No, print is not dead nor will it ever entirely die, but it is taking a beating and the Killer App is lurking. When it hits, we’d 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 saying (and I’m one), “there is still a 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?
In 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. The focus was to reduce the amount of paper used for transient 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 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 in 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 percentile would be 26.25 years.