Killer Apps: Opportunities for Printers to Go Mobile

May 2014 saw the annual appearance of Mary Meeker’s much-anticipated Internet Trends report. Meeker is an analyst for the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB). Her annual report is always a cause for much discussion and is a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand the present and future of media and the delivery of content. There is a lot of data to digest (164 slides this year), but one slide that stands out in the context of mobile media shows the rapid proliferation of tablet computers, such as the iPad, especially when compared to PCs in general.

To put this in context, it took personal computers in general 16 years to reach the level of penetration that tablets accomplished in just three years. Elsewhere, Meeker points out that there are 439 million tablet users worldwide. That sounds like a lot but it’s only about six percent of the world population. Not that everyone in the world is going to end up using a tablet, but even so, there is still room for tremendous growth.

That’s just tablets. Data abound—via Meeker and others—about the rapid growth of smartphones. Be it tablet or phone, Apple or Android, more and more users are accessing content on mobile devices than on PCs. But for our purposes here, where does that leave print?


Going Mobile

When we think of printers and mobile devices, the first thing that usually comes to mind are Quick Response (QR) codes, which have begun to achieve a certain ubiquity. To briefly describe: a printed QR code (like a bar code, such as the UPC symbols found on all products these days) is scanned by a smartphone camera, which then sends the phone’s browser to a website, launches a video, or accesses some other type of interactive or rich media content. Other types of codes exist, such as Microsoft Tag. (Chicago’s Midway Airport hosts a display comprising a series of posters created by the Adler Planetarium that feature astronomy images accompanied by Microsoft Tags that, when scanned with a smartphone, access additional content related to the subject of the poster.) There are also more elegant solutions, such as Digimarc Discover, that use invisible codes that serve the same purpose, but aren’t quite so aesthetically unappealing.

Also talked about, often in the same breath as QR codes, is so-called Augmented Reality (AR). AR can refer to any number of related technologies, but more often than not, it refers to embedding codes—invisible codes—in printed materials that, when scanned with a smartphone camera, also activate rich media and interactive content.

Many printers have seized upon these two technologies, especially QR codes, to, as the phrase goes, “make print interactive.”

But there remain tremendous advantages for printers in another aspect of mobile media: digital publishing itself.

“I’m pretty sure that, for a lot of printers, digital publishing can be considered the enemy because it takes away from printing,” said Erica Aitken, president of Rods and Cones. Founded in 1996, Rods and Cones began offering workflow and color-management services for the graphic communications industry. Last year, they introduced Pixels and Motion, a digital publishing division that helps graphic designers, agencies, and print providers develop apps to deliver content to mobile devices such as tablets. Aitken admits it has been a bit of an uphill battle.

“It’s not so much resistance,” she said, “but more ‘I’m not going to touch this because it’s hurting our industry.’” However, she has begun encountering printers who don’t see it that way, and some momentum is starting to build. “It has started to take flight,” she said. “We’re a little early as far as adoption goes, especially with printers, but we’re beginning to make headway with it and we’re very excited.”

Large publication printers are no strangers to digital publishing, but are there applications for smaller commercial printers who don’t specialize in publications? Aitken thinks Pixels and Motion and the products they are advocating have a wide variety of applications. “Magazines and catalogs,” she said are the obvious candidates, but also “any collateral, any marketing material. Anything that’s not a book.”


No Programming Required

Rods and Cones is supporting, as the digital platform of choice, a product called Twixl. This is a plug-in to Adobe InDesign that takes page layouts that have been created for print and converts them to HTML5. Although the Twixl plug-in will work—after a fashion—with InDesign 5, it is better suited to version 6 or later, which offer the “Liquid Layout” feature. Once installed, Twixl “will leverage all of InDesign’s interactive features,” said Aitken. “If you know InDesign, within a day of training you’ll know how to create interactive content. You don’t need to code; you don’t need to do anything like that.

“The model for printers,” she added, “is that they have a ready base of clients who may want to do this and already have their content. Printers would have a discussion with their clients, and they would bring in the interactive content like a slide show if they have an annual report, or a movie if they have a product that is ‘static’ when it’s printed. Then the printer would have a designer in-house or use a third party to convert that to an app. You build it using Twixl, and then you go through the process to get it in the Apple App Store.”

At present, Twixl supports the iPad, Android tablets, and the Kindle Fire. Support for phones is forthcoming by the end of this year, but has proved problematic. “You can’t easily convert to a phone,” said Aitken. “Things that work on a tablet are too small or unwieldy on a phone.

“This is a solution for people who want to control their design, know InDesign, and are ready to manipulate the content to fit the size of the tablets,” she said.


Killer Apps?

Publications—large and small—who eschew digital publishing may be doing themselves a disservice.

“Printers that specialize in serving the publications market have offered digital publication services for years,” said Julie Shaffer, VP of Digital Strategies for Printing Industries of America. “For this group, it’s critical to manage both the print and digital production of a publication, because that’s where we have to evolve. We’re not just the provider of ink on paper, we are content and supply chain managers. We enable delivery of a publication’s content to the consumer, whether that be print or electronic consumption.”

But digital publishing is not just for large publication printers. More and more content of all kinds is being delivered via mobile apps, often bypassing the “traditional” Web entirely.

“For ‘general commercial printers,’ those that don’t specialize in the publications market, there’s a case to be made for offering mobile marketing solutions,” said Shaffer. “We all have a mobile device in our hands at almost all times, and marketers are pouring money into reaching customers via mobile.”

Printed “action codes” like QR, are a good first step. “If printers are indeed becoming marketing service providers, this would have to be one of the most critical services they can provide,” said Shaffer.

But at some point, delivering content directly to mobile devices may become just as important as linking offline and online media via codes, just as offering direct e-mail marketing services became as important as offering direct print mail services.

At the end of the day, content is content, and graphic communication is graphic communication. The physical medium by which that content, that communication, is delivered, may become irrelevant—and in some ways already is.