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The Redefining Recession: From Printing to Cloud Printing...

January 4, 2010
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2009 could not have ended soon enough for any of us, from a business perspective at the very least. The numbers were not good to begin with and, while some economic indicators improved over the course of the year others did not. But that’s just the half of it . . .

We are in the midst of what I call “The Redefining Recession.” Unlike previous recessions, this time the printing industry has lost pages to electronic media and they are not coming back.

Consider this – the printing industry rebounded after every recession from 1969 through 2003. We experienced organic growth as the improving economy resulted in rising business sales, which in turn created more demand for print advertising. Companies put people back to work, generating more office documents. Digital print hardware and software providers offered breakthrough technologies that encouraged the growth of short run personalized print, all at lower and lower prices.

However, looking ahead, the printing industry will not rebound after the global recession we are still wallowing in. Companies have shifted advertising dollars to electronic media. Office workers, spurred on by cost cutting and sustainability initiatives, no longer print every document or as many copies of them.

There is no reason to believe that the pages lost to computers, mobile phones or PDAs will suddenly – or ever – revert to paper. Think about it . . . What greater value does a printed page have over its electronic counterpart?

Now, the literal among you will point out several cases where a printed page has more value than an electronic image and I will not dispute them. For instance, paperback books to read at the beach (until eReaders like the Kindle become widespread). Paper bills from utilities and credit card companies (until electronic presentment and payment becomes even more widespread). Paper currency (until smart debit cards become ubiquitous). Point-of-purchase displays (until flexible printed electronics supplant wide-format printing).

Bear in mind this important point: There is nothing to save the printing industry from the economic, environmental and societal factors that are reducing print usage. Equally important, the print industry cannot fend off the relentless developments of competing electronic communications media.

Yes, there are incremental print hardware technology developments in the works. Printers get a little better, a little faster, a little cheaper every year. The quality improves, the throughput is higher, and the cost per page comes down.

However, the real breakthrough is “cloud printing services,” which is about enabling digital printers to be accessed through the cloud. Cloud printing services are analogous to software-as-a-service offerings but differ by employing printing hardware, as well as workflow and composition software. As a result, users employ electronic media as their primary communications toolset and create a printed page only when the content is most valuable in a physical form.

Cloud printing technology providers host an infrastructure that includes printers located in hubs (centralized operations) and/or distributed (at remote locations). The providers may keep their offerings closed (available only to customers buying their services), or make their offerings open (providing the backbone to print service providers that lack the size to afford a comparable, proprietary infrastructure). HP (with its partner Research In Motion; www.hp.com/go/rim), Hubcast (www.Hubcast.com) and ThinPrint’s Cortado subsidiary (www.cortado.com) are examples of cloud printing service providers.

From a digital printing perspective, the advent of cloud printing services is a sea change. Users no longer consider printers as assets they must own but as devices they can access when they have the occasional need to generate a printed page. Why have an office printer sitting there 24 hours a day, seven days a week when it’s only used off and on for at most 10 hours a day? Why have high-speed production printers available 365 days-a-year when it is actually printing during a shift or two for only five or six days a week? You, too, must consider whether you require the physical printer asset or simply need access to a printer on demand.

Print in its myriad forms is not going away soon. As I wrote last year, Gartner research found that 2009 marked the beginning of offset printing’s long decline. Offset is not going away soon but it, too, is steadily being supplanted by electronic communications.

As we enter a new decade, your key to success will be to focus not on print but on publishing. Your customers are moving away from print. They want content that is available when and where they need it. Redefine and publish your communications in the form – paper or electronic – that your customers prefer.

Pete Basiliere is print markets and management research director at Gartner, providing research and advice on production printing systems and applications, including best practices, market strategies and technology trends. His latest research (Emerging Technology Analysis: Cloud Printing Services and Print or Electronic: Strategic Document Outsourcing Providers Offer Essential Services) may be found at www.Gartner.com. He also writes this ongoing column “Pete’s Perspective,” covering high volume transaction output topics, at OutputLinks.