Friday, March 31, 2006

A Tale of Two Conferences: Lyra Symposium and Demo 2006

The Hard Copy Observer, March 2006

In a special column, Jim Lyons, a 25-year veteran of the printing and imaging industry, compares two recent industry conferences: The 2006 Lyra Imaging Symposium: Shifting Strategies to Maximize Profits, held January 23–25, 2006, in Rancho Mirage, CA, and Demo 2006: The Launchpad for Emerging Technology, held February 6–9, 2006, in Phoenix, AZ.

Highlights

  • The Lyra Imaging Symposium and the Demo Conference are both held annually two weeks apart at desert resorts in the Southwest, but the two events are as different as night and day.
  • Bookmaking (yes, hard copy bookmaking) is back, thanks to a start-up company named Blurb that showed its solution at Demo 2006.
  • Digital imaging problems and solutions were a key theme at both conferences this year.

For those in the imaging industry, January and February are an opportune time to visit high-tech trade shows and conferences. With the wealth of shows available, industry insiders have a fitting excuse to spend a reasonable share of those wintry months in sunny climes such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Phoenix, and Orlando, which, as the saying goes, is nice work if you can get it. (Of course, the real reason to attend such shows is purely business, with the nice days and warm evenings usually spent indoors at conference sessions and receptions.)

I regularly attend more than one industry gathering in January and February, including shows focused specifically on printing and imaging and events with more of a general focus on PCs and high-tech products, and 2006 was no exception. Unlike in past years, however, when I represented one of the imaging industry’s leading manufacturers, this year I attended with press/analyst credentials. That fact didn’t change things all that much. At each show I visited, I still tried to capture the “big picture” while also drilling down to find those few significant developments that might make a difference in the future. And, of course, such events are excellent opportunities to renew old relationships and develop new ones. This year, however, my interest was in products and trends that are applicable to the hard copy industry as a whole, as opposed to the narrower scope of my former employer.

Two events of keen interest to those in the imaging industry are the annual Lyra Imaging Symposium and the Demo Conference. The two conferences are quite different in their format. The Lyra Symposium packs two days of sessions with lots of forecast data, primary research results, and analysis from staff analysts, industry executives, and Wall Street analysts. Demo, true to its name, is all about new product demonstrations. Chris Shipley, executive producer of Demo conferences, and the Demo staff spend most of the year leading up to the firm’s February conference culling through hundreds of would-be Demo candidates, selecting about 70 worthy products and services to fill up the two-day event. The chosen products and services get their six minutes of fame on stage and then can be seen in the “Demo Pavilion” where conference attendees make the rounds during a series of lengthy breaks interspersed throughout the days and evenings of the conference.

Given Lyra’s focus on printing and imaging, it makes sense that all the presentations and panels at the Lyra Imaging Symposium focus exclusively on topics that are relevant to the imaging industry. Topics are seldom too far afield from most attendees’ areas of interest, except that someone who is focused on hardware may be less interested in the supplies sessions, while someone who markets or develops low-end ink jets may be less interested in information on high-end MFPs.

At Demo, the 70 or so companies that demonstrate products and solutions span the breadth of the information technology industry. With products as diverse as PCs, peripherals, mobile products, software, networking solutions, and security systems and solutions shown, only a handful of products are significant for most attendees, although many others may be of tangential interest or help expand attendees’ knowledge of the wide variety of high-tech products available. (That said, the half-day devoted to computer and network security made me glad we had an excellent wireless network in the conference room and plenty of online tasks waiting for me!)

So, if the two conferences are so different, why compare the two events at all? Although the two shows have different aims and focuses, many in the printing and imaging industry may find them to be complementary. Significant trends in the printing and imaging business are put under the microscope at the Lyra Imaging Symposium, and, in some cases, the issues and opportunities explored are referenced at Demo, usually in the form of new products and services.

In other instances, issues of key interest to Symposium attendees are of little interest to the majority of those at Demo. For example, Ann Priede’s comprehensive opening presentation at the Lyra Imaging Symposium looked back at key events in the imaging industry in 2005, covering critical topics such as the explosive growth in printer supplies storefronts, the looming presence of XPS (formerly Metro) as part of the new Windows operating system due to be released in 2006, and industry consolidation through mergers and acquisitions. As critical as these topics are to those of us in the business, the Demo crowd apparently couldn’t care less.

But, keep in mind, the Demo Conference is about products. Also, every high-tech business segment has its own set of critically important issues that just don’t have legs across the larger industry. (After all, aren’t we printing industry folks happy that we don’t have even more players “working” to “sort out” something like XPS?)

Alternately, Charles LeCompte, president of Lyra, delivered a Symposium presentation that summed up the state of today’s digital photography industry and covered some key industry issues that represent opportunities for product developers and entrepreneurs—specifically, solutions for managing the plethora of digital photos produced by a rapidly increasing range of digital capture devices. Numerous companies at Demo 2006 introduced products and services designed to assuage the current consumer “pain points” of digital photo organization and access (i.e., too many photos in too many places). Two notables included Riya, which thrilled the Demo audience with face-identification technology that is designed to improve the process of labeling and organizing digital photos, and Sharpcast, which offers a service to synchronize and store photos from an individual’s numerous photo repositories (e.g., digital cameras, camera phones, laptop and desktop PCs, and servers).

The hit of Demo 2006 from a hard copy perspective was, without a doubt, Blurb. This Bay Area start-up company focuses on do-it-yourself hardcover books. The firm’s solution is akin to the photo books introduced a few years back by Apple and iPhoto (and now available through leading photo-sharing services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish), but the Blurb solution is different, too, in a very important way.

Eileen Gittins, Blurb’s founder and CEO, comes from a photography background and found herself dismayed a couple of years ago when she was unable to find a suitable publisher for a photo essay she was creating to give to 30 friends and family members. In her words, the project ended up being “more essay than photo,” and the aforementioned services are designed more for printing elegant but simple hardbound photo albums, without the inclusion of text or other content. Thus, Blurb was born, and the company has since developed a software composition program (BookSmart) that allows the online user to put together a stylish hardcover book from collections of words and images. The collection is printed and bound (complete with a dust jacket) and returned in the mail a few days later.

According to Bruce Watermann, Blurb’s vice president of operations and a printing industry veteran, rather than investing in its own printing “back end,” Blurb is putting together a back-end partner network for book production. He says that Indigo-based print providers have a leg up for inclusion in the network, based on the high quality of their output.

Blurb’s commercial success has yet to be determined (the company’s solution was in limited beta release in the week following Demo 2006), but the firm certainly garnered lots of attention at the show. Many attendees, including the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg and PC Magazine’s Michael Miller, noted the irony that in today’s high-tech digital world, the tangible nature of hard copy is still more appealing than digital alternatives for certain applications. As Gittins says about her photo-essay experience, “How do you ‘give’ a Web site to your 30 best friends and family?”

This irony is not lost on Blurb’s marketing minds, either. They point out that the BookSmart solution allows users to preserve blog content, for example, as a permanent and beautiful hard copy book. The company is also clever in its coining of terminology—in addition to the aforementioned BookSmart solution, the firm refers to the process of exporting blogs to books as BlogSlurping.

Another interesting product at Demo 2006 from a pure printing perspective was Smilebox, a Web-based greeting card and scrapbooking service that allows users to produce hard copy versions of their creations. Like many other companies, Smilebox straddles the physical and virtual worlds, and it seems to have a good understanding of user needs in both.

The 2006 Lyra Imaging Symposium and Demo 2006 were both stimulating shows that are well worth attending next year. When you go, remember to get the most out of both the formal conference sessions and the opportunities for informal networking. I hope to see many of you at both events next year!

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