“Opening Up” the Printing Industry

By | May 17, 2011

It’s no secret that proprietary technology powers the printing industry. Over the years, there have been several significant milestones that work toward “opening up” systems that power printing, such as the introduction and adoption of JDF & JMF, the standardization of PDF, and the growing presence of open interfaces to connect disparate systems together. Despite these developments, I bet there are still plenty of prepress operators (and managers) out there that become incensed when they try opening up a client’s InDesign CS5 file when they only have CS4 installed. There is a great (and somewhat ironic) story from the Social Science Resource Council about their experience publishing a report on software piracy and having to deal with multiple Adobe Creative Suite versions.

Despite these issues, it’s my view that the proprietary nature that many companies operate in have contributed to research, development, and advancement in the industry as a whole. Still, my belief is that there is a place in this industry for open, collaborative projects that can be accessed and contributed to by anyone that help move the industry forward. In 2007, while I was still at RIT, an initiative called the Open Publishing Lab, or OPL, was started in the university’s School of Print Media to address these issues. According to its Website, the OPL’s mission comprises three “E’s”:

  • Extend existing publishing platforms
  • Enable new publishing products and business models
  • Empower individuals and communities to easily tell their stories as never before

All projects conducted and released by the Open Publishing Lab are “open source,” meaning that each project is released freely to the public, including the base source code, to help meet the OPL’s aforementioned goals.

I was not really involved with the OPL while I was at RIT, although I support its mission and principles, especially because one of its core functions is connecting print-focused students with IT-focused students to collaborate on systems-based projects. It has done some great work to date including Page2Pub, a tool that enables content aggregation from the Web into an EPUB eBook for reading and printing, along with Innovation News, a platform used for the rapid collection, preparation, and production of news stories for print and electronic output. The most recent effort by the OPL is Drop2Print, the details of which were released last week in a research monograph by RIT’s Printing Industry Center. From the monograph’s executive summary:

The challenge of connecting customers (end users) to print service providers that can best meet their needs is mirrored by the challenge that many smaller print service providers face in making potential customers aware of their services. Lack of a commonvocabulary and the communication of job requirements (customer) and servicesavailable (print service providers) further complicate the process.

The goal of this research project was to create a prototype and model for a simple, easy-to-use tool for end users to discover the specific print service providers that meet their requirements for production and fulfillment. The resulting prototype, Drop2Print, provides an easy-to-use desktop application that leverages the technical specifications of an end user’s PDF document to simplify the discovery of appropriate print service providers. This desktop application is linked to an online database that allows the Drop2Print application to determine the print service providers in a specific location that are able to meet the specifications of the print job.

In other words, Drop2Print is designed to be an easy, interactive way for potential print buyers to find print service providers that meet their specific printing needs. Drop2Print is just one example of distributed production print solutions that have been launched in recent years. We’ve seen similar types of models come into existence in the marketplace, such as HubCast and more recently, QuarkPromote. We’ve also seen large outsourcing management organizations like InnerWorkings leverage this type of model in the enterprise. What I like about the Drop2Print model is that it’s simple, it scales to organizations of all sizes, and it’s open.

Drop2Print still needs to be developed out further, and there is a high-level road map included in the research monograph of what’s in store. Regardless, it’s an important and well-done exercise in looking at the industry, defining a need, and working to develop a solution to meet that need. Best of all, it’s developed and documented in a completely open and transparent way, helping it serve as an educational tool for the industry that can be built upon by a broader community. I think the industry needs more of this type of open collaboration, and it’s great to see the OPL engaging in activities that work toward that goal.

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