Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Observations: Testing 1-2-3

The Hard Copy Observer, January 2006

In the second installment of his column, Jim Lyons, a 25-year veteran of the printing and imaging industry, examines the changing relationship between desktop software applications and printers, in particular, examining the effect of the Internet on printing trends.

In my debut column last month, I proposed that the middle of the 1990s was a time of great change, a cusp in the history of the printing and imaging industry. And the more I work with this premise, the more obvious and revealing it becomes.

One of the more dramatic changes of the past 10 years is in how desktop and workgroup printers are used. PC Magazine’s annual printer issue from November 7, 1995, (“12th Annual Printer Blockbuster!”) provides the historical record in this case. Now that Microsoft Office is ubiquitous, it may seem that it was ever thus, but just a decade ago, the magazine tested over 100 new printers using a full roster of applications including Aldus Pagemaker, Harvard Graphics, WordPerfect (for Windows, finally!), Corel Draw, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows, and Microsoft Word for Windows. This mixed bag of applications has met very different fates—two are dead, one has been replaced, two are whimpering along, and one is dominant.

In the mid-1990s, the world was getting ready to say good-bye to the diverse software environment that had flourished since the beginning of the PC and printer era. (Remember those thick software-support directories that printer vendors were so proud of?) While Microsoft Office and its three cornerstone applications (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) were poised to dominate the office environment in 1995, that year saw the beginning of another and ultimately more profound change in the use of computers and printers.

In a December 11, 1995, InfoWorld article entitled “HP Joins Microsoft, Netscape to Print HTML,” former Lyra Research analyst Bill Flynn and I were quoted about a pair of press announcements related to improved printing from Internet browsers—Netscape Navigator, which was the king of the hill at the time, and nascent Microsoft Explorer. At that time, Internet and printing were two terms almost never heard in the same sentence. As is typical, the improvements announced in the press releases never happened exactly the way they were described, but printing and the World Wide Web became more compatible nonetheless, and ever since then an ever-increasing proportion of the pages produced on office printers are generated from Internet and e-mail sources.

Looking Ahead

What of the future? It seems that basic office software tools such as those found in Microsoft’s Office suite will live on, but outright growth in printing from them seems unlikely. For example, the ubiquitous PowerPoint color overhead transparency is now as outdated as the plain monochrome copier-produced transparency that it replaced so recently. Now that there are 100 million daily broadband users in the United States alone, Internet applications have become mainstream applications for computer users. The shift to browser-based and online applications is based on a very simple premise: more of us need to communicate, more of the time, than we need to create. E-mail, Web searches, and simple information retrieval are fundamental daily (even hourly, for many of us) needs.

And yet, there is still room for improvement in Internet printing. Cynics (and I know a few) will say that InfoWorld’s statement over 10 years ago that “attempts to print from the Internet are currently hampered by a lack of printing standards, relatively low-resolution files, and a lack of formatting” is still true today. Of course, the “print-friendly page” is a welcome (if somewhat contrived) improvement, now found everywhere from major news sites to online recipe collections. And the growth in use of downloadable PDF files has been a tremendous boon to the concept of “distribute and print.”

PC-based applications have long driven the growth in demand for print from desktop and workgroup machines. The underlying mix of those applications has changed radically from a diverse group of applications marketed by a variety of software developers to today’s dominance of the applications that make up the Microsoft Office Suite. While it is easy to assume the monolithic lead of Microsoft Office will continue (just as it is easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way), Microsoft Office’s role for the typical PC user (and printer) will continue to proportionally diminish. Internet-based functions on the PC will grow, and distribute-and-print will transition to distribute-and-view.

Printing from the Internet is just one area that has developed from a nonentity to a major concern over the past 10 years. A similar argument, with its own twists and turns, can be made for photo printing and its impact on the imaging and printing business. As for the languages battles? It was PCL and PostScript still battling it out in the mid-1990s, pretty much by themselves. But now we have emerging language efforts that will also draw my attention in the coming months.