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March 1998

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Printing and the Internet

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Web printing used to refer to Web offset printing, but these days Web printing is coming to mean something altogether different. The Internet, which was predicted to have a negative impact on the printing industry long term, is at least for the short-term having a very positive effect for those who are learning how the use it.

Printers are finding that the Internet is an excellent way for their customers to submit jobs to them. It bypasses much of the labor involved in entering a job into the printer's computer system, and can substantially reduce the time it takes to get the material to the printer. Some printers are even setting up dedicated Web servers for clients, and with positive results. When a Ford Motor in-house printing service was recently spun off as an independent company, and was still assigned printing jobs for the company, it talked Ford into letting them set up an onsite Web server for Ford managers to place printing orders with. Web pages were customized for standard recurring printing jobs, like monthly newsletters, promptly saving some Ford managers up to twenty hours in the process of submitting jobs to the printer.

Most of the current job entry and tracking software used by printers won't let customers enter the jobs themselves, especially over the Internet, and it may be some time before upgrades are available that will. However, there are several options for printers who don't want to wait until then to implement a Web strategy. In some cases CGI scripts could be written to allow the printer's Website to have job entry forms linked to the printers job management system. An even cheaper solution would be to use an off the shelf Web compatible database to collect the information and have it automatically dumped into the job management system. This could be done with the under $200 FileMaker Pro 4.0, and a few hours of programming time.

The only real limitation of using the Internet to send jobs instantly to any printer in the world, is cost of shipping the material to the client. Given the high cost of air freight and the time delay of ground transportation, printers will only be able to serve customers in a local geographic area.

Typesetting shops, however, are under no such distance restrictions. In fact there could be a significant opportunity for advertising agencies in desperate need of overnight service to consider sending the work to typesetting shops in Asia or Europe. By splitting the work between both, the advertising agency could gain two full working days between the time they went home and came back next morning.

Limitations that have kept the Internet from being able to handle the massive file sizes common in desktop publishing will disappear over the next three years, especially now that the phone companies are changing their minds on ASDL. Despite what phone bills would indicate, phone companies have had coast to coast fiber optic trunk lines with the ability to handle far greater volumes of network traffic, and at less cost, than has been offered. The reason was a bottleneck at the final link between the phone network and the consumers home, the local switching station. By upgrading to new digital switching machines at local stations phone companies could offer their customers speeds of 21.5 MB per second over current phone lines. At this rate it would only take 30 seconds to transmit the entire contents of a 650MB CD-ROM. In three years it will be as common to send graphic files of hundreds of MBs over the Internet as it is to send faxes now.

In the future Web printing may come to have an entirely different meaning. Eventually Internet-connected high resolution color printers will be as common in consumer's homes as televisions, and in time they will develop the ability to produce bound books, comparable to those found in bookstores. Consumer's will be able to print entire full color catalogs on their home printers at the click of a mouse. At this point printers are going to have a rough time, but that's still years away at this point. For the time being the Internet is likely to do much more for printers, and their clients, than against them.

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