By Noel Ward, Executive Editor November 10, 2003 -- Ten years is a long time in our technology-driven world. And it was about that long ago that “production” color digital printers and presses were first introduced to the market. None were remotely ready for prime time. If you wanted digital color printing, you could have it slow, expensive, unreliable, and of mediocre quality. Pick any four. Happily, times have changed. The road to digital color was potholed, speed-bumped and often had dead-ends, but digital color now works at many different levels and in many applications. All the major vendors have fine equipment and many customers who are making money with their digital printers and presses. The applications encompass direct mail, statements, books, marketing collateral, and more, with an increasing amount of it being personalized or customized. Digital color, especially when combined with variable data printing, is changing the landscape of printing. This morning I spoke with a digital printer in New Jersey who related the sorry situation some traditional commercial shops in his market are facing. The printers who are going out of business, he said, are the ones who have not adopted any digital printing technologies. He described them as dinosaurs who contributed to their own extinction. At a recent auction of one shop's assets, he related, there were no takers for a 40-inch offset press from a leading manufacturer, even at the reserve price of $50,000. Not a good sign, but probably about what you'd expect in a market (and industry) that's rife with overcapacity and has managed to commoditize itself into a corner. Not that digital color couldn't do the same. Put a bunch of digital color presses in the hands of print providers who see them only as short-run devices and in any given market the price-per-piece war will put most of the players up against a hard wall or on permanent vacation. For those with the right applications and approach to their markets, though, there's no doubt digital color is here and is profitable. Is it perfect? Not hardly, but then neither is offset printing nor most technologies we use every day. That said, it was surprising to hear David Dobson, General Manager of IBM Printing Systems note at Xplor that, “…today's [digital color printing] technology simply does not meet your requirements. In general, today's color technology is too slow, not reliable enough and not cost effective for highly variable and high-throughput applications. I would recommend that you challenge anyone's claims on technology that you cannot see or buy today.” I realize Mr. Dobson was referring to high volume transactional printing rather than graphic arts or publishing applications, but I question how his statement fits with the realities of the market. There are numerous examples of full-color, high-speed, high-volume printing using Scitex Digital Printing's inkjet technology, particularly in Asia and Europe. Xerox has had financial services and service bureau customers successfully running statements on various DocuColor presses for some time, and even some of IBM's own customers use the full-color capabilities of its Infocolor 130 for some applications. And while these machines cost more to run than those running only black toner, there are clearly customers willing to pay a premium for full color, so it would seem the market is there. Perhaps it is IBM's customers who do not see the changes in the marketplace or recognize the value of color. On the other hand, David Myers, Production Segment Executive at IBM Printing Systems told me in an interview at Xplor that the goal was to have a machine that would print color at high quality, high speed and for the same cost as black and white . Given the traditional price difference between color and monochrome in all types of printing, that is a laudable goal, and Mr. Dobson said IBM is “getting close.” Such a device, whenever it appears, would profoundly alter the digital color printing market, especially if the new device can reach beyond IBM's core data center/service bureau market. Offering full-color for the same price as black and white would be a fine way to sell machines to long-time IBM customers and allow IBM to leverage its dominance in the transactional space--printing invoices, statements, checks and the like--as well as in some of its publishing applications,. Expanding from there into graphic arts--the broader, deeper and more lucrative market for digital color printing--would be a more difficult transition. Other industry leaders--HP-Indigo, NexPress, Xeikon, and Xerox already have a clear presence in graphic arts and established a perhaps unassailable lead. Price could be a key factor, but data centers, service bureaus or CRDs that need a high-speed digital color solution today have to go with the best technology they can find for their immediate applications. And would likely base future moves on whichever platform they choose today. That's because digital color--especially with variable data--is approaching the tipping point. The vendors are busy bashing each other over the head to get their equipment installed in as many places as possible. They are running road shows, participating in conferences, and being the evangelists they must be to help build demand and volume on the machines they sell. They are working with customers to develop applications and on market development to help these machines return a profit to the customers as quickly as possible. And if it works well those customers will be reluctant to change vendors. The road to digital color is still has a few potholes, speed bumps and dead-ends to work around, but we are, as Mr. Dobson noted, getting close. Look at your market for opportunities where digital color makes sense, and don't let people who say the market isn't ready or that the quality-speed-cost points aren't there dissuade you from moving ahead with digital color. There are few excuses for not having digital color in your playbook, and no excuses when you realize you should have had it to keep your business moving forward.