windows, which saddens me. My Extensions folder has 189 items in it, and the only good thing I can say about that is I can read the names (as opposed to DTTKO.dll).

  • [Jeff] On more practical matters, what machines do you own and use on a daily basis?

[David] I use a PowerBook G3 (Bronze keyboard) for my primary machine, and drag it back and forth from work and home. I also have an old Power Macintosh 8100 with a G3 upgrade card and an old Quadra 650 which acts as a server and network print connection to my old LaserWriter Select 360. My 128K Mac from March, 1984, acts as a gargoyle in my office, repelling various demons. I also rely heavily on my Palm Vx, which I synchronize using infrared with my laptop.

  • [Jeff] If you had unlimited funds to spend on computing equipment, what would you buy?

[David] Power Mac G4s, of course, with too much RAM. Flat screen monitors (either Apple’s or SGI’s, probably). I believe that I could finally talk my wife into having a computer in our kitchen if she saw one of these flat screen displays. Of course, if I had unlimited funds, I think I’d hire someone to build me a Mac laptop that was as light as one of those Sony puppies [the Sony VAIO, not the Sony AIBO robotic dogs -Jeff].

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  • [Jeff] What do you see happening in the future for the Macintosh?

[David] I think the Mac will continue to be successful, especially with the move toward Unix-based Mac OS X. As long as Apple pays attention to its strengths, like AppleScript, elegant design, and color management, I think they’ll continue to have an important place, especially in publishing.

  • [Jeff] What about the future of computing in general? Are we ever going to live in the future that has been imagined? (I want flying cars.) As someone who grew up on the cutting edge (even if you didn’t know it at the time), what do you see coming up?

[David] I’ve never been particularly good at prophecy. Or, perhaps I should say that my prophecies sometimes take longer to come true than I think. For instance, I thought the NeXT machine was going to be the ultimate publishing platform. I’m glad I didn’t write a book about that! On the other hand, now much of the NeXT stuff is coming in Mac OS X, so perhaps I’ll be right after all.

I think the most important trend with computers (and technology in general) will always be making individuals more powerful. Xerox was trounced after they decided not to make personal copiers, saying, "Why would individuals want a photocopier?" Workgroups and big organizations are all very well and good, but individual empowerment is more important. (I sound like a motivational speaker here! Oh well.)

On the other hand, I also think we will begin to see more "unintended consequences" of technology begin to appear – like the potential health risks of cell phones. People get so excited about technology, but there’s a reasonably good chance that some of the most exciting technologies will backfire, at least in some ways.

  • [Jeff] What are you working on now? I notice you’re writing more about InDesign and other subjects that aren’t pigeonholing you as just "the Quark guy."

[David] It’s funny, but different people think of me as different "guys." That is, sometimes I’m "The QuarkXPress Guy," and other times I’m "The Photoshop Guy." But after writing The Joy of Pi, for many people I’m "The Pi Guy." I find it amusing. Now, I’m still doing all that, but I’m working on two other non-computer books – one on aviation and one on Judaism. (Hey, no "flying rabbi" jokes… I’ve heard them all.) I think what it comes down to is that I enjoy taking complex subjects and trying to make them digestible for everyday people. I figure that if I can make it easy enough for me to understand, then many other people will find it understandable, too.

  • [Jeff] What’s your secret alternative job? If you hadn’t gotten into the fields you have, what would you be doing now for a living?

[David] I was supposed to be a theatre producer; that was my major in college. If I had traveled to New York or back to London after graduating, instead of ending up in Seattle, that’s probably what I’d be doing now. On the other hand, I might have ended up a plumber’s assistant, so perhaps this really is for the best. No, seriously, I never thought I’d be writing for a living, but the more I do it, the more I find that it’s the perfect job for me. Amazing how life works out sometimes!

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