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.

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Postful Adds Postcards

September 5, 2008

The biggest feature we’re launching this week is the addition of postcards.  It’s now easy to send custom postcards with your own photos and designs.

To try things out, just go to our site, upload a photo, and add your message.  You can preview the card, set the recipient, and send in minutes.  It’s only $.59 for a single 4.25″x6″ card.  Volume discounts take things down from there.

It’s a great way to send reminders, thank you notes, vacation postcards, holiday cards, and more.

Of course, for many of you, sending individual cards isn’t your key concern.  You want to integrate this directly with your application.  Through our API, you have full control of the postcard printing system, including complete control of the design on both sides of the card (both sides full color).

If you’re interested in getting more details, just contact us and we can help you to handle the integration process.

For everyone, let us know what you like and, just as importantly, what you don’t like.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

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.

There’s a lot of talk going on right now about whether web firms are innovating or just… bubbling. While the core may be going through a (necessary) consolidation phase, there are vital new spaces around it composed of companies that are just as much built on the web, but expanding outward from there rather than turning inward.

The variety here is impressive. Location based technologies, robotic integration, networked medical devices, and many others are all seeing explosive innovation as technology catches up with the visions.

The new area of manufacturing as a service (MaaS) is already gaining traction. The integration of networked processing, personalization, and physical production opens up entirely new possibilities in physical goods.

For ouroboros web firms, innovation may be drying up. For those looking outward, the possibilities are almost overwhelming as we work to bring the best of the web to the 99% of the world that isn’t contained within a browser window.

‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) is well established. ‘Hardware as a Service’ (HaaS) is joining it as a basic pattern, particularly in light of Amazon’s efforts. In the spirit of XaaS, we think that the next key piece of this is ‘Manufacturing as a Service’ (MaaS).

What is MaaS?

The current picture of manufacturing is tied to mass production. But new equipment and techniques are transforming the underlying assumptions. Light manufacturing tasks such as printing are experiencing the first wave of this.

It is now possible to complete and deliver personalized runs of one as easily as we previously produced runs of millions. This opens up the possibility of bringing these manufacturing tasks into the cloud of modern services. Production can be initiated from anywhere, with completely unique specifications, as easily as any other web service call is made.

As the final step is taken and these processes are exposed as services, any actor attached to the network can produce physical products on demand. More, these products can be customized to almost limitless specifications.

Transaction costs are dramatically reduced. Whereas those costs previously mandated centralization and commodification of products, forms, and delivery, true personalization is about to reach the world of manufacturing.

Impacts of Personal Production

Personalized production ranges from simple items (kitchen tools with grips sized to your hand) to complex (automobiles structured both for your body and optimized structurally for your intended use). Products can exist to meet the needs of small groups or even individual users rather than being ignored unless they have markets of millions.

Under these conditions, waste can be dramatically reduced. Manufacturers can eliminate overproduction and wasted or unsold runs. For consumers, products will be built to their specifications, removing the churn of inadequate goods.

For both, this will allow for faster transitions to new products and a far wider spectrum of available options. The tooling and training cycles which still define product time lines and delivery challenges can be eliminated.

Consumers will experience a level of satisfaction and ‘fit’ presently only available in the highest end personal services. It’s the fusion of the kind of customization possible with hand-crafted goods and the scale and consistency of mass production. And, as much as mass production opened a new era of cheap, consistent quality, but bland goods, so the era of personal production will open new standards of personalization, relevance, and impact while maintaining the advantages of the old system.

Early Results in Print

In print we’re already experiencing the first wave of this. The last five years have seen the introduction of digital presses and dynamic finishing equipment which make possible these new processes. For any area of manufacturing, the tools must come first.

While various firms have been transitioning traditional print shop activities to web based storefronts, a new wave of firms are taking the next step and exposing the underlying process through print APIs, integration with existing tools and services, and completely individual production.

The benefits are already clear. Manufacturing and consumer waste are dropping as organizations print letterhead dynamically (directly with documents as needed), marketing brochures when requested, and production consolidates eliminating the need for millions of underutilized printers. Both business and consumer users experience vastly better quality and service while manufacturers are able to better scale their production and respond to shifts in demand.

Entirely new uses are appearing as the potential of the systems become clear. Print, widely considered a dying industry, is finding a place for itself for at least the coming decades. As will likely be the case for many areas of manufacturing, the overall market is smaller, but of greater utility and value.

The transition is, of course, not a clean one. Thousands of print shops are going out of business each year as the industry transforms. It’s a type of challenge and promise which we can expect to see repeated in many industries.

Conclusion

The modern service cloud ushers in a fundamental shift in our accounting of economic costs. The endemic overhead in even the most basic of deals and transactions is perhaps the key factor in determining the structure of our economic systems at all scales. The service cloud can reduce those transaction costs to negligible levels.

Information processing, manufacturing, even traditional services will be a part of this (‘Service as a Service’ or SaaS_1 (being forced into subscripting acronyms is always a sign that a theory is on the right track)). While the frictionless economy is likely to always remain an unreachable ideal, we are at least decreasing these costs by orders of magnitude.

The implications of this extend beyond the products of these transactions and into the very structure of our organizations. Centralized decision making and classic organizational hierarchies are counter-productive when transaction and information costs decrease past a certain point. As the issues which defined the nature of the firm unravel, we enter into a period of organizational transformation. It promises to be interesting at least.

Some of the largest voting blocks in the country can’t be reached through the web. This issue is being highlighted by conditions in Iowa where internet usage is particularly low among likely voters.

Most campaigns have decided that their online efforts can’t help under those conditions. But, while local organizing, face-to-face meetings, and retail campaigning are all critical, there are interesting opportunities for campaigns with strong online communities.

Using a service like Postful, campaigns could make it easy to send personal letters. With very little effort (or expense), campaigns could link supporters to voters with similar backgrounds and interests.

It would allow voters to hear from people whose concerns and interests are more likely to mirror their own. It allows for communication outside of the ordinary media filters.

Letters could include copies of relevant news articles further explaining their position. Combining a personal endorsement and connection with the authority of a known news source could be powerful.

Campaigns not wanting to release voter information could either act as an intermediary for letters or even use something like Postful mailboxes. It would eliminate privacy issues while making it even easier for supporters to write.

The possibilities are extensive. Especially for campaigns with strong online support (currently led by Obama and Paul), such methods could provide a unique advantage. More, it could open the door to new forms of personal politics and campaigns.