A couple of days agoI talked about how Xerox and Océ are moving forward in the market. These big players always get a lot of coverage, but behind the scenes a host of smaller firms are every bit as important to the success of this industry and are actually instrumental in the success of several print engine vendors. The list of these supporting companies is lengthy, but some to watch are Exstream, Elixir, XMPie, and GMC, all of which help orchestrate the content and flow of documents on the cusp of both print and virtual media. The first three firms are part of Xerox’s new FreeFlow workflow strategy which includes these companies’ tools as parts of its variable data printing solutions for monochrome and color print engines.

Campaign Management: An Exstream Specialty
“Response at On Demand was very positive,” said B.J. Cobulius, Marketing Communications Manager. “People have been coming to see us with specific questions and applications in mind. Many know they are not as efficient as they could be--as they need to be--and are looking for solutions.” Indeed. As I was talking with B.J. two insurance company employees walked up and began asking some very focused questions about how Dialogue could work in their environment.

Such awareness is a good thing. From what I hear on the street, Exstream may well be the first company thought of when it comes to campaign management programs that span email, the Web and direct mail. Exstream has significant penetration into the financial services market and among service bureaus. Unlike some competing document composition software which works in conjunction with other tools, Exstream’s Dialogue uses its own design, layout, planning and production environment. According to Exstream, this proprietary nature is a non-issue to users. Data center and service bureau staffs and marketing people alike generally become fully productive in a matter of weeks, creating variable content documents for print, and electronic distribution.

In the 50,000-foot view, documents are created in an easy-to-use Design Interface which draws off of the Content Manager, a central repository for document management tasks such as business rules, version control, and workflow approval.

XMPie Takes Variable Data to the Designer

XMPie's PersonalEffect software is intended to move design for variable data printing upstream--into graphic design studios, ad agencies and marketing companies, corporate marketing departments , and digital print providers--places where more traditional graphic design tools reign supreme. XMPie is the newest entry into this market and comes with the advantage of having founders who were creators of Scitex’s innovative personalization solutions and the VPS language. These guys probably know a thing or two about variable data.

“XMPie uses three modules,” explained Michael O’Hara, company president. “uPlan is where users define the business rules for each campaign. As the rules are created, Dynamic Objects are created that will be used in the layout phase of the process.”

“Next, uCreate, the design component, is a series of plug-ins for mainstream design tools like QuarkXPress, InDesign, GoLive and Dreamweaver. The Dynamic Objects created in uPlan can be dragged and dropped into layouts and the changing content can be proofed on the screen.”

“Finally, there’s uProduce, the production dashboard. It links the layouts, database and media assets through a Web-based interface. It provides server technology that generates PDF, PML and VPS print formats and HTML and DHTML for email or Web distribution.”

XMPie claims to be the first-ever software of its kind designed to work with a marketing or ad agency’s workflow. It ties creatives, account and production together so they are all on the same page. Which from my experience in both ad agencies and marketing firms is a big value by itself.

Completed documents are sent to the production environment that includes the Dialogue Engine which process live data and directs it to the selected output choices. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the short version. The advantages of the all-in-one product suite is that it is meant to work together rather than connect to other companies’ software. That means better control and greater reliability. This can be vital in some environments, but others need to work with established workflows and existing tools. And that’s where some other firms come in.

Elixir Makes VIPP Easier
Elixir’s products, by comparison, are more likely to be used in service bureaus and data centers where there is already more than a nodding acquaintance with the nuances of databases and variable data printing. Elixir used the venue of On Demand to spread the word about DesignPro Tools for AFP, and Vitesse, a powerful tool for variable data printing using Xerox’s VIPP. Both products shorten the time needed to design documents for variable data printing upping productivity and allowing more flexibility in layouts. Elixir is partnered with Xerox--the home of VIPP--and with Vitesse is aiming to make some gains against Lytrod Software’s Desktop Designer and ProForm Designer as the tools of choice for VIPP page layouts.

“Vitesse has drawn a lot of interest here at the show,” noted Dianne Merzel, Vice President for Worldwide Marketing. “Many people are looking for alternatives for designing with VIPP and want to reduce the need for hand-coding. Not having to hand-code is not only faster [“vitesse” means ‘speed’ in French], it reduces labor costs because programming skills are not required.” When a design is complete, Vitesse saves a document layout and variable data markup in the appropriate VIPP format that can then be sent to a VIPP-enabled printer where it will be merged with the actual data file.

GMC Offers Broad Tool Sets
Another player in the variable data document space is GMC Software, which offers several tools for different parts of document composition while deliering an extremely high level of quality control from creation through output. PrintNet-3 supports personalization; PrintNet-T helps manage complex transactional workflows; and PrintNet-OS is the output server that pulls jobs together for printing. Other tools include WebProof, a proofing tool for variable data documents; Web2Print for remote access and management of document design, data, proofing and job submission; and AFP2Print, a transformation engine that converts AFP datastreams to about a dozen different PDLs and datastreams for broad printing flexibility in mixed environments.

“The latest versions of these tools enable GMC to go full tilt into the document composition market,” Hal Morrow, Director of Marketing, told me. “GMC’s tools provide a very cost-effective solutions for high-speed variable data printing on a variety of print engines.”

When it comes to variable data, there is no one size-fits-all solution, and there are several other players in the market that were at the show but I have omitted and some that elected not to attend On Demand. There’ll ultimately be a shake out but my guess is that these firms will be among the ones that make highly customized digital printing a straightforward process that we’ll all come to take for granted.

And that’s the wrap.