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Web to PRINT 09

Oct 1, 2009 12:00 AM


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It was difficult to avoid seeing or hearing the phrase “web to print” (W2P) at PRINT 09. The concept has been with us since the late 1990s, in the heady days of the dotcom bubble. Back then, under the “print e-commerce” moniker, the idea of web-enabled print ordering and collaboration showed great promise for cost savings, but too often frustrated and confused just about everyone. But the potential of W2P is still attractive, especially as printers struggle to survive and adapt in a harsh economy.

Three basic categories

We noted three main types of W2P-related businesses at the show. The first involved online storefront hosting, website development and related services for printing companies. Another, Print MIS, offered business systems that either had their own web interfaces or interacted with others. The third, prepress and production automation, has graced such shows for longer than the Internet service providers. Many of these vendors and systems displayed new web functionalities and tie-ins to online ordering and collaboration.

‘Storefronts R Us’

A significant number of web developers and software as a service (SaaS) providers graced the Chicago show. Most were relatively small companies, but all had ambitious plans for enabling printers and their customers. Displaying the new Pressero system, Aleyant Systems (www.aleyant.com) demonstrated its SaaS approach to catalog-based online document ordering and variable data merge, via its earlier eDocBuilder system. Like many SaaS offerings, Pressero can be customized to the print buyer's company look and feel, and can display selected secure data, such as print inventory, during the order process. One selling point is cost (after the initial setup): $295 per month for unlimited transactions. The system also boasts cXML procurement integration for Oracle-based business systems.

St. Petersburg, FL-based Responsive Solutions (www.responsivesolutions.net) demonstrated its In-Design Server-based W2P offering, Customer+, which is sold primarily as a hosted (SaaS) system. The company provides a “marketing resource center” for print customers, marketing service providers and ad agencies. The managed products go beyond printed pieces to include e-mail campaigns and personalized URLs (PURLs). In addition to template-based product catalogs, the system also provides a Flex-based Dynamic Layout option for editing, versioning and customization. The company boasts MIS integrations with EFI Pace and — more recently — Prism.

Developer Online Print Solutions (www.onlineprintsolutions.com) serves about 70% of its customers under the hosted SaaS model, with the remainder using an installed server version of its cross-media marketing campaign management system. The company's core product, OrderDesk, is a catalog-style storefront — to which a wide array of optional tools can be added, including GroupCanvas, a Flash-based editing and group collaboration environment. A variable data component is available for print and non-print (e.g., e-mail) campaigns. OPS has its own imposition capabilities, and it has integrated with Kodak Prinergy as well as MIS providers such as Avanti, Prism and EFI Pace.

A veteran of the early dotcom days, Printable (www.printable.com) operates almost exlusively on the hosted SaaS model. It, too, offers branded sites for ordering and customizing printed and other marketing materials. Printable's customers today are 95% print service providers, but company CEO Coleman Kane indicated a desire to work increasingly with enterprise customers seeking to control their cross-media marketing assets. To that end, Fusion Pro Web has been rebranded as “MarcomCentral.” In addition to branded storefronts, the company offers variable data design/merge (including new support for AFP) and the ability to manage e-mail campaigns and create PURLs and microsites. Perhaps the bigger news for Printable was its announced recent MIS integration with EFI Monarch, and a partnership with image personalization developer DirectSmile (www.directsmile.com).

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Printer Presence (www.printerpresence.com) also provides customer-branded W2P storefronts, under the SaaS model, but also provides services normally associated with business web developers. The company offers printing companies simplified search engine optimization (SEO) tools, as well as active assistance with web analytics and search engine marketing (SEM) strategies, including Google AdWords. The company began with quick printers and small commercial shops, but it is expanding to serve larger printers such as Sandy Alexander.

In the non-SaaS category, Bitstream's PageFlex (www.bitstream.com/publishing) offers a locally installable, “out-of-the-box” W2P storefront, with customization enabled either by the company's NuDoc or Adobe's InDesign composition engine. Template-based jobs can be optimized for variable data, and a new InDesign plug-in allows for robust variable data design.

SaaS provider/developer PageDNA (www.pagedna.com) offers a range of W2P and other web services for both printers and print specifiers. In addition to the usual storefront/catalog offering, it also provides dynamic online estimation software, page editing/customization and managed list merge for variable data projects. The company also provides custom XML integration services, including an impressive array of order, shipping and inventory data from systems ranging from QuickBooks to high-end print MIS.

UK-based Red Tie (www.red-tie.com) is another SaaS vendor — one that offers a unique flat-rate pricing model for its template-based print ordering service, and its job quoting and submission service. According to a company spokesman, Red Tie customers can have unlimited products and storefronts. The system includes the ability to upload images, manage data entry/merge, handle variable-data projects and versioning. Custom XML integration is available on a contract basis.

Still another angle is being offered by Websites For Printers (www.websitesforprinters.com). In its Harmony product, online ordering, customization and design are available, but so are customizable content feeds and education for small businesses needing help with design and marketing expertise. The sites are the equivalent of a specialty online publication — with the added advantage of e-ordering. For small printers with limited budgets, this approach offers engagement, which is an essential component of brand loyalty.

Finally, variable data developer GMC Software (www.gmc.net) announced a new product, Portal Builder, based on its Open Document Publisher platform. Although optimized for personalization with GMC's PrintNet variable data environment, Portal Builder will provide an easy means to create branded, Flex-based microsites for selecting and ordering printed products.

MIS providers

MIS vendors at PRINT 09 covered a huge range of services. Israeli firm Press-sense (www.press-sense.com) did not have a booth but was present in force at its OEM partners, including HP, InfoPrint, Océ, Presstek and Xerox. Describing its offering as “business flow automation,” the various Press-sense implementations included the ability to create customer-branded ordering web portals with the ability to convey accurate job intent to the printer's production and business system. Press-sense Manager and iWay integration with third-party systems might include more JDF eventually, but the company is focusing on releasing its own SDKs next year to ease the programming burden.

EFI (www.efi.com) arguably had the largest print MIS offering at the show, ranging from PrintSmith to Pace to Monarch (née Hagen, et al). Each of these integrates with the company's Digital Storefront, a customizable online ordering system giving buyers a single access point for both print and non-print branded materials. Both catalog-style and customizable, “ad hoc” workflows are supported. Existing inventory levels, shipping status and other business data can be visible to the buyer. A “pricing engine” and the usual shopping cart methodology reduce or eliminate the need for manual order handling. Items produced by the printer are handled through the same portal via integration with the printer's partners.

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In the past, EFI has been less than enthusiastic about outside SaaS portal providers integrating with its stable of former PrintCafe MIS systems. This reluctance to integrate with other W2P providers might be ebbing, as evidenced by the deal with Printable. When asked, an EFI spokesman said the company would welcome a JDF-based approach to such integrations.

Another print MIS player, Prism (www.prism-world.com), displayed its eServiceDesk online interface to its various business modules. Boasting its open API, the company noted recent integrations with customers' proprietary W2P storefronts, as well as with SaaS offerings from OPS and Responsive Solutions. The company has no plans to create its own W2P offering, but is content to play the role of providing business data to W2P systems, ultimately via a standardized JDF approach.

Production systems

Prepress and premedia systems at PRINT 09 ranged from mature high-end systems — such as Kodak's (http://graphics.kodak.com), Agfa's (www.agfa.com/en/gs) and Dalim's (www.dalim.com) — to mix-and-match collaborations such as Crossroads (www.crossroads-world.com) and PuzzleFlow (www.puzzleflow.com). Kodak has extended Prinergy's rules-based print automation architecture to the W2P world with a customizable online catalog and ordering system, InSite Storefront. Naturally, it includes file preflight and job previewing options, as well as custom integrations with MIS products. In 2010, the company also plans to launch a more comprehensive InSite Campaign Manager.

Agfa has collaborated with Press-sense to extend its Apogee environment to branded online storefronts. The latter's robust planning rules will be applied in the background — typically without the end-user's knowledge — to optimize the production of printed products like business cards. The combined offering is currently in beta testing. Dalim and its U.S. partner Blanchard Systems (www.blanchardsystems.com) are busy integrating their workflow and collaboration components into their customers' homegrown W2P systems, as well as established ad portals like SendMyAd, Vio and others. Dalim's Dialogue ES — its online proofing and collaboration environment — also will be integrated with several unspecified MIS and prepress players.

On the collaborative workflow front, brand management developer Digital Media Partners (www.dmp-int.com) is bringing its InDesign Server-based W2P offering — including personalized storefronts, online editing and variable data handling — to the Crossroads universe. Like other members of the consortium, DMP interacts with other vendors' products via Enfocus Switch.

Color workflow developer ColorQuick (www.colorquick.com) has entered the W2P fray, with a Flash-based editing system — Improv — for customizing and ordering template-based print products for brand franchises such as Toyo Tire. The current system also features an online review of the PDF, which is generated by InDesign Server. The next version of Improv (in beta by year's end) will based on Adobe Mars (http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/mars), and aims to shorten the time required to generate PDF proofs by outputting XML directly from Flash.

Tying it all together

In the brave new world facing print providers today, merely having an online ordering portal will not be enough. Integration with MIS, prepress and fulfillment systems — in other words, with the rest of one's business process — is essential. So, too, is the need to rethink the business process. Printers must become masters of the entire value chain, not just the bit where ink (or toner) hits paper. W2P is an important piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole picture.

John Parsons, former editorial director for The Seybold Report, is an independent consultant, analyst and writer. Contact him at john@bytemedianews.com.

Take a look

MIS vendor Avanti Computer Systems Ltd. (Toronto) received two “Worth-a-Look” awards from the PRINT 09 Executive Outlook committee. The awards were for Avanti's Direct Mail Management module and the addition of Microsoft Outlook integration to its CRM (customer relationship management) module.

The Direct Mail Management module ties together direct mail estimating and postage accounting with inventory, shipping, billing and reporting.

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The Microsoft Outlook integration automatically synchronizes contacts, tasks, notes, calendar entries and e-mail bidirectionally between Microsoft Exchange Server and Avanti CRM. Print sales reps can remain in sync with the current information about customers' jobs, and customer service reps have full access to all of the information regarding a customer on one screen.

“Three years ago, we dramatically increased our development of advanced modules for our Print MIS,” says Patrick Bolan, Avanti's president and CEO. “These awards are very appreciated. We see them as validation that we made the right decision to invest resources in developing new tools and technologies that help print shops better manage both their business and their customer relationships.”

See www.avantisystems.com.

The Role of JDF

The CIP4 (www.cip4.org) Job Definition Format is relatively under-utilized in connecting web to print (W2P) with other systems. Infosystems, Press-sense and Printable and some other vendors, have used JDF to integrate their systems with others, but generally as a custom, one-time project stemming from a specific customer request. W2P integrations using XML are far more common, although typically custom projects.

A means of standardizing such integrations exists within the CIP4 universe, in the form of the PrintTalk XML specification. Originally developed as a single format to communicate print product information between print buyers and print providers, the specification was transferred to CIP4 control in 2004. There is a published schema for PrintTalk version 1.1a, but not the latest version 1.3. When we spoke to vendors at the show, they pointed out the lack of a comprehensive Interoperability Conformance Specification (ICS) — the subset of JDF that would be the standard template for efficient W2P integrations.

“In JDF 1.4, we introduced new features to support variable layout, and the Digital Printing working group is developing an ICS for PDL-independent metadata keys that can be used in JDF job tickets for digital printing jobs from customers,” said the group's education and marketing officer Mark Wilton. “The Product Description working group, which is responsible for PrintTalk and is led by Steve Hiebert of Hewlett Packard, has developed a ‘Customer to MIS’ ICS and is considering extending the ICS to cover web to print in a future release. Everything CIP4 does in the working groups is volunteer led, however, so if there are vendors that want to see a new release of the Customer to MIS ICS sooner rather than later, we encourage them to get involved in the Product Description working group.”

At PRINT 09, vendors were positive about the benefits of an ICS in simplifying (and reducing the cost of) W2P integrations with MIS and production systems. Some expressed willingness to join the working group to develop such an ICS. Until that happens, however, the majority of integrations will probably continue to be custom XML projects.

Storefront & MIS

EonCode (Beverly Hills, CA) describes its EonWorkflow suite of web and desktop applications as “an all-in-one, turnkey solution” that integrates ordering, workflow, job tracking and fulfillment, and other common printing tasks. EonCode's “Advanced” version targets print brokers and small offset and digital printers. The “Professional” version is for trade shops and leverages on-site servers for high volumes. Both suites include a website with e-commerce tools (calculators, order processing with credit card payments) and a dashboard for clients to view and track orders. Also included: A desktop management utility for managing orders throughout the workflow.

See www.eoncode.com.

Follow the W2P bird

PagePath Technologies (Plano, IL) was an early W2P player with MyOrderDesk. The company also is social media pioneer. Follow along at www.twitter.com/JKern_MOD.