Thursday, December 23, 2010

December Observations: Five Years of Columns!


Observations: Five Years of JLO Columns
by Jim Lyons

[December 23, 2010] As mentioned at the end of my November 2010 Observations, that column completed five years of monthly musings on my part, and while I am determined to continue for the foreseeable future, it is a good time to look back and reflect on those 60 columns in conjunction with our other year-in-review pieces in the Observer.

I have compiled and included a table (included at the bottom of the page) with the title, brief synopsis, and link to each column, and I will mention a few of what I consider to be the high points (and maybe a few low points). As is my usual practice, I will also try to discern a few patterns and trends that emerged and provide clues on the direction of our industry.

My very first column was titled, “Hard Copy Time Capsule” and recounts an actual incident where I found a group of ten-year-old Observers during an (obviously rare) office cleanup that accompanied a career change. The three issues were from 1995 and between them include many articles that ten years later seem very significant in what became big things in the printing and imaging industry. Also included, predictably, were articles on things that proved to be inconsequential in hindsight. In that column, I pointed out the early predictions of growth in color printing and all-in-ones, which by 2005 seemed obvious, as well as many companies who had been industry participants in 1995 that were distant memories ten years later.

Following that initial work, many of my early columns continued to draw on memories, with comparisons made to current situations. In this vein, I had fun following the comparison of the previous page description language (PDL) wars of the late 1980s to what in 2006 seemed like a major crossroads for Adobe’s PDF, with the looming threat from Microsoft Vista and its built-in XML Printer Specification (XPS). Much of the fun came from the fact that those rivals were the same, 15 years later. And little did we know then that four years later, the Adobe battlefront would involve another historic rival, Apple, though this time the battle was over the viewing technology Flash and its inclusion (or lack thereof) in Apple’s mobile devices. And as for PDF? Its role as a universal, portable format has survived quite well and is evident across the spectrum of traditional operating systems as well as the ever-growing universe of mobile platforms.

However, following some feedback about my early columns being great “back in the good old days” fodder, I was determined to be more forward-looking, a trait to which I had long practiced during my corporate days. Since then, attempting to provide inspiration by looking ahead at potential opportunities and threats in the printing and imaging industry has become a major emphasis. This process includes ferreting out up-and-coming companies and technologies, shifts in industry practices, and customer behavior that may be either coming in or going out.

On the new company/application/platform side, I am pleased to have written early about the “YouTube for Documents,” Scribd.com, and its emergence as an important new company in May 2008. In back-to-back months at the end of 2007, I wrote about the potential of WiFi printers and the new Amazon Kindle, and during the most recent two years, I have covered social media numerous times, with a special emphasis it would seem on printing-related Twitter stories. During that same time period, my interest in mobile platforms, and especially Apple’s iPhone/iPad and the printing and viewing options they bring to bear, may have become a bit tiresome for many, but for those of you in that category, ignore at your own peril! Examples include my fascination with “FlipBoard,” a new viewing app I examined in mid-2010, and which recently won Apple’s “app of the year” award, and the somewhat similarly named Google feature “FastFlip,” available on mobile devices and traditional browsers and likewise “observed” earlier in 2010 and recently “promoted” on all Google News Web pages.

Going back to my first year in 2006, I covered the existing industry practice of price rebates as I perceived this custom was beginning to fade. I also looked at the “razor and blades” pricing model, with low hardware prices and margins and manufacturers making up the difference (and more) on relatively expensive, high-margin supplies.

On the rebate front, my predictions for “the end of the rebate, as we know it” seems to have come to pass. A more or less random sample of printer deals (oriented to consumer markets where rebates have always been most prevalent) shows that, at Techbargains.com anyway, the most recent great prices for printers and all-in-ones do not include mail-in rebates, at least in the huge majority of deals from a wide variety of resellers. The razor-and-blades pricing front, however, is a different story. Despite well-documented efforts by Kodak, Lexmark and others to sell the base printer platform for higher margins to enable less expensive ink, cheap printers and costly ink still seem to rule the day. A recent Black Friday excursion yielded results that surprised even me frankly, with HP ink jet printers at Walmart starting at $29 and HP’s recently announced e-all-in-one basic model at little more than half of its original list price. Unquestionably, industry leader HP is still going with the razor-and-blades model to produce the firm’s profits.

How has the world changed? How have I changed? How has the writing changed?

So beyond the general intention to move away from a nostalgia orientation and toward future trend identifications (for the most part), what else do I detect in my 60 Observations columns?

I sincerely hope the quality of my writing as well as my research and knowledge of new technologies has improved. Taking on contract writing duties for the Observer has helped across the board, and I am grateful for that opportunity. Including a little humor, irony, and pop culture is always a goal. And the access to industry chatter via Twitter and other social media has changed the level and currency of my tech awareness, without doubt.

While I do not remember my editor ever mentioning it (bless her), one cringe-worthy “feature” of my early columns were titles that were often in rhetorical-question form, ending with a question mark. In fact, a quick review shows fully half of the titles of my first year’s pieces were in question format. Perhaps I was watching too much Jeopardy back then?

A personal/professional change for me that occurred during these last five years has been devoting an increasing proportion of my time and energy to teaching for the University of Phoenix, both in marketing and economics. I brought this knowledge to bear early, as my first-year experience with the processes at the highly-automated University of Phoenix showed me that in many academic settings, the term “paper” is really a misnomer, as an electronic document through its multiple steps of creation, submission, and evaluation (grading), is rarely reduced to physical form.

Other evidence of my growing academic bent can be found in my topic selection. In 2010, I covered “memorable industry advertising taglines” in a two-part feature and the application of “neuromarketing” techniques to understanding consumer preferences between hard copy and display formats. I trust at least some of my readers have found these forays into the modern world of marketing to be of interest and provide a good mix with my new-and-different themes about industry players and trends.

I am going to close up the “collection” at this point, as too much indulgence in reminiscing cannot be good for you! With that said, it has been a great five years, and I look forward to continuing. And as always I appreciate your readership.