Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

On the 40th anniversary of the Macintosh computer

by Rob - January 24th, 2024.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

In honour of today being the 40th anniversary of the Macintosh computer, here’s an article I wrote in 1985 (the year I turned 25) for the Canadian computing magazine InfoAge (for which, back in the day, I was a regular contributor); of course, I wrote the article with WordStar on an Osborne 1 CP/M computer:

CanLit Mac-style

by Robert J. Sawyer

It’s Canada’s classiest print ad: a stunning Karsh group portrait of the biggest names in Canadian writing, including Charles Templeton, Margaret Atwood, Peter C. Newman and Ben Wicks, all clustered around a Macintosh computer. The caption? “Announcing the retirement of Canada’s most famous typewriters.”

McClelland & Stewart, the book company that bills itself as “The Canadian Publisher,” has signed a $500,000 deal with Apple Canada to make Macintoshes the cornerstone of M&S’s internal office-automation program. During the initial nine-month phasing-in, M&S will acquire 35 of the so-called Fat Macs, each with 512K of RAM, Apple LaserWriter printers, and the AppleTalk local-area network. Ten of the Macs will be used in-house by editors and managers. The remaining 25 will be presented to the top names in M&S’s writing stable. (Of the biggies, only Pierre Berton was already mousing his way through his books.)

Jack McClelland, the maverick king of Canadian publishers, is Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer and President of M&S. Two years ago he decided that his company should be computerized. “M&S was attempting Herculean tasks using old-fashioned technology,” he says. “We needed an A to Z strategy which would bring us into the 21st Century.”

He turned to Yuri Rubinsky, Vice President, Consulting of Toronto’s SoftQuad. “Yuri is well on his way to becoming the industry’s high-tech guru,” according to McClelland.

Rubinsky had to find a computing answer that would not require people to relearn their jobs. “The solution had to be intuitive and very much related to the way they’ve been doing things all along. At the same time, we wanted to construct a kit of parts that would allow us to link all the elements of the publishing process together so that we could deal with everything from typesetting to book order entry on one computer.”

About the same time, Jack McClelland and Yuri Rubinsky independently settled on the Macintosh. “I started searching for a wordprocessor I could use,” says McClelland. “I’m about as inadept mechanically as anyone in the world. When it changes from standard to daylight time, the clock in my car remains standard until somebody else uses it. I tried a number of computers before I took Apple up on its ’Test Drive a Macintosh’ program. I was able to learn to use it in about three-quarters of an hour. I figured that if I could use it then our authors would be able to as well.”

McClelland knew there would be resistance to the arrival of the information age. “A lot of authors—particularly older authors—are wedded to their typewriters. We’re gradually weaning them away. Once they’ve seen the Mac working it’s amazing how quickly they change their opinion.”

At the heart of Rubinsky’s solution is the UNIX operating system, to be run on an as-yet-to-be-selected mini computer. The Macs will be used as both intelligent terminals and stand-alone devices.

“UNIX is a programmer’s dream,” says Rubinsky. “We can easily build modules that dump certain information into files to be downloaded into the Mac, used on spreadsheets, wordprocessing programs and so forth. The whole thing can be run with database management as the central theme. All stages in a book’s life—from conception through distribution—are fields in a record. Even the text of the book is just another set of fields.”

If the Mac hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent it, Rubinsky says. “We needed the control over the screen image that the Mac allows. Oh, we could have tried to create that same kind of intuitive interface just using UNIX by itself. We could have gone to Sun Micro Systems where it’s all built in, but that was simply too expensive a solution.”

“As part of our arrangement we’re giving our authors the Microsoft Word program,” says McClelland. “Word is very powerful and flexible: a heavy-duty product for people like us who live and breath syllables.”

Surprisingly, it was a public-relations firm that steered M&S towards Word. “When we learned that Apple and McClelland & Stewart were working together, we said ’geez, this might be an opportunity for Microsoft,’” says Ed Gould of BursonMarsteller, the PR company that handles Apple Canada, M&S and the Canadian office of Microsoft, which opened earlier this year. “McClelland & Stewart approached Apple directly. But we saw a missing link: software.

“The question was what is the absolute best program for the writer to use? And the answer was Microsoft Word. It’s the first choice in wordprocessing software, certainly in the Mac environment, and, many people say, in the IBM world, too. Microsoft was extremely pleased to provide all the writers with Word software. As well, Microsoft is going to be providing one-on-one individual training and technical support as requested.”

Dave Killins, President of Apple Canada, is also a Word fan. “Without question, Word is the definitive professional wordprocessing package. It hurts to admit it, but Word can run rings around our wordprocessor, MacWrite.”

Gould feels that this is the way of the future. “There’s got to be more of either these strategic alliances or participatory arrangements, bringing hardware and software together.”

For high-quality hardcopy, Rubinsky selected the new Apple LaserWriter, a 90,000-dots-per-square-inch printer based on the Canon laser print engine (See “The Speed of Light,” InfoAge January 1985). “We could have used other laser printers or, for that matter, used the Apple printer without the Macintoshes,” says Rubinsky. “There is an argument for Apple’s LaserWriter and there’s a separate argument for Apple’s Macintosh. Each is, separately, the best in its class.”

The near-typeset-quality of laser printing is particularly useful to publishers. “We’ll be using it to do galley proofs, running software that SoftQuad is providing, SoftQuad T ROFF. It’s a vastly improved version of the original UNIX type-formatting software. It will allow M&S to mimic an exact image of the finished copy on the LaserWriter, with hyphenation and justification. It will have kerning throughout [tucking one letter under the overhang of its neighbour for a tighter appearance], something no laser printer in this price range does. We will get the type to look serious enough that authors will say ’My goodness, this is the real thing.’ With dot-matrix printers, authors don’t take them seriously enough. When they see galleys they still want to make changes.”

The in-house Macs will be hooked up to the LaserWriters via AppleTalk, a small twisted-pair CSMA/CA local-area network that can connect up to 32 computers and intelligent peripherals over a distance of 1000 feet.

The weak link in the chain? “The file server,” says Rubinsky without hesitation. “It’s an unknown.” Apple’s file server will be a separate computer coupled to a high-capacity hard disk. It will act as crossing-guard for disk and file access across the AppleTalk network. In typical Mac-fashion, it’ll be available Real Soon Now.

“We’re prepared in the short term to live without it and treat the mini as the file server, but as soon as possible we want those file servers in there because we’re going to be using them as a protection mechanism,” Rubinsky says. Each department will have its own file server. “That will mean that no one in the wrong area will have direct access to the mini. You will be able to get information from other departments but they will not be on-line together. If you’re an author telephoning in a manuscript to M&S, you will not be able to bring the system down no matter how hard you try.”

In May, the first crate of Apples arrived at the publisher’s Toronto headquarters. “Editors are using them, but very cautiously,” says Rubinsky. “Most of them are still editing on printout.” At the same time, a pilot group of seven authors was presented with Fat Macs with Jack McClelland’s compliments.

SoftQuad has outlined a two-year phasing in of Mac technology at McClelland & Stewart. In the past, M&S’s heavy-duty computing was done on an out-of-house time-sharing basis. By the time you read this, that will have been replaced with an on-site minicomputer to be used for on-line sales reporting and product accounting. At this same time, the Macs will begin to take over the management of contracts, subsidiary rights and permissions sales.

“We’ll introduce Electronic Mail pretty early on as a kind of tease: something that shows the potential quickly,” Rubinsky says. “We’re easing the technology in. There will be no moment at which the whole place is suddenly computerized and mini-rebellions take place.”

Come October, LaserWriters will begin generating preview copies of manuscripts, invoices and royalty statements in-house. The Macs will become database managers for tracking manuscripts through all stages of the publishing and marketing process.

At the beginning of 1986, production cost estimating will be transferred to the Macs. Microsoft Word will take over all writing tasks in the publicity, scheduling and budgeting departments. Whenever a new book is being considered, the Macs will be used to research the sales history of similar works and of the author’s previous titles.

In the first half of next year, Macs running Multiplan will become intelligent terminals to the mini, which will be handling all accounting, order entry and inventory work. Reports will be generated weekly as both LaserWriter hardcopy and electronic mail. Final checks of typesetting will be done on LaserWriter copy.

Between July and October 1986, purchase orders and budget forecasting will go on-line.

By April 1987, all books will be prepared in-house as camera-ready copy, fed directly from the Mac to Linotype phototypesetters.

Now for the $64,000 question: what about IBM compatibility? “I think IBM is a machine of the past,” says Rubinsky. “Its time has come and gone. I had the pleasure of running into [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates at a conference in Dallas in January and he made it clear that, as far as he is concerned, MS-DOS has peaked and its on the decline from here on in. He figures that there’s about a year of life in it. He’s throwing all his weight behind ZENIX. I think the era of the single-user personal computer is over. People are realizing that they are sacrificing too much to have that IBM. People are too clever to be sucked in by IBM anymore: they’ve moved beyond IBM and are into serious computing.”

What about Apple’s rocky future? “For the price, Mac is the best intelligent terminal you can buy today,” says Rubinsky. “But I’d be prepared to dump the Macs in three to five years if they were no longer the right machine. The real investment is in the software—and it’s all UNIX. It’s completely portable. We could throw away any number of machines countless times but the data and the programming will still be intact. I don’t think that Apple’s financial problems are really that serious, but, if they are, we’d still be safe.”

Speaking of shaky foundations, what’s the perennially impecunious McClelland & Stewart doing spending $500,000 on high-tech marvels? Jack McClelland insists that, despite his company’s rollercoaster finances, the computers can pay for themselves. “We average between six and eight months from the time an author finishes a book to publication. We think we’re going to cut that in half. Very soon we will be going from the author’s Mac by modem to the editor’s Mac then back to the author with corrections then back again and right into type.”

McClelland sums up the move to Macintosh. “We think it’s going to save our editors and our authors a hell of a lot of time and money.” And that’s just as important in the business of Canadian culture as it is anywhere else.


Robert J. Sawyer has written for Books in Canada and Canadian Author & Bookman.

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