Case Study: Print Without Printing, Part 3

No, print is not dead nor will it ever entirely die, but we are taking a beating and the Killer App is lurking. When it hits, we’d individually better be dealing with the new realities of print without printing. Last month I related the significant downward pressures on our business. Now here’s my vision of the thing that will be most disruptive to our world: electronic paper or a receiver that comes close to emulating it.

“Yeah, but,” I hear all the defenders of print (and I’m one) saying, “there is still a strong dependence on the printed page for reading and absorbing content.” True. But what if there was an improvement in receivers? What if smart people in garages and laboratories, to paraphrase Bill Gates, develop a reusable receiver that feels and acts like paper?


Already Here

In September 2008, Xerox gave folks at NextFest a peek at reusable paper. They imaged paper and then ran it through again, which removed the old image and put a new image in its place. Not perfect, but it was a step. Mainly, the focus there was to reduce the amount of paper used for transient duplicates or copies that aren’t needed forever. Xerox estimated those to be as much as 70% of everything reproduced (printed). Hmm. Okay, that’s not going to be the killer app for printing, but many printers don’t know that it is even possible.

The Killer App, in my view, would be practical electronic paper. This electronic paper would feel and act similar to paper, but would not be physically imaged. It would receive images wirelessly or through secondary means such as a thumb drive-type device. Want a new car brochure? A PDF is sent to you wirelessly and you display it on your electronic paper. Print it on your printer for archival storage if you wish, but since most things are transient documents, you would more likely clear it and display something else. Of course, you could somehow store the PDF for later viewing again if you wanted.

Now this concept shouldn’t come as a shock to you and I don’t claim any originality or great ability to foresee the future because companies have been working on this concept for some 40 years—companies like Sony, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, E Ink, Philips, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Siemens, Epson, and others. Xerox worked on a project like that until 2005 when it was shut down, apparently for corporate financial reasons.

Will someone succeed in developing it? I have no inside track, but my view is that a disruptive device similar to electronic paper is probable, and it could come sooner rather than later. Look at how books have been impacted by the Kindle, and where can that go? The Kindle is already the Killer App when it comes to books.

Bear with me a moment. If, and I stress if, someone did perfect electronic paper, what would be the effect on us? I don’t know of anyone who thinks it would be positive. Rather, it would continue the negative trend and more printing would begin the decline, along with the business cards, maps, coupons, newsletters, and more that we discussed last month.


Timeline of Doom

So what does our end game look like? I see a world with a lot less printing (duplicates). Those of us who stay on the exact duplicate field will continue to see more commoditization, less work, and more price pressure until we are no longer viable.

How soon? For that estimate, I look to our newspaper cousins. Many industry supporting pontificators say printed newspapers will last another 35 years. Others say they won’t last that long. Now, that tells me that even newspaper industry supporters recognize that sometime between today and 35 years from now there will be receiver technology that will knock off printed newspapers. I then infer that by the time that happens, printing (duplicates) will suffer a similar demise.

And here’s the logic behind when I think it will happen.

I take the newspaper industry supporters’ estimate of 35 years and divide the time into four parts. One fourth or the 25th percentile between tomorrow and 35 years would be 8.75 years, the 50th percentile would be 17.5 years, and the 75th would be 26.25 years.

Now, I assume supporters overstate their position and detractors understate it. So I discount both sides and assume the event will probably occur between the 25th and 75th percentiles, since I have no other information. That’s between 8.75 years and 26.25 years or nine to 26 years for rounding purposes. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen tomorrow and doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. Just means that my logic says it is most probable between 2019 and 2036.

What’s your bet? Say you’re not a gambler? Yes, you are! You’ve got a small business, don’t you? You have to make decisions on capital equipment now, don’t you? Okay, then let’s learn to bet smarter instead of just saying we don’t gamble.

What is your estimate? How much longer do you think printing (duplicates) will pay? Draw a horizontal line and put a zero on the left and 35 on the right. Tick-mark the line a fourth of the way in from each end. Label the left tick mark 2019 (9 years) and the one on the right as 2036 (26 years). Now pick a year (number) when you think the Killer App will arrive. I pick 2025—a short 15 years from now—but please remember, that is my guess and it is no more valuable than yours. My major point is that you need to accept and actually guess so none of us go on thinking it will always be like it was.

Now, look at your sales categories. How much do you generate from prepress and how much from printing and binding? Imagine what your business will be like with only the prepress function as a source of revenue. Hmm. What do the tarot cards tell you?

What they tell me is that somewhere between today and one of those tomorrows, those of us who are left will have to survive on print without printing. Now, fold up the paper carefully and put it somewhere safe and drag it out in 15 years to see how we did.


Short-Run and Variable Data

What’s the future of short-run color and variable data in my world of print without printing? Variable data is a function of software or the set-up, prepress, or computing side of print without printing, so it will have a useful life in creating originals well beyond my 15 year drop dead date.

Short-run anything, on the other hand, is on the printing (duplicates) side and is a transitional technology; meaning my meaningful plans for it would be no more than my time horizon. In my case, 15 years; in your case, whatever.

Please don’t get me wrong. You can buy a short-run digital do-dad and make tons of money on it between now and when you don’t need it anymore. In fact, there are a few shops making a living doing letterpress printing today. Just realize that we are approaching the end game and we shouldn’t over drive our headlights in equipment purchases.

A more recent example will help clarify where we find ourselves.

DVDs were developed in 1995. They began supplanting the previous VHS formats originally developed in 1976, but not before VHS supplanted Betamax (mainly because you could record a full football game or whatever on VHS versus the shorter Betamax) in the 1980s. By 2008 the last pre-recorded (i.e.: movie on tape) VHS was shipped.

Today, at least one manufacturer of VHS equipment survives. So it is possible for a printer with an AB Dick 360 to survive on creating exact duplicates, but the market will shrink significantly.

An alternative to sticking with VHS strategy (exact duplicates) is for printers to jump from DVDs to MP3s. We go from distributing physical duplicates on a disk (DVDs) to making duplicates out of thin air (MP3s). We focus on print without printing. 

How do we make money doing that? What will we actually be doing? If we can see that future, then we can prepare for it and perhaps be like Carl the Fish and survive during this evolution instead of dying to make room for the next guy. So, my view on today’s print shop tomorrow will be here next month. Hope you are still with me.

Tom Crouser is principal of Crouser & Associates, Inc., 4710 Chimney Drive, Charleston, WV 25302, 304/965-7100. Contact him at Friend Tom on Facebook, link to him on Linkedin, follow his tweets at, and read his blog at And check out the unique business opportunity for small press printers offered by CPrint International at