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Forecast Calls for More Portable ‘Cloud’ Connections

Thanks to rapidly changing technology, printers and mainstream consumers alike are more comfortable with cloud-based computing applications than they were 18 or even 12 months ago. One big reason for that attitude shift is that ever smarter mobile phones and tablet computers do not pack a lot of...

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Thanks to rapidly changing technology, printers and mainstream consumers alike are more comfortable with cloud-based computing applications than they were 18 or even 12 months ago. One big reason for that attitude shift is that ever smarter mobile phones and tablet computers do not pack a lot of memory. So, their users already have grown accustomed to turning to the iCloud and similar services to meet content storage needs for music, photos, calendars, contacts, and documents. Popular upload service Dropbox offers multi-device file and photo sharing – free of charge.

Another major reason for cloud acceptance is improved security and less credit-card fraud. “The trust issue has come a long way,” said Dave Minnick, operations director for EFI web-to-print solutions, adding that the vast majority of American consumers now are comfortable shopping online – to the cha-ching of more than $230 billion last year with $140 billion more expected by 2017, according to Forrester Research. Eight of every 100 retail purchases in 2012 came via Internet eCommerce. “The cloud platform is coming to maturity,” Minnick noted, “particularly in North America. The Internet bandwidth is there.” Online banking is another popular example cited by Gina Testa, VP of Xerox’s Graphic Communications Industry segment.

Print firm owners and their production managers increasingly realize that the cloud makes good business sense for them as well. Cloud-based services are a microcosm of the core-competency outsourcing strategy, contends Arnold Hackett, VP of Alliance and Partnership Management at Xerox. “Cloud offerings like web to print, job management, and document scanning free up resources and allow our [printer] customers to focus on what they do best,” Hackett said. Over the past decade at EFI, Minnick said he has observed “an almost exponential shift toward web-to-print subscription services and away from self hosting.”

Just how high is the cloud’s potential ascent? Amazon leads the profit path right now, earning $800 million from its cloud services in 2012, according to analyst estimates. This past March, Google announced it is doubling its office space near Seattle, just miles from the campuses of Amazon and Microsoft, and stepping up the hiring of engineers and others who work on cloud technology, the New York Times reported. Amazon Web Services (AWS) expects that the cloud business eventually will be as big as its retail operation. AWS is followed by Microsoft’s Windows Azure and offerings from other companies including Rackspace, Verizon, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard (HP), according to NYT.

“Over the years, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft had each built world-class clouds, consisting of several giant data centers in different countries, to run their own businesses — doing things like searching the Web, hosting online video, managing business software and operating an online mall,” the NYT report read. Amazon was the first to rent its data storage and computing power to outside customers when it started AWS nine years ago; Microsoft and Google have followed suit. (Apple Computer does not rent its cloud. Graphic designers and art directors gravitate to the Adobe Creative Cloud, launched 15 months ago, but it is a download and not a web browser-based service.)

Of ROI, Cents, and Sense

For penny-wise print firms, it is a bottom-line-driven decision. Xerox’s Testa pointed to the substantial software investment faced by printers who choose to manage their information technology (IT) internally. “The cloud frees up cash flow, too,” she noted. But it’s not only software – it’s also IT infrastructure costs, “which can be huge,” stressed Joe Rouhana, Xerox manager of production workflow and solutions. “We’re talking servers and staff/talent. Labor can be the biggest cost,” Rouhana said. Especially for smaller companies, added Gary Marron, HP/Hiflex sales and marketing manager for the Americas and Australia, the low cost of entry is enticing. Marron told of one print company, situated in hurricane-plagued Charleston, SC, for which the cloud has become absolutely essential.

Cloud packages vary depending on the vertical markets served by the print customer choosing them, Testa added. Retail end-customer needs are quite different than those of the medical industry, real estate, or higher education, for example. Interestingly, “the cloud also minimizes the risk of making a wrong decision,” Testa said, noting that fear is a great motivator. HP’s Marron agreed, stating, “Printers need to find a niche to sell to in an open [online] storefront, whether they’re selling to the world with their own [brand] or alias branding. They need to make it part of their eMarketing strategy,” advised the former CEO of Hiflex, a web-to-print specialist that Hewlett-Packard purchased 18 months ago. “HP’s cloud strategy was a big part of the acquisition requirement,” Marron shared.

There are other variables for printers to consider, of course, including the size of their cloud offering. Rouhana said some Xerox customers will roll out the cloud to different sized customer bases, from small to large; others are more cautious, at first, conducting tests with pilot programs. The key for web-to-print, according to HP’s Marron, is built-in automated order entry that limits the number of touches. “It’s not news that transactions are smaller today and there are a lot more of them [to manage],” he said, adding that’s why Hiflex now is part of the HP Indigo and Scitex portfolios.

Some print firms have been known to go to the cloud extreme, hosting not only web-to-print but also management information systems (MIS) and even entire systems. Monthly fees can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. “But the ROI [return on investment] works out favorably when you consider all the overhead” of doing it yourself,” EFI’s Minnick said. In addition to the aforementioned hardware and personnel, “you’ve got to pay for maintenance, upgrades, back-ups, and security models,” which can add up quickly. At drupa 12, EFI introduced its cloud-based Fiery Dashboard, a subscription workflow product that takes digital print management a step further, providing metrics in such areas as staffing, print engine investments, and color quality.

Also, according to David Lindsay, Public Relations Manager for EFI, Imperial Communications' cloud-based Digital StoreFront implementation has helped the company launch several branded sites for its customers, while cutting administrative time on those jobs by as much as 50 percent. Imperial's browser-based Pace MIS system has also proven to be "the most effective way to produce a job," according to Imperial.

“Fiery Dashboard is designed for production managers and print shop owners who are often not in the office,” said product management director Charlotte Tueckmantel. Measurements of machine uptime and media usage can be monitored remotely from a smartphone, Apple iPad, or laptop computer, she noted. Tueckmantel added that this April a free version of Dashboard was launched that does not include the color profiler suite and only covers a two-week history.

There is another “cloudy area” to consider, according to Minnick of EFI. “We are growing the area of having our cloud apps integrate with other cloud services,” he explained. Whether it’s Dropbox or Google products such as photo-sharing Picasa or cloud-based Google Drive, EFI strives to “tie it all together,” akin to an Intranet platform, Minnick said. “We’re even doing high-end business transactions, interacting with the Ariba [eProcurement] system.”

The Cloud @ PRINT 13

Cloud-based computing technologies figure to demo prominently at North America’s quadrennial PRINT 13 tradeshow, September 8-12 at McCormick Place, Chicago. “We are building on our workflow story and cloud enablement,” was all Kevin Horey, Xerox VP/GM Workflow & Solutions, could say at this time.

While it is still too soon to obtain specifics from exhibitors, MPR did get EFI to open up just a tad:

“Our current offering will be expanded and we will be showing new offerings as well,” said Dave Minnick, operations director for EFI web-to-print solutions. “The eCommerce and cross-media functions of the Online Print Solutions [OPS] are being enhanced, and a cloud offering is coming from PrintSmith Vision” estimating and management software, he teased, although he wouldn’t say whether it would be ready for the big show. (EFI acquired OPS in October 2012.)

EFI’s present cloud-based Software as a Service offerings also include the Pace management system, the Digital StoreFront (DSF) web-to-print platform, and the new Fiery Dashboard business information service. EFI applications were designed from the ground up to run in a browser (not as client-server products), so their performance and reliability have been fine-tuned over the years to work optimally in a cloud-based deployment, the firm said.

Scan & Drop

In the AEC (architectural, engineering, and construction) print space, PageDrop from scanner manufacturer and Autodesk partner Contex is a solution that scans a document right into DropBox. It is soon to be standard on Contex IQ 2490 devices. “Now large-format scanning is becoming as simple as it should be,” blogged Scott Sheppard , VP of corporate strategy and a 20-year AutoDesk veteran.