Ghost in the machine
Razor-sharp printouts from your dumb printer.
Circa October 1998
Sing the following lines to the tune of 'Ghostbusters':
"Something's strange / with my bubblejet output / who ya gonna call / Ghostbusters!"
Okay, let's sing it one more time, but this time, change the last word to "Ghostscript." Especially if your 720 dpi or even 1440 dpi full-color, photo-realistic bubblejet prints jagged and garbled graphics resembling teletext video graphics on TV. It does not matter whether you use Mac or PC with an entry-level home user printer or a high-end large format inkjet plotter. You see, that only happens because you must be printing a company logo or illustration in EPS (Encapsulated Postscript) or Postscript format. Tut! Tut! Though some laser printers and most bubblejet printers can print photographs at acceptable or even photo-realistic qualities, they can't print EPS files and complex page layouts at resolutions as sharp as Monica Lewinsky's nails. All this has to do with 'ripping' with Postscript, the PDL (Page Description Language) invented by Adobe and first licensed by Apple on its ground-breaking Apple Laserwriter printer that spawned the desktop publishing industry.
Most illustration and page layout software, like Coreldraw, Illustrator, Freehand, Pagemaker, and QuarkXpress, create complex graphics and layouts using a hidden powerful set of commands in Postscript language. At the time of printing, these terse commands automatically get squirted down to a Postscript equipped printer, such as a laser printer or a professional imagesetter. A Postscript interpreter embedded on a powerful and specially designed computer on a motherboard inside the printer RIPs (Raster Image Processor) these commands and finally makes it into a sensible graphic using dots, usually at a very high resolution. This entire magazine, for instance, is designed on ordinary desktop computers and outputted on an imagesetter at 2,400 dpi that uses Postscript.
The special motherboard in ordinary printers as well as licensing Postscript from Adobe costs money. Ironically enough, one way colour bubblejet makers have managed to crash the price barrier to photo-realistic quality output is by bypassing the printing industry standard Postscript. Very few printers offer a Postscript interface or adapter card even as an option. Most desperate users are forced to look for commercial software solutions that cost from less than US$ 100 to nearly a thousand dollars. Adobe is aware of this problem and realizes that its very sophisticated and advanced Postscript language caters to the needs of the professional pre-press and printing industry, not R.K. Laxman's Common Man with a mouse. To its credit, Adobe tried creating a new standard, PrintGear, for the booming low-end market, but hey! It still costs money in this cut-throat segment. Yes, even Microsoft tried aping Postscript's capabilities a few years ago with a competing technology that failed rather miserably.
As consultant I have often been faced with this dilemma over the years from my design and publishing industry customers. Some of these also use exotic but non-postscript output devices such as plotters or slide-recorders. At last I have discovered a solution that's free, and doesn't only solve their problem, but every ordinary home and office computer user's as well! Its called Ghostscript. Free and easily downloadable from their website, it’s a Postscript clone in software that runs on Macs, PCs, OS/2, most versions of Unix, Amiga, Atari, Nextstep, and VMS. Written in ANSI-C language, it can be compiled for any platform. Novice users may want to download and read the excellent electronic manual before attempting anything.
Ghostscript cracks any EPS, pdf, or postscript file and can display it on the screen or print it accurately to any supported device. It can also be used within a web browser to view the rare PS file or the more common pdf file format. It even does some jobs of Adobe's proprietary and commercial Acrobat Distiller, for free, The benefits of all this is obvious. For instance, designers can take their final designs, save it as a postscript, EPS, or pdf file, and open it in Ghostscript as a test or for trouble-shooting any potential errors that could occur at the expensive stage of film outputting.
At version 5, Ghostscript can work with Postscript Level 2 and some aspects of Level 3 also, and has been around for nearly ten years, in which time many postscript clones came and disappeared. Since the code is open, many people have contributed to its growth, much like what the Linux OS is to the hacker community. Calcomp, the respected large-format plotter manufacturer, embeds Ghostscript in five families of large format inkjet printers, and one small format direct film imaging printer. Still, for the professional community the solution is far from perfect, and requires a good understanding of the basic issues.
Now comes the big question: How should Adobe react? Plus, with stiff competition from QuarkXpress on PageMaker, and with a confusing array of products targeted at overlapping markets in design, publishing, and the web, should Adobe start singing: "And where, and where, is the Acrobatman."