Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Observations: The YouTube for Documents

The YouTube for Documents

Imagine if there was such a thing as YouTube for documents. The mind stretches to picture a Web-based repository where users from around the world could upload favorite documents to be shared with a vast network of other interested users. And as with YouTube, this personal sharing and networking could be a source of education and humor, a forum to introduce new entertainers (maybe authors, if not singers and dancers) and new products, and, to some level anyway, drive societal trends. Like YouTube, millions of visitors would regularly check in to see what was new and what was there to share, only not with videos but with documents in their myriad forms.

These documents would run the gamut: historic or current, scanned or application-generated, in PDF, DOC, XLS, PPT, and any other reasonably common document format. And through the use of the magic of Web 2.0 technology, this repository would work simply and seamlessly, with free access and unlimited storage capacity. And also like YouTube, visitors could easily cut-and-paste any document image visible from within the repository into any other Web site or blog, increasing the reach and frequency by orders of magnitude.

Now, to get a little mercenary, think of the printing that would ensue. While some of the documents would be suitable as view-only, many others would cry out for printing. The ink and toner would flow like never before. The promise of distribute-and-print was conceived originally as occurring primarily within confined corporate and private network settings or through controlled subscription arrangements, but in this incarnation, an explosion of print volume would be set off, as growing throngs of users gained access to millions of documents.

Well, stop imagining. This fantasy is a reality, courtesy of Scribd (pronounced, “scribbed”), a San Francisco Bay area startup company that has been online at since March 2007. At the time of the company’s launch, it was no less than TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington who assigned Scribd the label the “YouTube of Documents.” After a little more than a year, the site now includes two million uploaded documents, and the number continues to grow. Up to one million users per day visit the site, leading to 15 million to 20 million visitors per month.

Other than the sheer growth in documents and users that Scribd has experienced during the past year, a new document viewer is one more interesting development (literally), especially for the printing and imaging industry. Introduced by Scribd and implemented into its site in recent months, the new document viewer is called iPaper.

Jason Bentley, director of community development at Scribd, shared a little of the history behind iPaper. The company’s original document-viewing solution, dependent on a more-or-less universal file viewing requirement, was conceived out of inspiration by co-founder Trip Adler in a moment of “unopenable file frustration” during college, and was based on FlashPaper, the Macromedia creation that was eventually a casualty of the Adobe acquisition. To improve the user experience and to create further potential business opportunities, Scribd took the pros and cons from users of its FlashPaper-based site and developed from scratch a new and better universal document viewer named iPaper, which has been implemented on the Scribd site since late 2007.

Bentley downplays the rivalry with Acrobat and PDF, noting for example that iPaper has no interest in emulating the extended tracking and editing features that have grown up around the PDF standard for years and years. Another difference, from this observer’s eye, is that Acrobat and PDF were coming from a printed-page perspective, allowing viewing when and as needed, whereas iPaper has been developed with viewing and sharing in mind, with printing bringing up a bit of a rear position (see image below).

Worth noting, too, with respect to the site’s format-agnostic interests, is Scribd’s range of upload capabilities. Supported file formats include PDF, PostScript, current Microsoft Office flavors including the Office 2007 formats recently added, Open Office, and popular image formats (see image on page 11). Not surprisingly, PDF, DOC, and PPT rank, in that order, among the most popular formats.

I have had a couple of first-hand experiences with Scribd that speak to its usefulness and reach. Last April, I blogged about a new ink jet printer that turned out to be rather popular but (somewhat curiously) under-publicized. After some time-consuming searching, I turned up a data sheet for the product. So in the interest of sharing the document with my readers and seeking an opportunity to try Scribd, I posted that document, as my first and so far only upload. Checking in now, that two-page color data sheet (in PDF format) has been viewed 740 times, although no metrics are available on how many times the document has been printed.

Fast-forwarding to current times, I was pleased to locate a company press release I had been seeking to supplement a blog post. Rather than post a link to the release, I was able to cut-and-paste an embedded iPaper version of the release, readable and printable from directly in the post. That company — GreenPrint, a company familiar to 2007 Observations readers (Observations, 2/07)—has made a decision to upload all future marketing materials on Scribd as one channel for communications.

So looking at the Scribd opportunity through the lens of a printing company, I ask, how can this opportunity for printing be further realized? Will these be the “lost” documents that never are printed, much like those millions upon millions of digital photos that are still “trapped” in arcane camera phone menu structures, never to see the light of day (or favorite printer)? Or will a sensible, enhanced printing solution come to light as a result of one or more of our industry members partnering with Scribd (and a few emerging competitors)?


Anonymous said...

"Bentley downplays the rivalry with Acrobat and PDF"

Funny :)

Anonymous said...

Such a nice blog. I hope you will create another post like this.