When yesterday ended and tomorrow began

By Frank Romano, Thursday 28 April 2011

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If there was a watershed year in recent times, it was 1995 as the internet, PDF and the home PC took hold, as Frank Romano explains.

Events converged in 1995 to change the printing world. That year, paper, the internet, the portable document format, the compact disc, and the personal computer created a new paradigm. In 1995, the number of printing companies would be the highest ever, and then decline. It all began with America's Great Paper Shortage of 1995, when demand overwhelmed supply and prices shot up.

The upheaval started in the late 1980s, when consumption peaked and a paper shortage began to drive prices up. Producers built new machines that oversupplied the market and sent prices plummeting below production cost during 1991-94. Elimination of old machines, combined with an uptick in consumption and pulp sales to overseas markets, again tightened the supply line in 1995 and led to unprecedented high prices and shortages.

The internet was invented in 1969 by the US Department of Defence as a means of communication if we were attacked by Russia. In 1989, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, known as CERN, proposed a new internet protocol for information distribution to provide access to the members of the global high-energy physics community. This protocol, which became the World Wide Web in 1991, was based on hypertext - a system of embedding links in text to link to other text or websites anywhere in the world.

In 1993, the graphical browser called Mosaic was developed by Marc Andreessen and University of Illinois graduate students at the National Centre For Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Andreessen became a co-founder of Netscape, which produced the first commercial graphical browser and web server in March 1995. Netscape went public that August in the largest public offering until that time.

There were 313,000 internet hosts before Netscape; right after the browser, the number soared to 6,642,000. Today, there are more than 1 billion hosts.

In 1991, Adobe released Acrobat, a portable document file format. By 1994, Adobe distributed the Acrobat Reader at no cost. In 1995, there were 10 million readers downloaded. By 1999 it would be 50 million and by 2001, 300 million. Today, it is almost a billion.

In 1995, an estimated 43 million PCs and computer terminals were in use. In three years, the number of PCs doubled. Today, computers and computing appliances in use number in the billions. The CD-ROM was jointly made by Sony and Phillips in 1982, and by 1995 almost every computer had a CD.

Like a perfect storm, all these technologies came together in 1995 to provide alternatives for the dissemination of information. Within a few years, most US Federal government information once published on paper would be in electronic form. Today, over four trillion pages exist as PDFs. Much of that content would once have been in print form.

Today, there are about 34,000 printing establishments in the US, trending to 30,000 or so - half the number of 1995. The Government Printing Office prints less than at any other time in its history. It is estimated that 20% of all print disappeared, and with it printers, pre-press services, paper companies, equipment suppliers, associations, magazines, consultants - the list goes on.

Call it cross media or multi-channel - the new media world order will be one of integration. It will not be paper or pixels, but rather paper and pixels.

Frank Romano is professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of ProPrint.

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