printCafe vs. PrintTalk--Waging a PrintWar?
BY CAROLINE MILLER
In the realm of printing management systems, there's probably no hotter topic right now than printCafe and PrintTalk. The January 2000 announcement of the merger of nth degree software and Prograph to form printCafe, then the subsequent acquisitions of AHP, Hagen Systems, Logic Associates, M Data and Programmed Solutions left the industry confused, nervous and full of questions. That air of uncertainty was further fueled when, in June, the remaining MIS systems and 10 e-commerce companies announced the formation of the PrintTalk consortium. Both PrintTalk and printCafe made promises of seamless integration from the buyer to printer, but many in the industry remained skeptical.
Graph Expo and Converting Expo 2000 in Chicago proved to be the watershed moment for both PrintTalk and printCafe. PrintTalk unveiled and successfully demonstrated the first implementations between four companies.
While, across the show floor, printCafe demonstrated the coupling of its Web solution with its business management solutions with data flowing to and from the shop floor via its direct machine interface with MAN Roland, and integration to the print buyer's Ariba e-procurement platform.
Despite both demonstrations, there is still some confusion surrounding what exactly printCafe and PrintTalk are offering and how they differ from each other. So, in an effort to clear up the muddy waters that encircle both printCafe and PrintTalk, Printing Impressions presents a primer on printCafe and PrintTalk, their evolution and how they view their respective places in the market.
In February and March 2000, the newly formed printCafe, backed by CreoScitex, acquired what it believed were the leading MIS systems in the commercial printing industry. The concept behind the creation of printCafe was to integrate printer and print buyer MIS systems with e-commerce. printCafe built an Internet-based print procurement platform, so printers could automate the entire printing process from creation of the job on the buyer's side through the product delivery. printCafe offers online solutions that enable print buyers to create specifications for a print job, send them out for quotation, accept a bid and follow the production schedule, while maintaining communication with the print vendor and all suppliers throughout the production process.
printCafe felt that its solutions were perfectly suited for the industry. "We saw clearly that a lot of the e-commerce players in the market did not fully understand how the printing industry supply chain worked," explains printCafe co-CEO Marc Olin. "There were people who had come from outside the printing industry that had developed solutions which were somewhat hostile to the printers. Based on our many years of experience in the printing industry by delivering electronic data interchange (EDI) solutions to print buyers and printers, we felt that we were uniquely qualified to provide an end-to-end solution that addressed the needs of printers, as well as print buyers."
While printCafe was busy with its acquisitions, PrintTalk was also in its genesis, reveals Jess Walker of Noosh, a founding PrintTalk member. "It happened after printCafe had acquired a few of the companies, but before they began to give us any definition of what they intended to establish." Although PrintTalk would not be formed until June 2000, Impresse, Noosh and some other founding PrintTalk e-commerce companies had completed integrations with some MIS systems on their own. "Noosh demonstrated an integration with Logic Systems about six months before printCafe launched their company," Walker reports.
"Our initial integration tests and development showed us that it was technically possible to integrate and that there was a lot of customer interest for us to do so," notes Jim Mekis of Impresse, also a founding PrintTalk member.
Although there was a definite interest and a developing need for integration, it became apparent that no one company could integrate with every company out there. "There was no one market-maker that could accomplish what many marketplaces could do together," adds Walker.
As several e-commerce companies were beginning to realize that they needed to work together, Steve Halberg, president of Parsec Corp., was coming to the realization that his customers were going to want and need to be integrated with e-commerce companies. "This industry is very dynamic right now and there are companies jumping into it all the time. It just looked like an absolute nightmare to me," he remembers.
In an attempt to wake up from that nightmare, Halberg contacted remaining MIS companies to see if there would be any interest in developing an integration standard along with the e-commerce companies. The result of Halberg's phone calls was a meeting in Burlingame, CA, this past June. "It's really amazing when you think about it. We're talking about a group of companies that, before PrintTalk, would not have said hello to each other on the street," contends Mekis. "In the confines of the PrintTalk meeting, there was a clear and common need from customers on both the e-commerce side and the print management side to come together. We asked all these competitors to leave their egos and their weapons at the door—and they did."
PrintTalk was formed out of that initial meeting and NPES, with previous experience as secretariat for both ANSI and CGATS standards organizations, was also brought on to act as a secretariat for the group.
While PrintTalk and printCafe have the same goal—to integrate the entire printing process, from creation to fulfillment—PrintTalk and printCafe go about their respective missions in very different ways. printCafe chose to form a company with applications that span the buyer to printer arena, while PrintTalk chose to create a non-profit organization to develop transaction sets to be used to exchange data.
printCafe is a privately held company, which is focused first and foremost on integrating its management systems with printCafe's Web-based marketplace. Printers who extend their printCafe business management systems to include Website capabilities receive a customer-branded, customer-configured site, developed and hosted by printCafe, which they can project out into the world and invite the print buyers that they work with to purchase printing using their site.
Yet printCafe does realize that while printers may choose to adopt printCafe, print buyers may not. In response, printCafe announced the eProduction eCommerce eXchange (PCX) framework for integration. "PCX was announced with the intent to provide a means so that a printer who adopts our Website solution can communicate to any external buyer solution," Olin says.
Third-party e-commerce companies can also integrate into printCafe using the PCX process, which begins with a selection of industry standards for data exchange from industry groups like the GCA, CIP4 and also using Ariba's cXML. However, third parties must first go through a certification process, which is overseen by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to ensure the compatibility of the software for maximum performance, explains Olin. "All third parties must be certified, not just e-commerce companies." The decision to partner with RIT was a result of printCafe's experience in the EDI environment, where communication disputes arose from using multiple software vendors.
"There were often disputes between the two parties over making the communication happen seamlessly. There was a lot of finger pointing involved," he admits. "We needed to have an arbitration party that could test and validate that the communication was set up and working between the parties. We saw RIT as an organization within the industry that was beyond reproach, which could certify the communications so that our customers could feel secure that the connectivity was set up correctly."
While printCafe has developed its PCX framework for integration, PrintTalk has taken a different approach. The PrintTalk implementation is available free of charge to anyone who wants to download it from its Website, printtalk.org. PrintTalk defines its mission as developing a common and open communications interface among its members' products. Even so, it is quick to clarify that it is not a standards body. Instead, PrintTalk sees itself as an implementation organization.
"We want to do things in a very standard way," says Mekis. "I've been in this industry long enough to say we don't need another standard. We have enough standards. We need to get them applied and working, rather than just having bodies working on more standards. We are really focused around being a group that does things."
printCafe is also in agreement, and stresses that PCX should not be viewed as a standard by the industry. "PCX was never intended to be any kind of a standard. It is simply an outlining of the method by which people could interchange data with our solutions," notes Olin.
Although neither PrintTalk nor printCafe see themselves in the standards business, both are involved and contributing to larger standards organizations such as CIP4, the JDF standards organization. "We're really trying to be citizens of the industry at large," says Walker. He notes that PrintTalk was recently recognized by CIP4 for its contributions to the intent portion of JDF, which is the front-end description component of JDF. "Six to eight months ago, the intent portion of JDF needed a lot of development. It was just a concept at that point. Now, it's fleshed out and is a fairly complete specification that has been adopted by CIP4 into JDF."
JDF is central to both PrintTalk and printCafe's PCX integrations. The PrintTalk implementation relies on both JDF and cXML. "JDF is excellent at describing the printed piece, but it doesn't say what we are doing with the print piece. Are we asking for a quote? Is it a change order or a catalog order? There is no mechanism for doing that within JDF," Mekis explains.
However, you can add that mechanism by wrapping JDF in cXML. cXML is a communications infrastructure for e-commerce. It's intended to support goods that are bought and sold on the Internet. printCafe's PCX, which is based on XML.1, also relies on JDF, cXML, as well as EDI standards.
From PrintTalk's inception, its data interchange has been free and open to anyone who is interested. "PrintTalk is about the free exchange of information," says Mekis. "From day one, it was important for us that it be based on open standards. We were not going to develop something in a closet that you had to have a license to touch."
Walker agrees, explaining that PrintTalk's mission is to get people to use the integration. "We don't want any barriers. We want people to use it, and they don't have to be a member of PrintTalk. They can go to the Website, get the interface and start using it."
While the interface is open to anyone, there are additional benefits for paying the $2,000 fee to become a member of PrintTalk, reports Walker. Membership provides companies with the opportunity to receive additional technical help, as well as input on the group's activities. PrintTalk membership requires e-commerce companies to implement the PrintTalk data interface into their product offerings within six months, according to Mekis. Members are also expected to be active in developing the business objects requested by customers. To date, PrintTalk has released four of its 16 business objects. The rest of the 12 business objects are slated for release by the end of this year.
Data Security Issues
Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between printCafe and PrintTalk is how they approach issues surrounding data security. Both printCafe and PrintTalk use standard Internet encryption and security measures. However, they differ in how they pass the data between buyer and printer. The data that is funneled into printCafe, through the PCX interface, is subject to an automated data integrity review by printCafe before it is passed onto the management systems. Data is never exposed in the transfer process and there is never any human intervention, says Olin. This process is used only to assure the integrity of the data and to avoid data corruption.
It is here that PrintTalk takes issue with printCafe, according to Mekis. "We believe that the Internet is a very straightforward business tool that—provided proper security and proper encryption is used—is safe." PrintTalk states that with its interface, data and content remain encrypted and unreadable end-to-end across the Internet in order to ensure privacy of customer data.
However, Olin points out that the PrintTalk companies do not operate any differently. "The data passes through their Websites just as it does with printCafe."
Walker takes issue with Olin's characterization. "I like to use the metaphor of Federal Express. When you send something FedEx, they don't open the box to make sure there is something in the package. It's a blind transfer. We don't look at the data. We merely provide a way in which to pass the data." However, Olin points out, "printCafe doesn't 'look' at the data either. The review is only an automated validity check on the data designed to identify errors in the transmission and to prevent corruption of management system databases," he says.
It is this difference of opinion that both PrintTalk and printCafe point to when asked if it's possible for them to ever work together. "We've invited them on numerous occasions to join," Mekis states. PrintTalk reportedly has also offered to develop an alternative plan, which would permit the customers to choose whether they would allow printCafe to monitor their data. "There doesn't seem to be any interest from them," he notes.
Olin disagrees with Mekis, and counters that printCafe was never invited to join during the initial PrintTalk formation—and that the PrintTalk structure was set up to make it disadvantageous for printCafe to join. printCafe's review of PrintTalk's membership requirements indicates that only software developers are allowed membership, and that printers, publishers and other commercial printers are excluded.
However, Mekis stresses that membership is open to anyone who is interested, and publishers and commercial printers may join the consortium as supporting members. "Since no details of PCX had been released when PrintTalk members began building PrintTalk's functionality, it is clear that there was no anti-printCafe effort," notes Mekis.
So what does the future hold for both PrintTalk and printCafe? Olin does not rule out the possibility of printCafe and PrintTalk working together in the future. "We will be pleased to partner with PrintTalk or any other organization if we feel they are committed, as we are, to creating a transaction environment that benefits our customers. At this point, PrintTalk is not structured with our customers' best interests in mind," he says. For the foreseeable future, Olin believes that PCX and PrintTalk will exist side-by-side, while Mekis is of the opinion that the printCafe approach will go the way of Betamax video players.
In the end, the marketplace will have to decide.