It’s worth remembering to never look over your shoulder, in case you trip up. But in looking back at the technologies that shaped digital printing’s early years, we can see some obvious signposts to today’s world. Perhaps the most important is the introduction of the World Wide Web, first shared beyond the lab in 1991. This technology has created an environment that supports many of the applications and publishing processes we now cannot do without: email, search, content and services on demand, and all manner of social media.
Today’s industry outlines and the key technologies influencing development were there in the early years of digital colour printing. Also clear were the early signs of today’s graphics industry landscape as the old guard was forced to make way for the new. In 1993 the first signs of wholesale consolidation within the graphics systems manufacturer community were evident. Companies were forced to merge as the influence of open platforms and standards started to be felt. Prepress services costs were collapsing, so repro houses and agencies could no longer support investments into high priced proprietary systems. Applications running on the Mac and PCs were rapidly replacing the bespoke systems of yore.
Collapse and creation
Consolidation meant that a mere handful of companies was responsible for bulk of front end systems business in the graphics sector. They included some now mostly forgotten names such as Linotype-Hell (acquired by Heidelberg), Scitex (acquired by HP), Quark (still independent), Frame (acquired by Adobe) and of course Adobe itself which is far from forgotten. Collapse created an environment for new opportunities and many of the companies who came into the graphics business back then are still alive and kicking. Xeikon (founded 1988), HP Indigo (1990) and EFI (1989) for instance, grasped the opportunities the digital environment offered.
Enter the World Wide Web
When World Wide Web first came to the attention of the graphics industry, it was as a tool for creating documents using hyperlinks to pull together text, graphics and images via the internet. The development of browser technologies such as Mosaic and Mozilla (Netscape), provided a graphical user interface, so the World Wide Web soon became the preferred user interface for the internet. Browser technologies made it convenient and easy to access content and online data wherever it resided on the internet.
When digital colour printing was introduced in 1993, the number of internet users was swelling by over one million per month, and the market for digital colour print was slowly emerging. Most online activity was for email and communications within closed communities and services such as America Online (the forerunner of AOL). Content interchange using the Standard Generalised Mark-up Language (SGML), a forerunner of HTML, was also becoming more widespread but mainly for military and government requirements. SGML was also being used by wire services to deliver content to newsdesks and by aircraft manufacturers to deliver electronic information to airline customers. Paper was still far and away the dominant means of information transport, and in a different part of the industry the idea of on demand production was gaining traction, albeit mostly for corporate publishing. Digital information systems and on demand colour content delivery via the web were slowly coming together.
Talk of the information superhighway had begun as early as 1978. As the conversation evolved, digital content was expected to be delivered via broadband and cable television networks. We were still thinking in format terms rather than in data terms. The information superhighway was supposed to imitate the internet, but the speed of internet adoption rapidly overtook broader communications developments. The internet became the fabled information superhighway, creating a host of new business opportunities with unimaginable scales of operation. The web offered content convenience and accessibility for all formats from video and film through to music and all types of printed publication, providing direct connections users, linking content publishers and their customers, linking colleagues and friends, businesses and clients. This process of information disintermediation continues, creating new customer expectations and new opportunities for service providers. Now is the time to build foundations for the future. All the signs are there.