Economics & Research Blog
Adobe and Kinko's - printing industry kerfuffle
The recent Adobe-
By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: July 2, 2007
The recent Adobe-printing industry kerfuffle is not without precedent, but it certainly has a unique twist. Years ago, Xerox encountered the wrath of some small printers for operating its own retail printing locations. The printers forgot about the time when Xerox was spurned by the printing industry, and was even turned down for membership in one of the industry associations because the company did not make “real” printing equipment. My how things have changed for our industry and Xerox. They're actually “one of us” now.
It is forgotten that programs like Microsoft PowerPoint and Lotus Freelance used to come with a converter that automatically packaged presentations in a format for a company called Genigraphics, that was essentially a slide-making company. Did other slide-makers complain? I don't know, but that never seemed to stop the capability from being included.
In the Adobe case, the printing industry was, at one point, dragging the company into our world, as the company complained that we were asking PostScript (and other products) to do things for which they were not intended. Adobe would soon become an active participant in key industry forums, and the capabilities of its products improved significantly.
During all that time PDF became a defacto standard, in effect replacing film negatives, in our workflows. Adobe seemed to want to be “one of us.”
Some people would say that this is what we deserve for relying too much on one supplier. Bah! No one ever worried about being an all-Heidelberg or an all-Komori, or an all-MAN Roland shop. It's an argument that goes nowhere. Does anyone look around their shop and say that there are too many Mac workstations there? A printing business owes itself and its customers to use the best tools available at a particular time to deliver superior, timely, and cost-effective results.
Adobe over the years has become rather arms-length with the industry. “Our” products, I am sure, are on the cash cow list at the company, as they aim to build their business with video and other cutting-edge areas.
What made this situation so interesting to me was its insensitivity. Not in an emotional sense, but it almost seems that this is the work of a clueless bureaucrat, who would get a nice pat on the back for making a deal with such a huge company like FedEx/Kinko’s. It's easy to forget a $100 billion industry that uses your products for almost everything, I guess.
It was also insensitive because it comes right on the heels of a major product upgrade cycle. Nothing like convincing some of your most loyal customers to participate in that cycle and then swiftly pull the rug out from under them.
Let's be clear: I doubt that there will be much business that heads off to FedEx's foundering Kinko's operation where sales are quite disappointing and declining. It's not like someone at Time Warner magazines will open a PDF and then click on an icon to send Sports Illustrated to a Kinko's around the corner from their posh Manhattan offices. The Kinko's customer represents only a tiny portion of our industry's volume.
The real issue is the new customer, the one creating documents for the first time, who now sees a capability through Kinko’s that most printers would be please to provide, but they would not otherwise learn about.
What's more of an issue for me is that Adobe did not even offer the industry a chance. Did anyone know that you could build such a capability into Acrobat? It would be different if FedEx/Kinko’s wrote the code themselves for this, but I suspect it was Adobe who did it. We'll learn more at some point I'm sure. With all of Adobe's attendance at trade conferences and forums (usually not with employees, but often with subcontracted consultants, by the way), this capability was never mentioned, nor ever suggested. Thank you, San Jose. These hired conference representatives were probably kept in the dark as well, as the rug was pulled out from under them, too. Perhaps industry associations should ask in the future if the Adobe conference representative is a full-time employee with high-level decision-making authority to determine their seriousness about their participation in the event.
The real opportunity for printers is to have their own e-commerce and workflow capabilities that customers use on their own. Adobe Acrobat's not the real competitor, it's businesses from outside our industry, like Staples, and others, who target new customers. Did anyone complain that EFI was a major participant in the building of Staples' print commerce capability? Not that I'm aware of. EFI is one of our most important suppliers, but their market presence is far different than that of Adobe, and their sale to Staples did not do anything to lead customers to Staples. Staples still has to attract customers by its own efforts. All industry suppliers will sell to whomever expresses a purchase interest in their products. That's what they are supposed to do. The Adobe/FedExKinko's situation goes well beyond that sense of market commerce. It's the spurning of thousands of loyal printing industry customers via a single mouse click.
What is there to do? There's the old saying about forgiving and forgetting, but no one really means the forgetting part. If you forget, you're asking for the same thing to happen to you again and again.
Is this a declaration that Adobe is not really “one of us”? If they were, they'd be pushing the businesses who support them more aggressively. Xerox learned the lesson, and learned it the hard way, and learned it well in the market development efforts for the iGen.
I don't know if what Adobe does matters anyway. Their products basically destroyed a prepress trade service industry, and if it wasn't them who did it, it would have been someone else, Aldus, Corel, Quark, whoever. Those efforts, one of the best examples of what economists call “creative destruction,” led the way for new publishing initiatives, especially small publishers, and also our ability to adopt direct-to-plate workflows.
An issue in the attempt to switch away from Adobe is their strong presence in the content creation business. Getting designers, agencies, and photographers to change is not possible in the short run. They're our customers, and we've always done what our customers want, in the end. Using the same programs they do is important in making sure files are accurate and printable.
What choices are there? I would strongly suggest that the industry start an initiative to evaluate and join in the open source software movement. No, no one has to switch to Linux, though that would be a step in the right direction. Linux is not ready for us, but it's getting close.
The standards for PDF files have been available to the open source software movement for quite some time. For example, start encouraging customers to use FoxIt Reader for Windows, my favorite, rather than Acrobat Reader. It's incredibly fast and efficient, and doesn't take over your system like Acrobat does. Test it out on some of your files and see what happens. There are many other open source alternatives for many of the tasks our industry needs to perform in the service of its customers. I will write more about the open source movement in a future column.
I suggest that IPA, PIA/GATF, and our educational institutions, start assigning projects for the evaluation of Scribus, the desktop publishing program, and The GIMP, the photo manipulation program. They are part of the open source software movement, and work in Mac, Windows, and Linux. They have the features that most users need. Adobe's products could easily be put aside and limited to high-end use if the industry really considered the features that are most important to them, and used open source products for those jobs.
There are no marketing departments hired to promote open source products, so now is the time for Quark, Corel, and others, to step up and offer what their proprietary solutions are to our industry's workflow issues. If they don't take advantage of this short window of opportunity, that would be a telling surprise. They have good products, in production use every day, and they are probably worth re-examining.
The upcoming meetings of Adobe's Bruce Chizen with the industry's associations promise to be quite fascinating. Whatever the case, it must be remembered that Adobe's ultimate responsibilities are to its owners, the shareholders, and for that reason, the company will act in whatever ways maximize the company's long-term value. Printing companies have that same exact responsibility. For nearly two decades, those responsibilities of Adobe and our industry's companies happened to result in congruent actions. There will always be situations of mutual interest, but now may be a sign that those days are coming to a close.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In Dr. Joe's original commentary, he implied that Adobe and Apple have not exhibited at recent Graph Expo events. Both have had exhibit booths in recent years at Graph Expo.
Also see the discussion on this topic at PrintCEO.com.