Manna for Mac Publishers?

Apple will be keeping a low profile at next week's Seybold Seminars; let's hope the same isn't true of the Mac's key developers.

Since leaving the late, lamented MacWEEK back around the turn of the millennium, Ive had many occasions to doubt the currency of my enduring interest in Apple and the Mac.

Out here in the general tech press, Windows rules the desktop with an iron fist encased in a velvet glove. Microsofts ubiquity in corporate Americas PC discourse sometimes makes it difficult for me to imagine, let alone articulate, any continued relevance for my longtime platform of choice.

When I start to feel like the last Mac buffalo, however, I have merely to take a stroll around Ziff Davis Medias offices to regain my self-confidence: Like virtually every publishing company turning trees into reading material, Ziff still relies heavily on the fruits of Apple to address any sort of creative, graphics-driven task, from marketing to graphic design to copy flow.

The Mac may be a tiny blip on the corporate radar screen, but it remains a big deal indeed for publishing companies that recognized its graphics prowess and standardized on Mac hardware and software a decade or more ago.

CEO Steve Jobs Sony envy--and the companys notable successes with family-friendly products such as the iMac--may keep Apples consumer efforts front and center. Nevertheless, the loyalty of publishing professionals remains vital to the Macs viability--and to the adoption of new technologies such as Mac OS X.

Thats why Im anxiously awaiting the Mac news from next weeks Seybold Seminars gathering here in New York.

The decision of Apple (a traditional keynote mainstay and major exhibitor at the big publishing show) to excuse itself from the show floor and stick to a few low-profile technology demonstrations is significant in itself. I assume the move puts the kibosh on any hopes that Apple will use the event to talk publicly about significantly faster Power Mac systems, although Im equally confident major publishing houses will get a sub rosa earful from Apple operatives about the coming generation of radically faster, gigahertz-plus systems.

Im also a trifle concerned that the decision to sit out Seybold betrays Apples overconfidence in the spaniel-like devotion of its publishing customers. A few years ago, Microsoft Corp. attempted to use Seybold as a beachhead from which to launch Windows NT as a serious publishing contender, and Apple responded with a vigorous marketing counteroffensive.

Now that the immediate threat from Redmond seems to have waned, I suspect Cupertino assumes all roads will lead to Mac OS X and beyond for todays publishing pros.

Of course, the road map isnt quite that straightforward when it comes to a corporate exercise like publishing. While Apples vertically integrated vision may provide most of the hardware and software necessary to convince consumers to upgrade their systems, professional workflows are built on multiple strata of third-party hardware and software; dislodge one key piece, and the entire edifice can slide in unexpected ways.

Consider the relationship between core publishing applications and software plug-ins under Mac OS X. As Daniel Drew Turner and I first noted back at Julys Macworld Expo/New York, the switch to the Carbon APIs Apple has tuned for Mac OS X has posed a conundrum for developers of two of the biggest publishing apps, Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress.

Over the years, third-party developers have created a welter of plug-ins that enhance the capabilities of XPress and Photoshop, as well as other publishing and graphics contenders such as Adobe InDesign and Macromedia FreeHand. And therein lies the rub: While pre-Carbon versions of these applications can handle Carbonized plug-ins, Carbonized applications cant handle plug-ins that havent made the switch.

And that means that before most graphics professionals can truly embrace Mac OS X versions of their key applications, the smaller companies that sell their favorite software extensions need to get into the Carbon groove.

Thats easier said than done, especially for relative small fry with constrained development budgets. Not only do plug-in developers have to get their heads around a whole new set of technologies and protocols, they presumably also need sufficiently mature pre-release builds of the big guys Carbonized applications to ensure compatibility.

Im optimistic that Adobe will use next weeks show to announce a formal ship date for Photoshop 7, which will be available for Mac OS X as well as the classic Mac OS and Windows. (As Id predicted, the developer already demonstrated the next generation of its flagship image editor at Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco.)

Its less clear what the timeframe is for a Carbonized version of XPress 5, which shipped just last month for Mac OS 9 and Windows. Quark has indicated that Mac OS X support will arrive alongside the next significant XPress upgrade, but the DTP heavyweight, like Apple, will be sitting out Seybold.

Much as Jobs likes to portray the Mac as a perpetual-motion machine fueled entirely by the brainpower available within the confines of the Cupertino campus, no one but the greenest hobbyists live by Apple-branded software alone.

Like professional power users of any platform, customers in the Macs one true enterprise market--professional publishing--are compelled to explore territory far beyond the confines of Apple shrink wrap. While Apple itself wont be making the trip next week, I hope some of the Macs key developers are ready to blaze the trail.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.