The Where of Printing By Noel Ward, Executive Editor October 13, 2003 -- Outside my office this Saturday afternoon the sun is lighting the green of the yard and the golden leaves of the maple trees. It's a Kodak moment on a classic New England fall day. Since I'm just coming out of “show mode” the colors remind me of the colorful images spilling off the various digital and offset presses at Graph Expo,. But as I read the words of our new columnist, Ed Crowley from Lexmark, the scene also makes me think of the images I printed the other day on my inkjet printer. Some of those were photos I'd taken and samples of paintings my artist wife has done, but others were brochures I downloaded as PDFs and ran off here in my office on an inkjet printer. As Ed points out, every PDF or web site that results in a printed page in a home or workgroup printer is one less that is printed on an offset or digital press. And he doesn't even touch on items like business cards, flyers, brochures, and basic direct mail pieces that are increasingly produced on desktop inkjet printers. While CAP Ventures and other analysts say overall printed pages are expected to rise over the next few years, an increasing number of those pages are likely to be printed on desktop boxes, also shortening commercial print runs. Convenience, it appears, may outweigh the higher cost per page of locally printed inkjet or laser pages. What this ultimately means for the printing industry is unclear. But while printers aren't about to become victims of desktop printing technology, I believe it is an early warning that printers--in the conventional sense-- can no longer be the final stop in the document production continuum, regardless of the technology they use. George Whalen touches on this in the first part of this month's two-part series on variable data printing. VDP has been the Nirvana of digital printing for some time, but few printers have taken advantage of it because it's been (and arguably still is) relatively hard to do. Yet the ones who are doing it successfully are carving out a niche for themselves and in many cases transforming their businesses. VDP is going to get easier, but it is unlikely to make a direct transition to desktop machines very quickly, largely due to the database issues involved. But what is more likely to happen is that (as Barb Pellow has noted over the past couple months) web-enabled printing is going to become much more important. Some of it will be interactive and dynamic, integrating consumers' calls to customer service centers and web site visits with customized direct mail. But we'll also see web site visits that generate highly customized PDFs in real time that wind up being printed on a desktop printer. Like it or not, we live in a age when instant gratification is expected, and that will continue shifting a portion of printing into the home and office. Where the successful printer lives in this intersection of information technology is going to be evolving for some time. Print providers are going to have to work with their customers to take charge of their customers' data and provide the means for distributing it via whatever media is most effective-- wherever that may be. And they will make their money off of both printing and enabling printing. I work with a number of direct mail and transactional service bureaus who already are doing some of these things. Some are developing services to differentiate themselves from their competition, while others have customers asking them to raise the bar. Since they are highly data-savvy and already have access to their customers' databases, it is easier for them than for, say, a commercial printer, but they can still be challenged in developing the new applications. But the fact that their customers are seeking new capabilities that reshape the envelope of print, direct mail and the Internet is a clear indication of the changes that are afoot in this industry.