Thursday, September 25, 2008

Refections from Photokina

It’s really interesting to reflect on how the printing business has changed over the past 20 years. In 1988 I was running a professional photo lab and coming to grips with a new technology, the Canon CLC500, which we initially thought was “not good enough” for commercial uses but ended up as a game-changer because of it’s improved color, quick turn and lower price.

In the early 90’s I joined Continuum Productions, a spin-off of Bill Gate’s Interactive Home Systems that later became Corbis, and quickly realized that the game was getting ready to change once again. Only this time is was the sellers of heavy iron that were doing the dance. The days of high-commissioned sales persons selling mutli-hundred thousand dollar “imaging stations” were soon to end and we were preparing to be the first digital image library with over one million pre-press quality images. We were working closely with Scitex at the time and they were having trouble understanding why we would want to scan images an RGB color space. All of their systems assumed that content was being scanned specifically for print output, for a specific job, at a specific size. The idea of mulit-purposing was not really in their vocabulary yet. But we understood that the future was not simply paper based, and the idea of archiving the full spatial content of a transparency without knowing what it’s final use would be key in monetizing the Corbis Digital Library. So me and my colleagues, along with the our counterparts at Getty Images, began the process of defining the workflow of converting photographic output to digital in a pre-digital camera age. Working closely with the Scitex engineers in Herzlia, Israel and the Linocolor color scientists in Kiel, Germany, the resulting software and hardware solutions became the standard for archiving millions of legacy images.

Around the same time I remember seeing a new printing technology at Drupa 1995. It was an on-demand, ink-based output device that promised to deliver on the 1:1 marketing goal, only a pipedream a mere 13 years ago. In order to see the demo promising the personalization of product for each attendee (including unique pop cans!) you needed to secure a ticket a full day before. The hottest product at Drupa 1995? The first generation Indigo press.

Fast forward to 2002. Indigo had gone through a few generations of devices (and you no longer were required to buy two presses per installed site) and a new product was cropping up that was ready to change the game. I was consulting for the first “photobook” manufacturer at the time, and communicating to the folks at HP, who had recently purchased Indigo, what I called the “RIP many, print one” problem. You see, the Indigo, while made for personalization, was really good at unique text when the rich content of the product was unchanged. Also, it was good at short runs of fewer than 500 copies. Most Indigo installations ran one or two jobs a day where the time for rasterizing the print files as not very material to the overall production process. We had a totally different model where the average order for each file was one copy. Keeping the press running without waiting for each file to RIP was a huge problem and, just as in 1994 with Scitex, the Indigo engineers were trying to get their heads around what we were asking for and if there would be a market for it going forward. What started as a homegrown “mother of all RIPs” created by HP Labs became what is now the standard for high-volume, rich-content consumer production, the SRS, or Scaleable Rip Solution, now known as SmartStream Ultra.

We are certainly in a day where "necessity is the mother of invention” was never more true but also so critical in determining the fate of new companies that are appearing each day, pushing the edges of the digital economy. Those of us that lived to tell the tales of Web 1.0 each have personal stories of great business ideas that were just ahead of their time due to being ahead of the curve technology-wise. It’s great to see the attention that Print 2.0 is getting today because the time to market for new printed products gets smaller each month and the thirst for new rich-content consumer products is only beginning.

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