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McIlroy--New Year, New Media Trends

February 1998

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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