One of the more charming acronyms that the personal computer world has added to the language is the increasingly familiar "WYSIWYG," which looks formidable but is easy to pronounce: "Wissywig." WYSIWYG stands for "What You See Is What You Get." It refers to software that shows on the display screen exactly how the document you're preparing will look like when it is printed on paper.
Until recently, WYSIWYG had a lot more charm than truth. Some WYSIWIG word-processing programs could depict bold-face, italics, underlining and the like on the display screen, but there was no program that actually could give a clear picture of an entire page of text and graphics.
Now advances in display technology are making the charming promise of WYSIWIG come true. The Atari ST computers and Commodore's Amiga offer standard display graphics that are just about sharp enough to depict a clear image of a complete printed page. For IBM-PC and Macintosh users, there are display options available that can depict, for example, an entire newspaper page -- including headlines, text, advertisements and pictures -- clearly enough to read without going blind.
It was only three years ago or so when the high-resolution screen of a monochrome Macintosh computer seemed almost unbelievably sharp and clear. That standard Mac screen shows about a third of a printed page in gray and black. Today, though, you can buy external monitors for the Macintosh -- the best-known model comes from a firm called Radius -- that display an entire printed page (text and pictures) in black letters on a pure white background -- essentially the same thing as reading from a sheet of paper. The Radius-type monitors are marketed primarily for desk-top publishing applications, but they make any computer work better.
In the world of the IBM-PC and its proliferating clones, there has been a mind-boggling variety of display options. When IBM brought out its first PC in 1981, the machine did not include the circuit board needed to create a video display; customers had to buy that separately. The result was a flood of different display technologies.
At the moment, display options in the IBM world can be grouped loosely around a number of standards. There's the "MGA" (monochrome graphics adapter) standard, which can display letters but not pictures on a monochrome screen. This fairly mushy option comes standard on many of the cheapest IBM-PC clones, proving once more that you get what you pay for. Then comes the "CGA" (color graphics adapter) standard and "EGA" (enhanced graphics adapter), which portray words and graphics in a variety of colors. EGA color quality is good, although not as good as the Atari and Amiga systems provide.
The new IBM Personal System 2 computers offer an improved color standard called "VGA" (video graphics array), which looks sharp and beautiful but which operates -- so far, at least -- only on IBM's new family of color monitors. Some PS/2 machines will also support an even sharper color standard called "8514/A," which was designed for architects and engineers who need extremely high-resolution and pinpoint blueprinting capability.
In addition to these assorted "standards," some manufacturers have developed their own independent display systems. The best known of these is Hercules, which offers a range of video display circuit boards that generally exceed the resolution of comparably priced boards from IBM.
Given the industry's resolute inability to settle on a standardized display mechanism, it's hardly surprising that many users and buyers find themselves utterly confused by the options available.
This explains the countless letters to this column in which readers express the belief that a color monitor is not a good choice for someone who wants to do a lot of word processing. A few years back, it was true that the sharpest text display available was on monochrome screens. Now the opposite is true. The EGA and VGA color displays offer higher resolution of text than most monochrome systems; the latest versions of most major word-processing programs have been revised to support these sharp new color display systems. If you're not writing in color, you're cheating yourself.
On most programs today, you can pick the color combination of your choice for word processing. The nicest palette for anybody who has to stare at a screen for hours on end is bright yellow text on a dark blue background. This combination seems to eliminate eyestrain.