A friend of mine recently asked me to help organize hackathons (coordinated coding events) at his children’s primary school in San Francisco. When I asked what motivated him to do this, he answered “software is the language of the future, I want my kids to understand how it’s made and believe that they can make it.”

Software is the language of the future

If you think my friend is crazy (I only have crazy friends), take a look at this TED video by Thomas Suarez – a 12 year old app developer. If you have doubts about our future, watch this video – you can’t help but be hopeful about future generations.

What’s this got to do with the print industry?

I purposefully selected extreme examples of how prevalent software is becoming in our lives, even 12 year old children’s lives, because I want to make a point about how NOT prevalent software is in the print industry. Case in point, last month my team and I attended drupa in Germany. Because it only happens every four years, drupa gives us a chance to take a longer view of our industry. The most shocking realization for me (a software person) was the overall lack of software solutions at drupa.

… we have the Olympics of print (drupa) and 95% of the show floor is about hardware solutions / manufacturing capacity. Our focus is on solving a capacity challenge that is no longer a problem.

Hall after hall after hall filled with manufacturing capacity solutions. Last time I checked we don’t have that kind of capacity problem anymore – we have the other kind of capacity problem (way too much capacity for the contracting global print market).

Remember, I live in San Francisco – we’re a bit biased towards software out here (among other things), so understand where my perspective comes from, but I think the print industry is so skewed in the other direction (manufacturing-focused) that we could use a few more software people to tip the balance.

What do we need software for?

Print is still an effective communication method and print will always be a key part of the growing packaging market. The marketing communication segment of the print business has a formidable competitor in the digital space – communicating to your customers electronically has some inherent advantages over physical (atoms-based) print products. There’s nothing we can do about the efficiencies offered by electronic communication, so we should focus on what we can influence – how print is purchased, how easy is it to do business with us, and how connected can we make print to other communication methods.

All of the things we can control involve one thing - software. Yet, we have the Olympics of print (drupa) and 95% of the show floor is about hardware solutions / manufacturing capacity. Our focus is on solving a capacity challenge that is no longer a problem. Our challenge in this industry is to stay relevant and integrated among the ever growing options for communication. My belief is that we do that by embracing software like we embraced manufacturing.

I looked at all the new print engines at drupa and the impressive positioning around applications. I get it, we are moving through a huge offset to digital transition in the midst of the largest scale change in the overall communication business (atoms to bits). The focus of the vendors matches up with the willingness of the market (printers) to invest. The printer’s mindset is well positioned to spend six to seven figures on new manufacturing equipment. On software, the number might be as low as three to four figures. On services to actually deploy, utilize and earn the ROI on the technology, I’m not even going to quote that number, it’s embarrassingly small.

We as an industry feel comfortable making huge investments in capacity because we understand the business and return on that investment. We as an industry don’t understand the technology investment, don’t trust its ROI, and therefore don’t invest or reap the benefits of the investment. Many printers feel they have been burned at least once on a technology investment. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, we bought this; they said it would do that, it never did – we lost our entire investment. We don’t trust technology, we don’t trust technology companies, and we don’t for a second look at our part in the failure.

I’m not defending technology companies, I was a part of many of them in this industry, I personally made a lot of mistakes for which I take full responsibility. When any partnership fails, both parties play a part in the failure. When partnerships succeed the same is true – both parties play a part. Buying technology is the easy part. Building a return on that investment takes business strategy, execution, and commitment. A technology vendor can help, but for the most part the ball is in the printer’s court on these things. A technology vendor should not get in the way of your strategy. Buying technology is not a strategy, it’s a procurement event. I hope this doesn’t shock you, but many printers I talk to answer the question “what’s your online strategy?” with the name of their vendor.

What do we do?

We embrace our ignorance and start the inevitable learning curve of understanding how to operate a business in the digital world. It’s so different. I was at a meeting at Google last month and this quote made me gasp, “we don’t get the idea of physical products, why are they so complex?” Yes, a young woman with a big job at Google had never worked on a “physical product.” Wow. I’m not sure if it makes me feel old, wise, or out of touch. Mostly I find it fascinating which I think is the path we should all take – not fear, but fascination and curiosity. Yes, things are changing, your expertise isn’t as valued anymore but the good news is that you’re capable of learning new things if you have the right attitude.

No matter where you and your business are now, you have to be more software focused moving forward. Software is the tool for engagement with your customers, automation, tracking your financials, and providing you the data to make data-driven decisions. Software is the language of the future – how comfortable are you and your business with this new language?