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The Future of Automated e-Commerce--Harry Waldman

November 2000
I had to laugh when one seminar attendee said I was a windbag so full of hot air that he felt he was going into a melt down, because my wife has said the same thing to me before. But, so far, she hasn't gone into a melt down, at least not from the drone of my chatter.

However, many were enthusiastic and said I gave them much to think about. It was amazing just how diverse the comments on my talk at the Seybold Conference in San Francisco were. My impact appeared to range from "wow" to "get lost."

But, I think I sparked some controversy, some positive and some negative thinking, and hopefully kept most that attended the session awake. And now, like it or not, (it's my column) I have the key concepts here for you to read. So whether you agree or disagree, read it and let me know what you think, because I think this is going to become a reality sooner than we realize.

Got that?

In all likelihood my Seybold talk was to the wrong audience. It was supposed to be a seminar on preflighting, and most attendees were production-oriented types trying to learn more about how to tackle today's preflight concerns—and here I am talking about the explosion of totally automated, e-commerce short-run color printing in the near future.

What's the connection? Simple: totally automated, e-commerce short-run color printing will not work without totally automated, e-commerce preflight. If preflight ever had a manifest destiny, this is it.

Let me describe to you what I mean by totally automated, e-commerce short-run color printing. I can best do that by giving you one scenario that will reoccur countless times from a non-traditional source of business. This is good news for those geared to capitalize on what I believe to be a new market that will grow rapidly.

A real estate agent has just taken a digital picture of that great house she wants to sell. She loads the picture into her computer and, using Microsoft Publisher, creates a four-color flyer she wants printed and mailed immediately. Note that I said Microsoft Publisher and not the familiar QuarkXPress or the new Adobe InDesign. We in the graphic arts community immediately think of these two desktop publishing programs as the giants of the industry.

In reality, they are almost insignificant when compared to the number of copies of Publisher that are out there. And once what I'm describing becomes a reality they're going to get used. Let's proceed and see how.

The real estate agent logs onto the Website of her favorite printer and easily fills out the quick quote form that mostly consists of check boxes. She gets an instant quote, which she accepts. The quote, along with some additional information that she supplies (billing, shipping, etc.), now becomes the job ticket. Each quote has a unique number, which becomes the job number. She drags her files onto an icon on the printer's site.

The icon automatically starts a procedure that flight checks the job. If the job passes flight check, it is automatically sent to the printer's server by FTP. The quote, which is now a job ticket, is sent to a production control computer. Of course, a copy of the job number stays with the job at all times for identification. The job is RIPed and trapped automatically, and is sent to a digital press to be printed. All almost untouched by human hands in a fraction of today's time, at a fraction of today's cost.

Pie in the sky? Not really; everything I just talked about is becoming a reality as you read this. ColorQuick, an exhibitor at Seybold, is working on a system that can do almost all of what I just described. In fact, even though their booth was small, Seybold gave them their coveted "Hot Pick" designation.

And Markzware, the leader in preflight software, has MarkzNet—a server-based preflight solution that can handle most of the preflight task now. Sounds great, but we all know it can't be that simple. Let's look at the problems.

First the file sizes for a four-color job make it impractical to send them over telephone modems. Enter cable, DSL and other high-speed solutions that will be common in the near future. I have cable in my home office and despite the differences between upload and download speeds I can still use FTP easily to transfer large files in very short time spans.

Also there are many file compression solutions available including the automated file compression packed with MarkzNet. By now you're probably thinking that even with the so-called professional clients, most files are flawed. In fact, Patrick Marchese, president of Markzware, told me that printers using FlightCheck (Markzware's patented technology), are finding problems in more then 50 percent of all submitted files.

This would seem to paint a dark picture for an amateur's files. However, the real estate agent is not sending in a file as demanding as Fabio the art director. It would be nothing more than a four-color image, no spot colors and some type. Speaking of type, the biggest troublemaker—fonts—can be solved by either automatic collection from the client's machine, printing to disk or, if Adobe cooperates, an automated PDF utility that can be custom profiled by the printer. RGB files wouldn't be a major difficulty as they would automatically be converted to CMYK, and even the rich black problem can be handled.

Low-resolution raster images would present a more difficult problem. This would require customer education with well-chosen, careful wording both in the advance instructions and in the preflight message, as preflight will be geared to pick up the problem and alert the customer to fix it.

Now let's tackle the biggest problem: proofing. Currently, there are three ways to show a proof. One, is the traditional, time-tested method of sending a hard proof to the customer. This is not acceptable because it is a costly, time-consuming interruption of the automated process. Another is a new and rather useless proofing concept of sending the customer a "soft proof" to view on the monitor after the file is RIPed and trapped. This may show trapping results, but makes no sense as a predictor of final color.

The best method, in terms of keeping the automation intact, is to send the customer a soft proof as above and to equip the customer with an ink-jet printer like an Epson (about $200 to $500) and a calibrated PostScript RIP like Adobe PressReady ($149). The customer prints a copy and sees a reasonable facsimile of the final printed piece. Remember this is not annual report color quality and there are no spot colors.

But what if you could completely eliminate the need for a proof? The file would be color corrected automatically to reasonably match the final printed product to what the customer saw on the screen. This would be the final link to ensure complete automation with customer satisfaction.

Yes, I know that every monitor displays color differently. However, it can be done. It will be done. And, I know how, but for now I'm not telling. So there you have it: A large new market that will come from a new set of customers.

Automated, e-commerce short- run color printing will, in this case, be additional business for those equipped to go after it. But don't go into a coma, secure in the knowledge that your current customer base will be unaffected. You can be sure that this will become attractive to many traditional clients. Less cost, instant turnaround times, less inventory, variable imaging; all will make this very interesting to many print buyers for suitable projects—obviously we're not talking annual reports here.

And don't delude yourself about the hand-holding and quality that your customers absolutely need. Remember my last column (if you read it) about the typographers who were certain that desktop publishing would never work because their customers needed both hand-holding and their exquisite craftsmanship? I'm sure you don't want to travel down that road to oblivion.

—Harry Waldman

About the Author
Harry Waldman has been in the graphic arts industry for 30 years and, as a printing company owner, was well-known for implementing cutting-edge technology. Waldman is also an author. His book, Computer Color Graphics, published by GATF Press, enables readers to learn today's graphic software quickly by teaching the essential concepts. E-mail him at

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