Thursday, August 09, 2007

Observations: The More Things Change...

The More Things Change,
The More They Stay The Same

I really do not accept the title of this month's column as an absolute, except maybe in some cases and with a little explanation. I believe good ideas remain good ideas, even if they take forever to seemingly catch on. Thus the perception of old ideas seeming to come around again and again may be a function of market readiness and other infrastructure requirements that have not yet fallen into place. When these forces come together, however, the market may take off. This notion is related to another concept I have learned during my career (often as an evangelist for new ideas): repetition is okay and is often necessary to successfully communicate your idea, concept, or product.

So when HP (NYSE HPQ) pushed Web printing as a major part of its annual spring printing and imaging conference covered in last month's "Observations", I had a major case of déjà vu (all over again, for Yogi Berra fans). In 1997, I led a team at my former employer to take advantage of the still-nascent World Wide Web and the print opportunities it presented. In spring 1998, HP announced Web PrintSmart, a software utility for Web users that provided an easy way for a user to automatically "collect" Web pages, format the content of the selected pages, and then print the pages (Observer, 6/98). This year, HP has not one but three Web-printing solutions, including a resurrected version of the 1998 product called HP Smart Web Printing, a blog printing service that promises to turn your blog into a print center, and the Tabblo Print Toolkit that is a suite of developer tools for making Web sites more printable.

It is easy to be confused by HP's three offerings, even for those familiar with Web-printing applications. On one hand, HP is providing a vision and an investment in standards for the betterment of all involved with printing from the Web, including customers and fellow vendors alike. On the other hand, HP runs the risk of departing from the basic marketing principles of customer satisfaction, which I have been covering in one form or another in my "Observations" column the last couple of years. The supplies organization in HP’s Imaging and Printing Group (IPG) is sponsoring the firm’s current Web-printing initiative (as part of the company’s Print 2.0 amalgam). IPG’s supplies organization is measured by its ability to sell more supplies (ink, toner, and paper) this year than last year, so the group’s involvement with HP's Web-printing initiative has at least some industry observers questioning HP's motives.

Alert readers will note a pattern here, as the topic of Web printing has graced this column several times in the past, most recently this year with GreenPrint and its print utility that seeks to reduce waste by eliminating unnecessary pages when printing from the Web (Observer, 2/07). GreenPrint's utility is far less wide-ranging than the HP solutions, but it is also simpler and easier to use, and the utility is very effective at doing what it promises. In June 2006, I used this column to ask the somewhat rhetorical question of "Are we there yet?" as it relates to Web printing. (Actually the question is not a bad one for a summer column, as it relates to vacation season as well!)

That column covered improvements in printing from Web browsers, as exemplified in the then-up-and-coming Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 7 and in the Lexmark Web Toolbar. Both of these applications are simpler but more focused solutions compared with those of HP and are targeted at a customer’s need to print more effectively from Web pages (Observer, 6/06). I also offered another Web-printing history lesson and concluded with the following observation regarding those attempts in the late 1990’s to "fix" Web printing:
"Where the products went off base, especially HP’s Web PrintSmart (and maybe even more so its later 'Instant Delivery' software), was in their attempt to understand and to ultimately modify the behavior of Web information seekers. The idea of automatically scheduling 'harvesting' of Web content, to be pushed to end users’ printers, could be positioned as a great convenience for busy knowledge workers, but in reality, many users saw the process as a complicated hassle resulting in stacks of unread printouts. Basic printing improvements were crushed under the weight of these behavior-modifying (and supplies-business-building) 'features.' "

So maybe it is not just great ideas, but flawed ones too, that repeat themselves. Next month, I will take a more detailed look at the new HP Web-printing solutions and work at seeking out my favorite quarry—the great marketing principles of winning value propositions aimed at satisfying customers.

1 comment:

max said...

Jim, 100% with you on this one.
Taking a more radical stance, the best blog printing is no printing. Read it off the screen.
Oops... Did I really say that? :-)