Much of the engineering focus for printing hardware tends to be on the mechanics, getting all the moving parts to function optimally. But as important for a digital colour press, is the software which has to turn what users create on their screens into data that can be rendered as printing dots. Adobe PostScript was a hugely successful page description language, but Adobe’s high prices in its early days encouraged a host of PostScript clone developers. The most successful of these was Harlequin, better known today as Global Graphics. In 1993 Craig Revie was the company’s head of graphic arts research and development.
This was when Xeikon were building the DCP-1 and Craig told us that “…some guys had just come out of Agfa including de Schamphelaere, and at that point Harlequin was developing the Harlequin [PostScript] RIP (Raster Image Processor) and we did a version of the Harlequin RIP to drive the Xeikon engine”. It was a fortuitous pairing because Harlequin was exclusively software focused: “… we were about 40 people then and I was running R&D because no one else knew anything about printing. Xeikon was just one of a number of companies we worked with in the early days of Harlequin”. Craig’s work with Xenotron which had developed the first What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) workstation, had put him into close contact with many people involved in print production. “It meant I made contact with people by reputation and was a nice opportunity to bring the Harlequin RIP to the attention of these [Xeikon] people”.
PostScript RIPs at that time were designed primarily for imagesetters and not digital colour presses so they were relatively slow. Harlequin’s technology rasterised a single colour page every second, outputting data almost at the engine’s rated speed. For Craig however the most important invention of the last thirty years is not PostScript but “the internet of course, the World Wide Web and the internet”. The significance of the www was not immediately obvious. Craig says that “at first I wondered why the World Wide Web was causing so much excitement. I first heard about it from John Warnock from Adobe”. Warnock recognised that the World Wide Web would have a major role in transforming information sharing. “I was a bit sceptical, but if anything his statement underestimated its impact. I was sceptical that it would even catch on!” However it’s “probably the technology that’s had the most influence on our lives not just our professional lives but our everyday lives. If you think back to 30 years ago research took quite a bit of time. Today there’s no need to rake through documents in libraries, because everything’s online.”
The internet serves the graphics industry in many ways, some more interesting than others. For Craig “the whole cloud based document design and submission is now very innovative, so from the point of view of applications development we have a new model: there’s only one version in the cloud and this has a lot more development to go but removes barriers we’ve had in the past in terms of preparing documents. The problem for the traditional print business comes if we want to print them a lot … that’s where their revenue comes from.” He adds that the Industry 4.0 concept says that “all physical things can have a data presence in the cloud and that’s a model now that will transform what we’re doing because it’s a very simple model”.
In such a model digital colour printing has a distinct advantage over conventional processes designed primarily for long runs. For Craig “one off copies I think is the biggest thing, individually identified products … that’s always been possible but with additional very complicated technology”. The model has lots of application areas such as medical systems making it easy to go back and trace records in the cloud: “nothing else can do that as elegantly or as cost-effectively … we’ve moved from very clunky typesetting systems into electronic composition, standardised document formats, much better communications, but I do think a lot of the concepts currently under the 4.0 umbrella will change in the future”.
Documents living in the cloud are universally available so “we can order them to be printed anywhere and automatically delivered anywhere”. In this model logistics would be automated: “the printing business already has web ordered printing, with services such as Moonpig and the like, it’s fully automated”. Craig adds that “smaller entities will collaborate with each other on the internet. The model must be open and [customers] can set up agreements with printers that they can accept work”. Such a print transaction model depends on consensus and “there are no protocols yet for entities to communicate that have been agreed”. Craig expects one to one agreements are the future with transactions done “on a peer to peer basis and not through a hierarchy and the enabling technology is blockchain” which “allows peer to peer agreement. That will be how we communicate, on a peer to peer basis”.
Blockchain technology has massive implications for the future of communications. Craig says “I do think the peer to peer thing is the biggest thing in technology; I don’t think we’ll get rid of the hierarchical structures altogether but we’ll be able to get rid of an awful lot”. He suggests that “if we were to wake up in 30 years tomorrow we would be completely lost, much more so than our peers of 30 years ago doing the same thing. The biggest thing we’ll notice is us the number of controllers of the things we need to access for our daily lives.” It’ll happen slowly but disintermediation and online virtual entities that “allow people to identify you and to know that you are you, is key to everything … that’s the most important thing in the peer to peer world”.