Okay…while I don’t normally do this, based on some recent concerns from industry suppliers, I am starting with a disclaimer. The products mentioned in this article are simply representative examples of product types in each category. As is the case with any of the products mentioned in my articles, this is not an endorsement and I have not received any compensation for mentioning any of them (not that I wouldn’t be happy with some, even a few shekels would be nice…).

In my last article, we looked at the various meanings that the term web to print can have, and the many paths that work can take entering your plant and the production workflows. Perhaps the best way to understand where we are, where we are going, and what can be done is to take a brief look at how we got here.

 After the period in the mid to late 1980’s where we moved from transferring jobs on physical media, we moved to a variety of relatively slow public and proprietary FTP solutions like 4-Sight running over ISDN networks to pass production files from customer to plant. We then moved to faster networks and enhanced portal bridge solutions like those from WAM!Net and Vio, which not only transferred files, they also preflighted, tracked and notified the parties of successful receipt. These were the earlier incarnations of portal solutions. We then started to see customized web interfaces introduced to these and many ‘home-grown’ portal solutions that offered not only the above features, but also a variety of WYSIWYG validation, collaboration, and proofing solutions, including RealTimeImage, initially introduced by Scitex and then also licensed to others for online proofing.

In 1995, we saw the first solutions that moved us to what was being called web to print when Softpress Systems introduced its Uniqorn print publishing application at the Seybold Conference. Uniqorn was a page layout program that was designed to address the problem of browser inconsistency.  Using Java applets, Uniqorn was able to create a browser-independent Web version of a page description language file for online review.  Uniqorn controlled the process and the appearance of the electronic design file independent of browser limitations. In 1998, Collabria was introduced at the Seybold Conference. Collabria developed one of the first successful online design and prepress workflow products and was one of the early web-to-print companies.  Collabria’s platform supported online ordering for and automated back end production of business cards. Using a web browser, Collabria’s customers could enter information into fields to create customer business cards.  Once the information was entered, the system would generate a proxy image proof for approval in the web browser. Collabria also offered this new solution as a service that could be licensed by other printers. This was the beginning of an explosion of many new and innovative methods of getting work into the production plant. Neither of these solutions or companies still exist, but they broke the ground for a whole new way of getting work into plants.

Over the next year, numerous web-to-print sites and related software applications started to appear at a very rapid pace.  One company, iPrint Technologies, operated a web-to-print website focused on a wide array of customizable consumer and small business products:  stationery, checks, forms, greeting cards, announcements, T-shirts, and mugs.  iPrint provided a web interface to allow users to design a custom print job by modifying a predefined template. The iPrint browser web interface composed the custom-designed product on the iPrint server and return a proxy image to the screen for review in the browser window.  If the user was satisfied with the proof, then the order could be completed through an automated production process. imageX out of Seattle had a similar process.

We then started to see many service providers taking advantage of these new types of technologies and platforms to enhance their service offerings. As I mentioned in the last article, Vistaprint was and still is the poster child for what could be done, and many others have followed in their footsteps even to the present. However, we also began to see many new solution providers enter the space with new and innovative ways for print service providers to offer new services to their businesses.

In addition to the internet as a platform to transact business, another key technology that drove this rapid development was the increased use of XML as a standard for documenting and transferring instructions that related to a customer-submitted production file. Add to that the online design of a production file created with many different basic technologies including Javascript, DHTM and DOM, and later with even more enhanced rich composition technologies like Quark Publishing Platform and InDesign Server. Those opened up an almost endless level of online design creativity and new levels of service offerings, some of which we see today.

In the next article, we will look at where this technology wound up and some examples of boxed, home-grown, and hybrid solutions that get jobs into a plant for production.

Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know!

For more detail on some ways to automate and transform your workflows, download an informative whitepaper, "Automating and Optimizing a Book Production Workflow"