Analysis: The Changing Face of Print

New technologies don't always replace the old ones -- sometimes they transform them. Television didn't eliminate radio, movies, or newspapers, but it did force those industries to change the way they did business. Now it's happening again as new computer and communications technologies collide with the centuries-old craft of putting ink on paper.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, huge volumes of information once published exclusively on paper are now a few mouse clicks away. But print isn't about to die. Instead, it's being transformed into a new kind of medium.

This was the lesson of the Seybold San Francisco publishing-industry trade show, which ended its week-long run today. Five or six years ago, when a Web site was something you attacked with a dust mop, the Seybold show floor hummed with drum scanners, imgesetters, platemakers, and other big-ticket prepress hardware from Scitex, Linotype-Hell, Screen, and other companies.

This year, Screen and Scitex were nowhere in sight. Linotype-Hell is now part of Heidelberg, which had a relatively low-key Seybold presence. But for the first time, the exhibitor list included a substantial number of Web sites targeted at designers and print buyers. Other exhibitors, including Adobe and Quark, showcased workflow systems that use the Web to help publishers manage their digital assets.

There was plenty of printing on the show floor, but most of it was direct digital printing that bypasses the traditional steps of film and plate production: digital presses, large-format systems, digital color copiers, laser printers, and even low-cost ink-jet printers. Similarly, on the input side, you saw a relatively small number of scanners, but lots of digital cameras in every price range.

What does this mean? Print producers are undergoing yet another revolution. The traditional model of printing high-volume jobs from a central location is slowly going away. Thanks to lower job-preparation costs, the average press run in the commercial printing industry has been in steady decline for years: printers are producing a greater number of small- and medium-volume projects than ever before. And some publishers are beginning to look at decentralized printing strategies, in which a single job is printed in multiple locations for faster distribution.

All of these trends are being accelerated by the emergence of new printing technologies. Some, such as high-end digital presses, have been slow to win market acceptance. However, the Web is creating new opportunities by providing a structured environment for print buying and job preparation. With print-bidding Web sites, it's easier than ever to locate digital printing facilities, and Web-based production-management systems from companies like Collabria promise to simplify preparation of variable-data print jobs, one of the most useful applications for digital presses.

The long-term trend is clear. Print is not going away, but press runs will keep getting smaller, print will be more targeted, and pages will be produced closer to the recipient. The ultimate expression is already at hand: for a taste of the future, just hit the Print command in your Web browser.

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