Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Observations: In The Year 2000...

In The Year 2000...

The title of this month's column is a play on the recurring Conan O'Brien bit that began in the show's early days and playfully looked ahead to the Year 2000 with outlandish projections. Rather than retire the skit when the year 2000 came, the bit continued on with the same title and an unapologetic look "back" at the future. Now I am looking back at a famous printer industry prediction made in the Year 2000 to see how we are doing eight years later.

At the 2000 Symposium, Lyra President Charles LeCompte took the stage and put together his case for the coming demise of printing and paper. At the time, the assembled crowd took the presentation with the proverbial "grain of salt," as I can attest as an audience member, and during the intervening years, LeCompte's presentation has become legendary in its alarmism. In fact, at every Symposium since, LeCompte's infamous 2000 pitch is the subject of at least one or more wisecracks, with the good-spirited LeCompte the source as often as not.

The apparent assumption underlying the chuckles is that the presentation, titled "From Paper to Pixels: The Word Becomes Electronic," somehow missed the mark altogether. But after taking a more careful look back, I assert that the identified underlying trends were mostly right on, and it could be just the timing that was off.

Of course, by 2000, the idea of electronic documents was hardly new. In the presentation's introduction, LeCompte referenced documents, such as business forms and internal documents like company directories, that companies had already migrated from hard copy to electronic form. But the factors were aligning for a much larger diaspora, including newspapers, magazines, and books, or so went the presentation's rationale.

When looking at external factors that influence big shifts in business, I favor using the characteristics of "STEEP"—Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political—partly because it is an easy-to-remember acronym. And that is largely what this presentation did to build its case.

Under "Social" changes, burgeoning trends in freedom and flexibility for office workers seemed to favor "information on the fly" over heavy and cumbersome paper documents.

Under "Technological," the trends included PCs, with laptops coming to dominate over desktops; the growth in personal digital assistants or PDAs; and price/performance improvements in LCD (as opposed to CRT) displays. These and other technology advances played into the assumption that tablet PCs would become pervasive and comprise the preferred medium for consuming information, largely replacing paper.

The "Economic" card came in with shifts in the advertising business, working hand-in-hand with the transition of the traditional information industry's output (newspapers, books, and magazines, specifically), from print to dissemination on the Web. Advertising's changing needs were seen as largely funding the continuing development of an online information infrastructure that supported viewing over printing.

The "Environmental" and "Political" factors foreseen included a strong "green" movement that would crack down on printer and paper industry suppliers and customers. So how did it all sort out at least at this intermediate point between the final two predictive checkpoints, 2005 and 2010? My opinion is that LeCompte nailed individual components quite well, with some twists, of course.

For example, the "tablet PC" has come into being, and while it is not a huge market success, per se, the combined categories of laptops and portable devices continue to gain every year in their relative and absolute popularity. Devices like Blackberry handhelds and the iPhone were not really anticipated but can be seen as logical extensions and convergences of mobile phones and PDAs. The LCD screen is not quite the perfect reading medium and, in fact, the deployment of the "E-Ink" screen in the Amazon Kindle e-book at the end of 2007 provides evidence of a continuing quest for a better paper substitute. All in all, I'll give LeCompte an "A–" on his Technology foresight.

Under the "green" banner (though no one was calling it that back then), we have seen huge movements in our industry toward the areas of environmental awareness and action. While the efforts span a variety of initiatives, notably lower power consumption and waste reduction through eco-friendly packaging and supplies recycling programs, a big part of the green effort includes the reduction of paper output through simple means such as promoting duplex printing and more sophisticated document-management solutions that integrate electronic documents with printed output as part of an enterprise's information infrastructure. Give our industry high marks for reading the "writing on the wall" and staying ahead of direct political sanctions on this one, and give LeCompte a solid "A" for knowing and saying that environmental concerns were looming.

With the decline in "printed information" industries since 2000, LeCompte was certainly on the money here. How the advertising industry has adapted to fewer print-focused eyeballs is a complex answer, but it is safe to say they have done it largely by using "new media," including the emergence of search-based advertising, led by the growth of Google, into a $200 billion-plus market cap tech giant. On the "social" side, you cannot overlook the change that ties to lifestyles, and more importantly, the relentless march of time and the turning of generations. Eight years later, the first baby boomers are nearing the last stages of their working careers, and those entering the workplace now were "tweeners" in 2000. One could argue that trends like social networking, text messaging, YouTube, and video gaming, work against hard copy, at least in one way or another. I am going to give LeCompte an "I" for incomplete on this one as the changes he anticipated in 2000 are really only just beginning.

So as far as the "causes," the presentation fares quite well in retrospect. But how about the outcome that paper consumption would peak in 2000, then dip to half that level by 2004, and to only 20 percent of the 2000 level by 2010? This is a much, much more complex equation than most of us are accustomed to analyzing. Moreover, even the simplest scenarios demonstrate that "timing is everything" in forecasting, much as in comedy. While paper and printing use continue to grow in low-single-digit annual percentages, the seeds are being sown for big change. Perhaps like dot matrix printers and film cameras in the recent past, threats loom but the band plays on, at least for a while anyway.

Ironically, my research for this column may provide some comfort for those of us in the printing and paper industries. My inspiration for this column originally came from my memories of the 2000 Symposium, and as it germinated into a full-blown column idea, I needed to review LeCompte's actual presentation slides. I was unable to put my hands on my own copy of the original presentation, so I asked my friends at Lyra, the publisher of this newsletter. The firm complied but not with the electronic version I had pictured, because it had been lost to the ages and one too many hard-disk crashes. The paper version remained however, so the firm faxed it over!

Note: The Lyra Imaging Symposium for 2008 is coming up soon. I'll be live blogging from the event so check back here for all the fun and excitement!

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