by Bob Raus of Océ North America's Digital Document Systems Division What constitutes a genuinely effective standard and are you willing to bet your business that any single standard (including JDF) will deliver it all? June 7, 2005 -- The leading theme offered up at the recent On Demand Conference in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago was the matter of workflow. This is a remarkably persistent topic, and with good reason: digital printing has reached the point where the greatest efficiencies can be gained by processing jobs as quickly and accurately as possible. This requires an adaptable, versatile and robust ability to move jobs from step-to-step in the production process and numerous vendors are rushing forth with solutions they guarantee will cure all the ills and worries of print providers. And since our technology-driven industry is infatuated with the idea--if not the reality--of an all-encompassing standard, there is appropriate concern and hesitation about when the latest silver bullet of standards will be complete and useful enough to base one’s business success on. That is, of course, JDF, or Job Definition Format. But given the variety of tools available today and the way printing actually works in the real world, do we really need JDF? The DNA of a Standard My job is to focus on the non-paper/toner/ppm aspects of the printing process, so coming from a software guy this probably sounds like heresy. But I ask that you put the JDF hype and promises aside for just a moment and think about this question: What constitutes a genuinely effective standard and are you willing to bet your business that any single standard (including JDF) will deliver it all? Take XML, for example. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is an enormous enabler, spawning an ever-expanding range of progeny sharing key XML traits--the DNA of a standard. In one way or another, XML runs through virtually every industry today. It is open, well-structured, and evolves based on specific characteristics and rules. It is at the core of the Web, and that, more than anything else, makes XML the de facto standard it has become across many if-not-all industries. Were it limited to just one or two industries, say, finance and insurance, it wouldn't be anywhere near as important as it is today--and will be--in years to come. While XML grew up with a burgeoning technology and new communications medium--the Web--JDF is primarily another way of doing many things that are already done quite effectively by other means today. Now let's come back to JDF. First of all, JDF is only for a single industry. And although that industry spans the planet, if JDF remains primarily print-focused it will always remain a "niche standard." Is this really any different that the standards of days gone by such as AFP, LCDS, SGML, Interpress and others? Being a niche standard for a single, or limited group of applications is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, with limited scope and focus it should develop and be adapted quickly. . . but has it so far? It could be said that XML was “in the right place --at the right time." While XML grew up with a burgeoning technology and new communications medium--the Web--JDF is primarily another way of doing many things that are already done quite effectively by other means today. This has prompted some industry pundits to note that JDF seems to be the answer to a question nobody asked. This does not mean there's no room for JDF as an open, well-structured standard that can evolve based on specific characteristics and rules--much as XML does. In actuality, without some standardized processes for defining digital print jobs for mixed environments and on multiple platforms, numerous elements in existing workflows won't work as required. A broad standard such as JDF would certainly reduce or eliminate many challenges. For this reason, we at Océ are deeply committed to ensuring PRISMA, our own open, architected family of workflow products, embraces JDF and enables users to integrate new JDF tools in their workflows for multiple print environments. The Canyon With JDF, everyone will have the same capabilities and therefore, limited competitive advantage. A better, more strategic way to span the canyon is with a grounds-up architected workflow that contains modules that can be implemented as needed, and which also draw on the emerging functionality of JDF as it develops as a standard. The vision of JDF, at least at the moment, is like one side of a canyon where everything is open, plug-and-play and all jobs run as intended on multiple print engines regardless of how they were generated, what steps are needed to prepare the jobs for print and what engine they will eventually be printed on. This is in sharp contrast to the proprietary workflows on the other side of the canyon where jobs will only print one way, and perhaps only on certain machines. While JDF proposes to bridge the gap, a stronger structure is a workflow that joins the two sides and uses JDF as an enabler--much as the Web uses XML--to link various existing ordering systems, EDI, media and other processes together. According to the sales pitches I saw at On Demand, a commercial printer buying and implementing JDF compliant products will have an advantage over their competition. This sounds great, but their competition is also hearing the same pitch, and some of them are buying, so the level playing field where commodity pricing is the norm never really changes. Print providers wind up still seeking a unique advantage and differentiator which someone else can not do--other than price. With JDF, everyone will have the same capabilities and therefore, limited competitive advantage. A better, more strategic way to span the canyon is with a grounds-up architected workflow that contains modules that can be implemented as needed, and which also draw on the emerging functionality of JDF as it develops as a standard. Such a workflow must be fluid and entirely customizable to the needs of individual businesses. Customization is critical because it fosters improved processes and provides solutions that cannot easily be replicated by one-size-fits-all offerings. Customization provides stronger solutions because it is based on thorough pre-sales analyses which provide a detailed understanding of a business. This means your workflow--whether JDF is involved or not--is one developed for you business, delivers specific competitive advantages for you and will be one that works today and into the future. Looking ahead is more important than ever, because we all know how technology continues to evolve. As our industry strives toward truly open systems that are plug/play, stable, and broadly compatible, there are going to be limitations and new versions, no matter which company's solution you choose. With customizable solutions that are designed to work with existing and emerging standards you are better prepared to adapt to whatever the future holds. JDF holds great potential for digital printing, but it's greatest value comes when it is integrated into an architected workflow that can be customized for each business. Leveraging the attributes of JDF within such a workflow enables this standard to help you do more, be more efficient, and serves as a strong basis for sustained growth and business leadership.