Past skills hold key to future success

Barney Cox
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Several things have happened recently to suggest that among the inkjet developments at Drupa there is something more fundamental going on about print’s place in the media mix.

HP’s announcement of a definitive agreement to buy document workflow software specialist Exstream was the most significant news. Initial speculation regarding the acquisition made much of the fact that Exstream’s heritage in print is in high-volume, transactional mailings and HP doesn’t currently have a digital press for this market unlike its rivals Océ, Infoprint, Kodak, Screen and Xerox.

It’s a logical conclusion to draw, based on HP’s strategy in print so far, but the real significance isn’t in hardware at all. The important thing is that it’s one of the first software acquisitions HP has made as part of its Print 2.0 strategy and it is the first it’s made in the professional print market.

One HP executive I spoke to about the Exstream acquisition wouldn’t, as expected, be drawn on any future hardware releases to back up the buy but did point to the significance of its software suitor being in the realm of document workflow and not just print output.

This gets to the real heart of the issue, namely: how do firms communicate with their customers and do how they manage that process?

Look at what Exstream does in a little more detail and it becomes apparent that it is a hugely powerful tool for managing personalised cross-media campaigns. Print is just one of the ways of delivering the desired messages. And, much as I hate to trivialise print, what the software is doing upfront is the really clever stuff and that’s where the pain is when companies communicate with their clients. The crucial bit for printers is who the customers are going to be for Exstream’s software. If a printer can use it to offer clients pain-free, cross-media client communications it could be onto a winner. The danger is if clients see this as a core skill and want to keep it in-house. In that instance the printer is reduced to just printing a commodity.

The success of the likes of Adare, Communisis, RR Donnelley and Williams Lea shows that for all the firms that may choose to bring that part of communication in-house there are as many that will want it outsourced, so there are opportunities in this market.

Perhaps the secret for success lies in the price and the complexity of products like Exstream.

HP isn’t the only print player getting into this market. Xerox moved in late 2006 to buy XMPie and Kodak has announced that, by Drupa, its Insite package will include the ability to create personalised landing pages and personalised URLs. Canon has formed an alliance with Bitstream, whose Pageflex software is another cross-media product, and one that can trace its lineage back to typesetting systems.

In some ways you could equate these platforms as the latest evolution of pre-press, although now they truly are pre-media. At their heart lies what is essentially typesetting and composition, it’s just that every single document is different and needs to be presented differently for each media. A valid corruption of HP’s Print 2.0 message could be ‘this is Typesetting 2.0.’

Could it be that the key to future success in the digital market is for printers to hark back to the days before DTP?

Barney Cox is executive editor, Print Group Haymarket


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