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The Big Blank Page

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Anyone wanting to catch up on the latest developments in printing will have to visit more than just printing industry trade shows these days. Some of the most important developments in printing are happening in the computer industry, and given the current rate of innovation, it's going to take visiting more than just one trade show per year to stay current.

For a number of reasons, radical improvements in printing technology are happening a lot faster in the computer industry than in the traditional printing industry. The marketing life cycle of a desktop printer is measured in months now; it's assumed that well within a year a new generation of printers will be available that will print faster, at higher resolutions, and for less money.

Even now, the performance of desktop color printers is amazing. Many low end color printers offer 600 by 600 dots per inch resolution, a standard once available on only the best black and white desktop printers. Some of the better color printers now offer resolutions of 1440 dots per inch, and the color quality is becoming acceptable, even on plain paper.

Once desktop printer manufacturers reach the limits of possible improvements in image resolution, which they're not too far from doing, they'll have to develop additional features to be competitive, and they certainly have the budget to do this. The two features printer manufacturers are most likely to refine are page size and page binding. Home printers are already available that print 11" by 17" pages, all they need is to have some kind of stapling device added to produce a reasonable facsimile of a newsstand quality magazine. By adding more sophisticated binding technologies, like those found in some top end office printers, the consumer home printer could be made to produce full scale books, complete with hard binding.

Just based on the current rate of development, it's likely that within three to five years the average home computer system will have a printer attached that can print the equivalent of a Time or Business Week magazine, and with paper and ink that may be recyclable by the printer. Consumers will receive the latest issues of their favorite magazines and catalogs via the Internet, then print them out for current reading, and eventually archive them on recordable DVD's for permanent access as newer issues become available.

This is no minor technological trend. The development of the under $100 photographic quality printer is part of the third phase of the digital revolution, just now beginning, in which consumers have the ability to create media like CD-ROM's and full color magazines, inexpensively, in the privacy of their own homes. The first phase of the digital revolution, launched by the holy trinity of DTP, Macintosh, PageMaker, and PostScript, made digital media production affordable to the general public. The second phase, the development of the World Wide Web, made global distribution of digital media affordable to the general public. This third phase of the revolution is making the manufacturing of digital media affordable for the general public.

This current phase also marks the beginning of home manufacturing, or desktop manufacturing, as a driving force in society. It's the fulcrum point in a transition from mass production, to production by the masses. Since advertising is primarily media based (radio, TV, and print) the advertising industry is at ground zero for this revolution. It's most noticeable effect is a leveling of the playing field between richer and poorer advertisers, and between advertisers and consumers.

In the past, advertisers with a healthy ad budget could always count on having better looking and more widely seen advertising than their cash starved competition. Then came the Internet, and the playing field was leveled, at least for businesses on the Internet. Now the technology revolution is spilling over into print, threatening to undermine one of the last status symbols of well established advertisers.

The four color full page ad has been a trademark of quality, limited only to the relatively few companies that can afford to use it. Like the television ad, it's a kind of ad so expensive and impressive that a company gained a certain credibility with the public, merely by being able to use it. Now, any company can buy a photographic printer for under $500 that will print a page the average consumer can't tell from a page coming off a Windmill or Heidelberg. If this trend continues, it's possible that many in the next generation of advertising professionals may never have to pay for a single color separation in their entire career.

As with most media technology revolutions, there are pros and cons for this development for the advertising industry. On the pro side, advertisers will be able to pass the burden of printing ads and catalogs on to the consumer, and save significant time and money in the process. On the negative side, in addition to a more leveled playing field, advertisers will face increasing competition for the reading time of consumers. The home printing revolution will result in hundreds, eventually thousands, of new magazines coming into existence, and many will be consumer produced and totally advertising free.

In an increasingly crowded market, advertiser's will be under growing pressure to make consumers want to read their advertising, especially as consumers will be paying the printing bill.

Advertisers need to start learning to think of the consumer's home printer as an extension of the advertisers own computer system. It will always be "guest access" only, with privileges revocable at any time, for any reason, but it's a foot in the door advertisers can't afford to ignore. By purchasing high quality home printers, consumer's have provided advertisers with a valuable printing resource, and to take advantage of it, advertisers will need to provide consumers with more to print than just a big blank page.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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