Like every other industry analyst and journalist, I've been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless stream of requests for my presence in press conferences and briefings at the AIIM/On Demand show that fires up Tuesday morning in Philadelphia. Curiously, the vast majority of this year's pre-show email and phone barrage has been from companies on the AIIM side of the floor. I've not done an actual count of these, but it seems as if the AIIM contingent is out-requesting the On Demand crowd by more than 2 to 1. Why does this strike me as less than great odds for the folks offering up pricey print engines and software?

The imbalance, though, may point to the increasing recognition of information as a corporate asset and resource. Many of the firms I heard from were offering solutions for managing customer information and in some cases supporting communications with those customers. While there seemed to be a tilt toward the internet as the contact channel of choice, some firms gave a nod to print as an output option. In describing the technologies they'll have on hand, none really said much about any of the data streams and PDLs that are essential to variable data printing. It was almost as if they see print as useful only for static documents. This may or may not accurately describe the perspective of these firms, but one would think, in this 3rd year of the AIIM/On Demand alliance, that they might have figured out that digital printing can make impressive use of the very data their products are gathering, sorting, and mining.

But I digress. This show promises to be a showcase for new equipment, software and in some cases, new corporate leadership, all of which I'll report on in WTT and ODJ during and following the show. Here's a small glimpse of what's coming.

The Rise of Fast Plastic

One of the key things to watch at On Demand will be the latest offerings from Canon, KonicaMinolta, Ricoh, and Sharp. Their equipment has made money for a whole lot of smaller print shops, kept in-plants and CRDs up and running, and been a preferred choice for office and workgroup printing. Now it is gaining a lot of cred further upstream and these firms are seeking to penetrate service bureaus and direct mailers where data is the coin of the realm. These boxes, sometimes referred to as "fast plastic," have their limitations but willingly produce "pleasing color" documents and are perfectly adequate for some types of variable data printing. The latest offerings from all these firms will be in Philly, as will the software that drives them. Senior Editor Pat Henry will be taking a close look and seeing where they fit, especially how they may encroach on the territory of production class rivals from Kodak (Digimaster and NexPress), Océ, and Xerox.

The strategy of the Japanese firms seems to be to offer similar performance levels for a significantly lower price. It's worked for small copiers, and it also worked just fine for Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Who wants to bet that it can't work for some more segments of the printing business? After all, there are more than a few quick and small commercial shops out there with multiple Japanese copier/printers that are producing jobs that might otherwise be run on a more costly Kodak, HP or Xerox device. How well can it scale up to the needs of bigger firms? Maybe we can get a sense from this show.

Still, Océ and Xerox, the players potentially most affected by fast plastic, are hardly asleep at the switch, so I'll get a reading what they are doing to compete. Both firms are offering their various market segments faster, more feature-rich and more productive machines. They can definitely be price-competitive when necessary, but not all customers are exclusively or even primarily price-driven, and many see the greater value of machines that are more scaleable, last longer, use more open software, or have broader printing and production capabilities.

Océ, for example, acquired the office equipment distributor Imagistics late last year, a move largely intended to increase sales and distribution capabilities. Since then, national sales directors from both firms have confirmed to me that selling copiers, printers and MFD's is not only about price and that many customers are interested in more capable equipment. The sales teams are pleased to offer the up-market product Océ offerings and the workflow options available through Océ's PRISMA software.

Speaking of Océ, AIIM/On Demand will also be the U.S. roll-out for the company's new VarioPrint 6250, which I reported on from their Open House back in March, as well as the 3-color VarioStream 9230 continuous-feed color-capable printer. I'll be getting some attendee reactions at the show. I'm also interested in getting another look at their new GraphicArts+ dot modulation on the VS 9230. This new technology varies the luminance of each of the machine's 11,000 light-emitting diodes. This is intended to deliver greater precision for fine detail prints in photographs and other demanding images where smooth gray scales are necessary.

I can't give specifics of what Xerox has in store for the show, but look for announcements on Tuesday from Xerox spanning virtually the company's entire product line up, from office and CRD to production-class printing. Xerox has long since mastered the ability to deliver products tailored to every market segment. Many of the new machines they'll roll out at On Demand fit identified needs for color and black-and-white printing across all segments. And despite the rapid growth of its color boxes, Xerox remains committed to delivering monochrome devices that fit the needs of multiple markets, and will be focusing on just how good monochrome printing can be in this age of color. There will be some new print engines, finishing devices, software, a new RIP or two, and more--like the custom-built Nu-Ness motorcycle by Arlen Ness, built to celebrate the Nuvera Digital Production System.

Xerox, perhaps more so than other vendors, is also taking a fairly holistic approach to supporting their customer base. They have print engines and workflow software that are notable in terms of capabilities and performance, but also in providing tools that help print providers take advantage of the technology. As any print provider will tell you, at the end of the day, acquiring and retaining customers is just as important as producing the job. With that in mind, part of what Xerox will be showing at On Demand are the latest iterations of its ever-evolving Profit Accelerator suite of business development resources that help bring in new business. More to follow next week!

While I look at boxes and what connects to and comes out of them, Senior Editor Cary Sherburne will be covering much of the software that makes them go. Look for her coverage of Adobe, EFI, XMPie, Exstream, MindFire, PageFlex and numerous others. There is a colossal amount of stuff happening in print software, much of it around variable data printing and cross-media marketing. It's clear that the convergence of print and the internet--spanning many applications--is one of the next "big things" in this industry, and we are only seeing the beginning.

Cary will also be covering the InfoTrends keynote by Charlie Pesko, while I'll be hearing from Adobe's Bruce Chizen and listening to John Seely Brown, formerly chief scientist at Xerox PARC, talk about the future. JSB is always fun and stimulating to listen to.

Finally, Associate Editor Gail Nickel-Kailing will be seeing what the finishing companies have to offer. All of them are rolling out a range of devices designed to make digital document production faster, more efficient and more productive, and nearly every print operation I visit has some type of inline finishing equipment. This was not the case even two or three years ago, and Gail will likely be telling us why.

It all begins Monday with a show directory, then Andy Tribute opens live coverage on Tuesday. So stay tuned.