Transitional Services

January 7, 2009

While preparing a post on the topic of transitional services, I found out that someone else had already done a great job of introducing the topic.  Mike McDerment of Freshbooks gave this definition:

Transitional Services are services that facilitate a user’s transition from one platform to the next – or at the least, ease their pain.

Before going on, I’d recommend you read the rest of his post.  For Freshbooks, their transitional service was offering paper invoices as an adjunct to their core tool of providing online invoicing.  It made it easy for users and companies to shift to the online system while making the old process (paper invoices) even easier than before.  That’s the best sort of transitional tool.  Make the old easier.  Smooth the transition to the new.  Don’t leave people behind in the process.

This is precisely the service Postful has been able to offer to a number of other sites (many too small to either efficiently handle their own print production or outsource).  We let them shift to a digital workflow while making it easy for users who still prefer or need paper.

By doing so, we have no illusions about print returning to it’s central role in communication.  But we do believe that, like any worthwhile transition, this one will be accelerated and eased by not making it an all-or-nothing decision.

While billions of documents are still printed and mailed every day, the information that composes those documents is increasingly stored on the web.  Providing a bridge between that data and print output is a huge task and offers equally large opportunities.

More, as we develop these processes for print, we’re building the tools that will be needed to help the rest of the manufacturing sector integrate with the computing cloud.  Print is just the first of the these physical processes to make the transition.  When the wave hits the rest of the manufacturing sector, we can look forward to a surge of innovation which promises to make the next decade a very interesting time.

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Less Paper

January 6, 2009

Xerox’s Francois Ragnet recently released a whitepaper contrasting the goal of a fully paperless office with the idea of focusing on using less paper.  We enthusiastically embrace both goals, but agree with Francois that the place to start is with less paper.

Too many efforts at creating paperless offices have forced an all-or-nothing decision.  By pushing organizations to make a single large leap, costs are vastly increased and change becomes disruptive.  Internal opposition often stops such projects before the implementation is complete.

More, for the moment, paper remains a valuable tool for communication and is still essential for reaching certain parts of the population.  Given that, the real question is how best to build hybrid workflows.  How can we keep the advantages of paper while transitioning to digital documents and tools?

Obviously, there is no single answer.  There are a number of pieces that are still developing rapidly.  Huge improvements are yet to be made in everything from document management systems to digital readers and portable devices.

Services like Postful can provide one piece of the puzzle by allowing a fundamentally digital workflow to easily output physical documents.  For users who still wish to use paper, this can provide a better experience than even a traditional paper-only process. All users are left better off rather than having some left behind.

The key concept is that a digital document is not tied to a particular output format.  A document can be viewed by one user as an email, by another as a printed letter, and by another as a series of SMS messages.  The medium isn’t the message.

Such systems can take into account the preferences of all users and do so in a way that maximizes the advantages of the digital core.  It allows for a smoother transition and more useful final result.

And, while we all keep working towards the paperless office, check out Francois’ whitepaper for some great ideas on simply using less paper.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted today that print will be dead in ten years.

There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.

Ballmer is off by at least ten years since at least the first part of this is true today. Whether the final output is screen or paper, there is no significant media left that isn’t “delivered over an IP network”. Print as a fundamental distribution medium is already dead.

Information is produced in whatever format is most convenient to the producer, moved into a digital network (open or closed), and output in whatever format is most useful to the consumer. But the final output is far less important than the intermediate phases of aggregation and distribution which are already entirely digital.

On the other hand, print as an output format is not going to be gone in ten years. Some people prefer print. Some situations make print a better solution. Sometimes print is just fun (candles are still sold, after all). As long as any of those are true, some media will still be delivered to consumers in print.

But all of that information and media will pass through digital networks before delivery. It already does. Companies that are looking for opportunities in the death of print have missed the point that as the fundamental distribution medium, it’s already dead. The change isn’t coming 10 years from now, or five, or even tomorrow. It’s already here.

Newspapers or magazines will continue their decline. Print as a whole will become less common even for output. But the details of that rate of change are incidental to the fundamental change has already taken place. Any company waiting ten years for this has already missed the point.

As you know, here at Postful we’re big on digital/physical integration. ReadWriteWeb has an interesting article on Nota’s offering of what they call C-Shirts. These are shirts with scannable codes allowing anyone to view, edit, and order a copy if they see someone wearing a shirt that they like.

The key to this is the ubiquity of QR (Quick Response) codes in Japan. Nearly all Japanese cell-phones are built to read these. Posters have them as links to more information, ads have them, even vending machines and, now, clothes have them.

In the US, various barcode formats and systems have tried to replicate this. In print, there have been efforts to create both custom readers (CueCat) and proprietary barcode standards.

The alternative has simply been to include a raw url. Lately, print vendors have been pushing PURLs (personal urls), mainly for use in direct mail. But the difference between briefly pointing your phone at an ad and copying down a url for later entry is huge. Looking at the Japanese mobile market, you see the difference that an established, consistent format makes.

But whether through QR, RFID, or some other technology, we can expect to see this trend continue to mature in Japan and expand elsewhere. In print (whether on paper or on clothing) the capability is already here. For other physical products, it won’t be long. For all of us, it will be another step to bringing together our physical and digital spaces.

The general push at CES combined with Apple’s introduction of the MacBook Air has moved cloud computing back into the spotlight. Steve Rubel points out:

As we become more dependent on technology, people crave small and thin computers and mobile devices. They want to travel light, yet still remain as productive as they can at home or work with a desktop. This will require that manufacturers rely more on “the cloud” (e.g. the Internet) and local area networks, rather than on-board hardware to do more of the work – at least for now.

What’s true for the internals of computers and devices is doubly so for the hardware with which we surround them. Very few people want to carry a printer with them on the go. In fact, few even want one at all.

Postful takes the printer off your desktop and moves it into the cloud. Regardless of what device you’re working from, what files are on that local machine, or even where you are, you have access to a high-end printing and delivery service.

As we increasingly treat the network as the foundation of our computing experience, hardware and physical processes must become an integral part of the cloud. Those tools can no longer be represented by physical devices that are tied to our presence in a particular location. They have to be accessible, integrated, and connected.

Our focus at Postful has been on bringing printing into this world of services. This is just one piece of the puzzle, but we think it demonstrates the potential, viability, and even necessity of this strategy.

Alternate Outputs

January 18, 2008

Chris Anderson has been compiling a growing list of media business models. Included is “Alternate output (pdf; print/print-on-demand; customized Shared Book style; etc.)”.

Obviously this model is near and dear to our hearts [does that phrase refer to the lungs?]. Postful makes it easy for sites to add in a print and delivery system for their online content.

But it’s not just about providing a monetization mechanism, it’s about expanding your audience. There are still billions of people worldwide who aren’t online much or at all (including over 100 million people in the US alone). Providing a mechanism for reaching those people is not just a way to earn an extra buck, it’s a way to establish your brand for the next wave of internet expansion.

More, it’s a way to allow your users to interact with your content as they prefer. The expansion of choice is one of the fundamental strands in the modern web. It’s becoming one of the minimal standards to be considered credible and useful (the convergence of those terms in an information economy is perhaps a topic for another post).

Keep letting us know how you’re using us to better serve your patrons (and earn money for yourself in the process)!

As HP continues their $300 million dollar advertising effort for Print 2.0, it’s interesting to take a look at what their approach entails. VJ Joshi gave the clearest expression of their vision during a presentation the Web 2.0 conference. In that, he made it clear that their “foundation is supplies”, mostly ink for personal printers.

While HP is taking tentative steps towards the concept of Print as a Service, their focus remains squarely on personal printers and how to increase the volume there. While they hedge their bets with purchases such as Snapfish, their priorities are clear. Which is probably as it should be for a company with an established $26 billion/year business in that area.

But the future isn’t for each consumer to run their own mini print shop (the current home print model). The future is for print to exist as a pure service. Need to mail a letter? Click and it’s printed, stuffed, stamped, and in the mail stream. Oh, and it’s printed at a higher quality than any home printer out there.

As we become more mobile, more networked, and more variable in our needs, maintaining personal manufacturing capability (even light manufacturing like print) makes less sense. Certainly some people will want to do their own printing, but they will rapidly become a minority.

At Postful, our approach is to build towards this rapidly accelerating transition. By moving print directly into the service cloud, we’re treating it as just another output format for the web. Information can be delivered on web pages, sms, voice, or print. The medium is no longer the message.

Of course this is not an absolute issue. There will continue to be a market for personal printers just as there continues to be a market for home woodworking shops. But, given current trends, the shift is definitively away from that model.