The term "desktop publishing" is commonly used to describe page layout skills. However, the skills and software are not limited to paper and book publishing. The same skills and software are often used to create graphics for point of sale displays, promotional items, trade show exhibits, retail package designs, and outdoor signs.
The ability to create WYSIWYG page layouts on screen and then print pages at crisp 300 dpi resolution was revolutionary for both the typesetting industry as well as the personal computer industry. Newspapers and other print publications made the move to DTP-based programs from older layout systems like Atex and other such programs in the early 1980s.
The term "desktop publishing" is attributed to Aldus Corporation founder Paul Brainerd, who sought a marketing catch-phrase to describe the small size and relative affordability of this suite of products in contrast to the expensive commercial phototypesetting equipment of the day.
Often considered a primary skill, increased accessibility to more user-friendly DTP software has made DTP a secondary skill to art direction, graphic design, multimedia development, marketing communications, administrative careers and advanced high school literacy in thriving economies. DTP skill levels range from what may be learned in a few hours (e.g. learning how to put clip art in a word processor) to what requires a college education and years of experience (e.g. advertising agency positions). The discipline of DTP skills range from technical skills such as prepress production and programming to creative skills such as communication design and graphic image development.
By the standards of today, early desktop publishing was a primitive affair. Users of the PageMaker-LaserWriter-Macintosh 512K system endured frequent software crashes, the Mac's tiny 512 x 342 1-bit black and white screen, the inability to control letter spacing, kerning (the addition or removal of space between individual characters in a piece of typeset text to improve its appearance or alter its fit) and other typographic features, and discrepancies between the screen display and printed output. However, it was a revolutionary combination at the time, and was received with considerable acclaim.
Behind-the-scenes technologies developed by Adobe Systems set the foundation for professional desktop publishing applications. The LaserWriter and LaserWriter Plus printers included high quality, scalable Adobe PostScript-fonts built into their ROM memory. The LaserWriter's PostScript capability allowed publication designers to proof files on a local printer then print the same file at DTP service bureaus using optical resolution 600+ ppi PostScript-printers such as those from Linotronic. Later, the Macintosh II was released which was much more suitable for desktop publishing because of its larger, color screen, support for multiple displays, greater RAM capacity and its SCSI storage interface which allowed fast, high-capacity hard drives to be attached to the system.
Although Macintosh-based systems would continue to dominate the market, in 1986, the GEM-based Ventura Publisher was introduced for MS-DOS computers. While PageMaker's has a pasteboard metaphor closely simulated the process of creating layouts manually. Ventura Publisher automated the layout process through its use of tags/style sheets and automatically generated indices and other body matter. This made it suitable for manuals and other long-format documents. Desktop publishing moved into the home market in 1986 with Professional Page for the Amiga, Publishing Partner for the Atari ST, GST's Timeworks Publisher on the PC and Atari ST, Calamus for the Atari TT030, and even Home Publisher, Newsroom, and GEOPublish for 8-bit computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64.
During these early years, desktop publishing acquired a bad reputation from untrained users who created poorly-organized ransom note effect layouts — criticisms that would be levied again against early web publishers a decade later. However, some were able to realize truly professional results. For example, .info (magazine) became the very first desktop-published, full-color, newsstand magazine in the last quarter of 1986, using a combination of Commodore Amiga computers, Professional Page desktop publishing software, and an Agfagraphics typesetter.
The former category of products are programs that support creation of text-intensive and sometimes living documents (such as books or large online documents) where there is little change in format from page to page. The former products have more features like soft references, which automatically update when the reference text is moved, automated indexing, cross-referencing features, and limited support for placement of graphics.
The latter category of text and graphics page layout programs give the page composer more control and flexibility over graphic design elements and positioning, text and image manipulation, and pre-press support features. Some of the latter category of products may also be used to compose multiple-page repetitive layouts, books with master page editing, and live links to remote content from databases with 3rd party plug-ins, but are primarily used for composing case-by-case page layouts and edited by one person at any given time.
What generally qualifies as "DTP software" in either category allows users to create complex page layouts that can incorporate body text, numbered footnotes, graphics, photos and other visual elements. Some of these products are QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Publisher, Framemaker, Apple Pages, Serif's PagePlus and the free Scribus, and (to some extent) any graphics software or word processor that combines editable text with images.
In the early days of graphical user interfaces, DTP software was in a class of its own when compared to the fairly spartan word processing applications of the time. Programs such as WordPerfect and WordStar were still mainly text-based and offered little in the way of page layout, other than perhaps margins and line spacing. On the other hand, word processing software was necessary for features like indexing and spell checking, features that are today taken for granted.
As computers and operating systems have become more powerful, vendors have sought to provide users with a single application platform that can meet all needs. Software such as Open Office.org Writer and Microsoft Word offers advanced layouts and linking between documents, and DTP applications have added in common word processor features.
In modern usage, DTP is not generally said to include tools such as TeX or troff, though both can easily be used on a modern desktop system and are standard with many Unix-like operating systems and readily available for other systems. The key difference between electronic typesetting software and DTP software is that DTP software is generally interactive and WYSIWYG in design, while older electronic typesetting software tends to operate in batch mode, requiring the user to enter the processing program's markup language manually without a direct visualization of the finished product. The older style of typesetting software occupies a substantial but shrinking niche in technical writing and textbook publication; however, since much software in this genre is freely available, it can be more cost-effective than the professionally-oriented DTP systems. It is also particularly suitable for corporate newsletters or other applications where consistent, automated layout is important.
There is some overlap between desktop publishing and what is known as Hypermedia publishing (i.e. Web design, Kiosk, CD-ROM). Many graphical HTML editors such as Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe Dreamweaver use a layout engine similar to a DTP program. However, some Web designers still prefer to write HTML without the assistance of a WYSIWYG editor and resort to such software, if at all, solely for complex layout that cannot easily be rendered in hand-written HTML code.