WACCI 139 Index - Home Page www.wacci.org.uk

01 - Thanx & Stuff 02 - A to Z of the CPC 03 - Programmers' Patch 04 - Meet the Relatives

The A to Z of the CPC: Desktop Publishing

Richard Fairhurst takes a look back athistory of CPC page layout programs

There are plenty of CPC entities with a good claim on the letter D. Discs. Databases. Demos. dk'Tronics. David Carter. David Long. Doug Webb. Danny Heatley. Derek Hyland. Ok, maybe not Derek Hyland.

But desktop publishing is a great example of the evolution of the CPC. DTP programs started with big-budget spectaculars from Proper Software Houses, and developed through various stages of homebrew into an embarrassment of PD releases. (Or embarrassing PD releases, in several cases.)

And though this sounds like a case of "decline and fall", it's not. DTP programs were a great example of the CPC doing what it was good at. No-one pretended that a 6128 with an Epson LX-86 printer was going to produce professional quality results ­ but as time went on, the software became better suited to what people were using it for. To take two examples, you can't disentangle Pagemaker Plus and PowerPage from the fanzines that were produced with them. Improvements in one prompted improvements in the other.

A mouse called Max

Though the CPC is usually bracketed with the Spectrum and the Commodore 64, the machine with which it had most in common technically was the BBC Micro: good BASIC, good OS, easily expandable, flexible screen display (neither the Spectrum or C64 had an 80-column mode). Both were equally suitable for games and serious uses, such as desktop publishing.

Neither the CPC nor the BBC could easily be hooked up to a laser printer, the miracle of technology that was driving the DTP boom on Apple Macs. But they had the CPU power and (most importantly) the disc drive for basic layout work. Fittingly, then, the CPC's first two DTP programs were ports from the BBC.

One was called Pagemaker. Those with a grounding in computer history will recognise the name: Pagemaker was the Mac program that started it all, capable of conversing fluently in the PostScript language spoken by Apple's LaserWriter and a million laser printers since.

This wasn't the same Pagemaker. The BBC and CPC ran AMX Pagemaker, the work of a Warrington start-up best known for the AMX Mouse. Someone, somewhere tipped off Aldus, the US authors of the real Pagemaker, who forced AMX to change the 8-bit product's name to Stop Press, previously the name of an AMX Pagemaker plug-in. (But keep the original name in mind. We'll return to it later.)

Today, it might seem odd for a US giant to pick on a CPC software company. It wasn't so weird back then. The 6128 was on sale in America, courtesy of local agents Indescomp; it was less powerful than a Mac, but not by much; and AMX Pagemaker promised to be rather good. Like Aldus's Mac program, it had windows, pointers, menus, fast scrolling... the lot.

AMX was never going to revolutionise the publishing world, largely because it worked in bitmaps (pictures made up of lots of dots) rather than vectors (pictures made up of resizeable and rescaleable 'objects' like lines, boxes and text). This limited output to the resolution of the CPC's screen, and made it difficult to correct your work without rubbing it out and starting again. Nonetheless, it was a very good start.

Fleet Street Editor was the other arrival from Beebworld. It was produced by the Daily Mirror, in its software house guise, Mirrorsoft. (Not as incongruous as it seems. British Telecom had a software arm, Firebird, and what was the BBC doing putting its name to a computer, anyway?)

FSE was a long time in coming, and performed well below expectations when it finally surfaced. Despite the quiet appearance of a bug-free, faster version 2 a year later, it never recovered from its initial panning by Amstrad Action's Pat McDonald.

Get out your cheque books

Meanwhile, a small Uttoxeter company called Creative Technology had brought out MicroDesign. The programmer was Simon Hargreaves, hence the 'Hogsoft' credit. MicroDesign had almost all the features you'd expect of a DTP program ­ large design area, drawing tools, clip art ­ and excelled at every single one. By employing the fantastic print quality of its 'strip mode', a skilled designer could produce better work with MicroDesign than with any other comparable program on the CPC.

But 'comparable', in many ways, referred to Advanced Art Studio rather than Stop Press. MicroDesign was great for posters and leaflets, but its rudimentary text-handling features ruled it out for serious DTP. There was no text layout feature of which to speak: you just typed onto the screen, and it was up to you to run the text around pictures or justify it by adding double spaces.

Still, some beautiful work was produced with MicroDesign. The first few issues of Tim Blackbond's Artificial Intelligence, for example; and scores of French fanzines, using a translated version of the package called Oxford PAO ('publication assisté par ordinateur', I think). MicroDesign's A5 print-out wasn't quite full-page, so the French got into the habit of separately designing and printing an aside in a small box at the foot of each page.

A greatly expanded version, MicroDesign 2 (followed by 3), was released for the PCW. Its text-handling facilities were finally up to scratch, and output quality was breathtaking ­ even on a PCW dot-matrix printer. It deservedly saw off all-comers in the PCW market, including Stop Press, even though the latter's PCW version was a vast improvement on the CPC one (for starters, it didn't access the disc drive every five seconds). An unusual outfit, CT gave much of its profits to charity, but retreated from public view after over-extending itself as the lead developer on Amstrad's inglorious PCW16 project.

Put away your cheque books

There were a couple of home-brew commercial efforts, including Pagesetter by Martin Young and another from SD Microsystems. But the next revolution in CPC desktop publishing was avowedly amateur.

The PD boom was ignited by Amstrad Action's Free for All series and three pioneering libraries (David Wild's DW Software, WACCI under Steve Williams, and good old Robot PD). Soon, every 'squeaky' was starting their own PD library, the most successful of which was Alan Scully's Scull PD. As with most such libraries, it was loosely based on the Robot model, with faster delivery (not difficult) but less exciting new stuff.

Alan, myself, and several other PD librarians had the laudable habit of stocking up our libraries with our own home-grown BASIC programs. One of Alan's, which I can't believe took more than half an hour to write, was called Pagemaker. No relation to the Aldus or AMX programs, it was more a screen-design program than a desktop publisher. Working with a MODE 1, 40x25 screen, Pagemaker invited you to place any character you like, anywhere on the screen. This could either be text or one of the CPC's in-built graphic characters, allowing you to draw boxes.

So far, so simple. Pagemaker was less useful, less flexible than an art package, of which there were a couple in the public domain.

Life becoming a landslide

Mr Scully's next move was rather clever. Finding Pagemaker inadequate for his needs (namely the Scull PD catalogue, later to spawn the fanzine CPC Domain), he wrote an expanded version. Pagemaker Plus had the same basic principle as Pagemaker - a simple character-placement program. But the playpen had grown: where there was once a 40x25 screen, there was now a scrolling, 80-wide, 70-deep MODE 2 page. Perfect for printing out as A5.

Double-height text had been added to the original Pagemaker recipe, but otherwise, your pages were still restricted to the 224 letters and symbols of the CPC character set - though you could assemble some pretty blocky headlines this way. Pagemaker Plus deservedly caught people's eyes, including those of Amstrad Action and ACU.

I was a little intrigued by this, and carried out some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Because each PM+ character space, or 'cell', could only contain one textual character, it only took up one byte. So 80 columns by 70 rows would use 5600 bytes: 5 .5k.

It would be much better to have fully bitmapped graphics, like a real art package, but 70 lines deep. This would allow clip art, mixing fonts, proportional text (the 'i's are slimmer than the 'm's), headlines of any size - you name it. A MODE 2 screen is 640 pixels across. A 70-line page, with each line 8 pixels high as usual, would be 560 pixels tall. 640 x 560 = 358400 pixels, which at 8 pixels per byte is 44800 bytes ­ just under 44k.

Let battle commence

It turned out that Alan and I were thinking along similar lines. His program came out first. The third in the Pagemaker series, Pagemaker Deluxe was 128k only, using the extra memory to store the 44k A5 page. It had full graphics editing, multi-size headlines, justified text ­ straight margins either side ­ and other doobries. And you had to pay £5 for it.

A remarkably similar program, Geoff Smith's Advanced DTP, was released at the same time, for the same price. Tim Blackbond reviewed both favourably in his new fanzine, Artificial Intelligence, with Deluxe marginally gaining the upper hand. PMD got a rave review in Amstrad Action, too.

Now, let's be honest, Alan and I weren't the best of mates. Scull and Robot baited each other in newsletters, fanzines, anywhere that'd listen ­ and several places that wouldn't. Blocs of allies shifted around the two camps, with the odd high-profile defection (David Carter, David Long) and double-crossing meat-brain (name withheld due to legal considerations, but it also begins with D). It probably looks very silly in retrospect, but for a bunch of 16-year olds, it was great fun. (Yes, we probably should have been out joyriding cars and graffiti-ing shopping precincts instead.)

So I was determined that PowerPage would beat PMD in every respect. It would be PD, not £5; it would have better text-handling, with pixel-perfect justification and columns flowing around pictures; it would import Stop Press .CUT clip art (which, admittedly, PMD also did, but only because Mr Scully had 'borrowed' my code) and export it, too; it would compress its saved files, to free up disc space.

Oh yes, and it would run in 64k. Alan refused to believe it could be done. But PowerPage did it, sneaking little fragments of machine code into the deepest crevices of the CPC's memory. Of the 44k page, 16k was held in screen memory at any one time, with the other 28k stored in the CPC's normal 42k program memory. Once input and output file buffers and fonts had been taken into account, there was about 6k left for the program. Eek.

AI liked it enough that Tim started to produce the whole fanzine on it. Many others followed. AA approved, too, featuring it on the covertape (you see, you don't have to charge £5 a copy to make money from something). New PD DTP programs continued to appear, but PowerPage was tops. Even if I do say so myself.

Return of the old stagers

Stop Press was a more powerful program, especially for A4 output, but many people found its menu system tedious and its constant disc access irritating. MicroDesign, though, was still as good a program as it had ever been.

Enter Kentish programmer Jess Harpur and Glaswegian entrepreneur Peter Campbell, known at the time as Campursoft (so imaginative) but subsequently to become Comsoft. Jess decided, with the connivance of Creative Technology, to give MicroDesign the text-handling features it had always lacked.

The result was MicroDesign Plus. The original MicroDesign program remained largely unchanged, but an 'extender' was bolted on to it, new features in a separately-loaded program. Of these, the most significant was a text import feature, allowing you to convert big slabs of text into clip art files ready for placement on the MicroDesign page.

The extender was WYSIWYG, of sorts: what you saved is what you got. This wasn't necessarily a great thing. If you wanted justified text, you had to save it as such in Protext; MD+ would then create a piece of clip art with exactly the same appearance as your Protext document. So the text would have been filled out to column width with extra full-size spaces in between each word; each letter would be the same width; and you couldn't flow the text around any graphics on the page. MD+ was still tops for graphics, unmatched for A4 output, but compromised for any sort of fanzine work.

And A5 fanzines were what was driving the CPC desktop publishing boom. You might remember some of the names: Artificial Intelligence, CPC Undercover, Potential Difference, CPC Southwest, Presto News. There were plenty more.

Nonetheless, MD+ did deservedly well, enough for Campursoft to think about a follow-up. Jess made a start on the project but never completed it, so Peter engaged Rob 'Radical Software' Buckley ­ author of Fluff, Smart Plus, and Eve of Shadows ­ to write it. It was never finished.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

...PD programs continued to appear. Alan Scully produced a cut-down version of Pagemaker Plus for the AA covertape (Pagemaker Plus-T) - in fact, the original could have sat happily on the tape without so much pruning. A short while later, PowerPage itself appeared on the tape, though it would only work once you'd unpacked it to disc.

A couple of the homebrew programs were eventually released into the public domain, and a few new projects were announced, such as David Long's As Easy As DTP, but never completed.

The original 64k PowerPage, meanwhile, was evolving into PowerPage 128. Conceived simply as a version of PowerPage without the need to load program segments from disc as and when they were selected, it grew and grew. There were proper pop-up menus, a zoom mode, and faster operation. Many features were requested by fanzine editors, whose publications were getting better-looking by the month. PP128 eventually settled down at version 1.2, though 1.3 is sitting half-completed on a disc somewhere.


And that was your lot. From mightily ambitious commercial packages (Stop Press) to simple PD releases (Pagemaker Plus) through to free-but-powerful programs (PowerPage 128), the story of desktop publishing is that of serious CPC software in a nutshell.

And as so often with serious CPC software, it all comes back to Protext. Yes, it's a word-processor. But it produced the first 50 or so issues of WACCI quite nicely, thanks to Promerge Plus's box mode, which allowed you to cut and paste columns individually ­ ideal for OMG's text-heavy style. Since then, various programmers have tried valiantly to graft on DTP capabilities (Protype, Proprint, Pro-Ext), with mixed results. Sometimes it's best not to mess with perfection.

01 - Thanx & Stuff 02 - A to Z of the CPC 03 - Programmers' Patch 04 - Meet the Relatives

WACCI 139 Index - Home Page www.wacci.org.uk