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Dude, where's my industry?

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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I never thought I would write an editorial referencing Ashton Kutcher, Jeff Bezos and The Economist. Not to mention Bob Rosen and Dr. Joe Webb. So, with a final hitch of my Larry King suspenders, here goes.

Ashton Kutcher is well known for embracing social media (not to mention Demi Moore). Kutcher has 4 million Twitter followers, a 40-employee social media and production company, and an enduring cinematic legacy founded on “Dude, Where's My Car?” and other masterpieces.

Kutcher recently told Delta Sky magazine that social media is “the most extraordinary valuable communications device ever invented in the history of man.”

I like Twitter. It's a lot of fun and has proven to be a valuable means of quick communications during natural disasters and other emergencies. But remember that guy from the 15th century with the beard and the funny hat? My main man Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press are credited with reviving classical learning, thus sparking the Renaissance. But wait, there's more. “Printed religious texts put the word of God directly into the hands of lay readers,” writes Paul Gray in TIME magazine. “Such personal contacts helped fuel the Protestant Reformation.”

Try doing that in 140 characters or less, pretty boy! Of course, history further records that shortly after the ink dried on the first Gutenberg Bible, Johannes went broke. Now, think about that for a minute. There is only ONE printing press in the entire world. Your competition is Brother Dominic and whoever isn't making brandy that day. And you still can't make a profit. It is a proud tradition the printing industry has upheld ever since.

This past January, Newsweek asked Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos if he thinks the ink-on-paper book will eventually go away. “I do,” said Bezos. “I don't know how long it will take. The physical book has had a 500-year run. It's probably the most successful technology ever … but no technology, not even one as elegant as the book lasts forever.”

I knew it — I finally got rid of my albums, 8-tracks, cassettes and VHS tapes. And now I am stuck with a bunch of obsolete books. What will I do with all the space on my coffee table?

But Bezos makes an interesting point: “We humans co-evolve with our tools. We change the tools and the tools change us, and that cycle repeats. For the last 20 years, network-connected tools like smart phones, BlackBerrys, and desktop PCs connected to the Internet have been shifting us as a civilization toward short-form reading.”

Never mind books on demand; the real future is in body parts on demand. The Economist reports that Organovo (San Diego) is working on the first commercial 3D bio-printer for manufacturing human tissue and organs. Said to work like an inkjet printer but with a third dimension, the machine's first efforts will target simple tissues such as skin, muscle and short stretches of blood vessels. Of course, the real question is whether insurance copayments will cover the click charges.

Headline news

RR Donnelley recently announced it will acquire Bowne & Co. in an all-cash deal valued at approximately $481 million. It's a logical move according to industry pundit Bob Rosen (Pittstown, NJ).

“For a change in the world of deals, [this one] really does meet many strategic objectives. The financial printing business has been running a long-term going-out-of-business sale for many years,” says Rosen. “This goes back to the moment when law firms and corporate clients took control of the word processing files, thereby eliminating the magical mystery of overnight typesetting. With that, the financial printers' pricing opportunities began evaporating. And after the loss of premium pricing came the increasing use of electronically-filed documents, further reducing demand.”

Rosen adds that financial printer consolidation is not only logical, but inevitable: “The only surprise is why it's taken so long,” he says. “The end-game is obvious. The only open question is how long it takes to play out.”

Two prominent press vendors have announced they will be sitting out Graph Expo 2010. This reminded me of a question raised in this column five years ago: Do trade shows have a future? “Of course they do,” said Dr. Joe Webb. “Trade shows are here to stay. But their nature and frequency might be different. We need to get together — that won't change.”

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APKOB as well as on my new blog: KOB on Commercial Printing at http://blog.americanprinter.com/kob.