20170116 You’d think publishing a website would be easy…..

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

The WWW didn’t really exist when I started using the internet.

We had bulletin boards, arcane chat room protocols, some weird techy stuff that allowed me to send e-mails to the USA from London if I routed them through Hong Kong (don’t ask, I can’t remember how I did it) and most communications revolved around what would today be called ecosystems, for example CompuServe and America On Line.

All the ingredients were present for social media but there was no integration.

The internet was for techies.

That soon changed, and we changed with it.

It’s quite humiliating to look at the designs for our websites back when we first developed some.

This website first appeared in July 1998. At that point, the computer world was fascinated by how quickly the price of hardware was falling and how new ideas in both hardware and software were being released with astonishing speed.

The pace of innovation was truly spectacular. In relation to the printed page, there were word processors which ranged from little more than software that replicated a typewriter that removed the need for Tippex and the carbon paper that stained everything blue to programs that allowed us to print various sophisticated effects like bold and italic, without having to change a wheel or a ball.

Of course, they had to be connected to a printer which meant a dot matrix printer (look it up, if you don’t know what they were: amazingly, accounting departments are still using them) through thermal printers (fat lot of use because the print faded almost overnight and if it was accidentally left out in the sun, the whole page turned brown, causing loads of lost faxes, for example, and millions of utterly useless expenses receipts).

Then there was the expensive option: the laser printer.

Word Processor software was hopeless at graphics or at layouts. For that, an entirely new class of program emerged: the Desktop Publishing or DTP software.

Some were aimed at high-level magazine production (Quark is still around) and those that wanted to remain exclusive to the “media” industry were designed especially for Apple machines, in the days when Apple’s Operating System was not a cloaked version of Linux charged at stupid prices and for when Apple machines were not doctored PCs.

At the other end of the scale, but nevertheless delivering excellent product at a very low price, was PagePlus by Serif. PagePlus is still around, too, and is now part of a suite of programs that cover a wide range of requirements.

A mate used Quark for a money laundering publication; I used PagePlus when we launched World Money Laundering Report in 1989. I’d been using it for years and was such a fan, I’d not only been to their base in a old factory in Nottingham but even, for a few months, did PR for them. That was fun. They were lovely people.

PagePlus did something that was very cool for the time: we could place an invisible “hot spot” over e.g. a graphic and turn that into a hotlink. When you look at an image on a webpage and click on an embedded link, that’s what we were able to do, in documents that displayed locally not on the web, providing us with, in effect, an integration with the internet (and the nascent www) on a document that was distributed by e-mail.

There was, then, no such thing as web design software, although you could build a site online at various web hosting sites. I found a box of PagePlus last week while I was clearing out a cupboard. Due to Microsoft’s policies of changing its operating systems and orphaning earlier versions, it won’t run on my current machines: but I also found an old version of Windows and so long as I install it on airgapped machine, MS’s habit of abandoning users to the ravages of internet criminals won’t affect me. It’ll be fun to re-acquaint myself with an old friend.

Anyway.. the point. If you knew how to do it, you could build a model of your webpage in DTP, then use a handful of HTML codes to replicate it on a screen. What happened, not only to me but to an entire industry, was that we designed “busy” pages on paper which looked hideous on screen. But we were all very pleased with ourselves. After all, we had just, with the click of a “send” button posted a page on the internet which meant everyone in the world could see it.

Of course, that wasn’t true. Only a tiny number of people could see it and most of them were in a selectively small part of the USA. But it was the start of something.

Just three years later, we created Vortex Centrum Limited, which began life with the specific purpose of electronic publishing, one of the very first e-publishing companies in the world. And we did it using PagePlus.

Later, when others started to catch on, someone coined the term “New Media.” Us? By then we felt the whole thing was business as usual, bordering on the old hat.

More next time!