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McIlroy--New Year, New Media Trends

February 1998
One of the fun things that columnists get to do is write their predictions for the new year. I've never done it before because I think it's generally a fool's game. As the playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote, "You can only predict things after they've happened."

Still, predicting is fun. If you let me make it more of a trends analysis than a hard-and-fast statement of something that will happen in 1998, I'm willing to join the prediction party.

Let's look at the major new media issues that will be transformed during 1998:

It was big in 1996 and 1997, and there's absolutely no reason for the pace of development to slow this year. Two things were supposed to block continued growth. Either the network would fall apart, or the novelty would wear off.

Well, the network can be slow, particularly during peak hours, but somehow the phone companies and the large Internet service providers are managing to keep up with the explosion in demand for network access. New infrastructural facilities are coming online daily. Most of us wish it could move faster, but it's rarely so slow that we just log off in disgust.

The novelty has worn off for most people, but now it's been replaced with real utility. Where a year and a half ago I logged onto the Web for a laugh, nowadays I log on to keep up with my clients; to order books, travel, hardware and software; to research technologies and business opportunities; and to exchange an ever-increasing amount of e-mail with colleagues and friends. The Web has gone from clever to indispensable in a remarkably short time.

Online commerce is thus far the Web's "killer app" (compelling application). Companies like Dell Computer are raking in unseemly fortunes through their Web sites—millions of people access the Dell site every week. I think it's extraordinary, and I also think this will continue to grow exponentially.

People like ordering certain products over the Web. If you know roughly what you want, and if the supplier has an excellent reputation, Web ordering seems very low-risk and completely convenient. Large corporations are saving huge amounts in their procurement budgets by automating ordering via the Web.

Of course it's worth noting that no printing company has made much of a dent in this area. Over one-third of Dell Computer's business now comes in via the Internet—I wonder what percentage of R.R. Donnelley's comes in this way. I hear you saying that the reason for this is that print is not a commodity product. And I can only answer, "That's correct"—and wonder who's going to do something about it.

Digital Printing
The big news in 1997 was that several companies started making a real profit on digital printing. Obviously not all companies—probably not even most—but enough companies started succeeding that we could state that digital printing can be profitable.

But it's very hard work. I think the industry has now realized that there is no pent-up demand for customized printing, and not much enthusiasm for short runs generally. The direct print customers are developed slowly and painstakingly by innovative, imaginative and determined entrepreneurs. (The big printers, like R.R. Donnelley and Moore, have not been very successful to date in this market.)

I can't see any indication that this will change rapidly in 1998. It's not a price issue or a capacity issue. It's just a human issue—it takes a long time to educate people to do things differently.

The one thing that really could change the situation is if the vendors with the most at stake would enter into a meaningful cooperative relationship to develop the market. There's already something called PODI—the Print On-demand Initiative—but if it's been active, it's managed to be active in a silent kind of way. None of my colleagues or customers has heard a thing from PODI recently.

I wish that the vendors would focus on some meaningful educational and market-development issues. But I doubt it will happen, so I predict only modest growth in this market in 1998.

I wonder if all of the current suppliers will be able to survive the slow uptake—I doubt that they can. But we'll still see a host of "faster and better" print engines in 1998. New technology tends to appear when the engineers complete it, not when the market demands it.

We've been talking about workflow for years now, and the only thing clear is that no one knows what they're talking about. I know that workflow has to do with making work flow better—faster, more efficiently, with fewer errors—but beyond that there's not much agreement about what workflow is, and particularly what a "good" workflow is.

The industry has to get together on this one too and come to some agreement on terms and concepts. At Seybold Publications we're spearheading one project to try to encourage this agreement, but I suspect it's not enough to bring the issue into the bright spotlight it requires. Workflow is still a couple of years from becoming a meaningful product category.

Digital Assets
At the heart of controlling workflow is controlling the digital elements that are processed into a digital workflow. That much is clear. And the market is waking up to this very rapidly. While I don't know of a single "workflow" system I can recommend, there are several digital assets systems that are drawing raves, including Canto Cumulous on the low-end, and MediaBank from Archetype, now a division of Bitstream, for more demanding users.

Most printers and prepress shops now advertise "digital asset services" to their customer base—though most don't really understand what they're advertising. I think that many providers of graphic arts service will master the learning curve in 1998, while their customers will wake up to the value of digital asset control. This product category should continue to grow rapidly in 1998.

Apple and Microsoft
If I wanted to go out on a limb with any prediction for 1998, it's that Apple will not get through the year without merging or being acquired by another company. I think that Apple has lost too much momentum in the last couple of years to recover enough of its former glory to remain an independent company.

We'll see. Regardless, printers and their customers will have access to great new Macintosh computers for some time to come. But Apple may not be the supplier. About Microsoft I can only say I think it will continue to do just fine.

Best wishes for a great business year! Even if you skip my column all year, make sure to check out my first column in 1999 to see how I did.

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and associate conference director of Seybold Seminars.

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