The Future of Prepress: Expansion of the Virtual Bubble

by admin on February 26, 2009

This is the third and final essay on the future of prepress that I have posted on this blog.  This essay will talk about the virtualization of prepress that has occurred in the past and implications for the future.

First off, I would say at present it is hard to write an essay on the future of anything because right now it's hard to predict what is going to happen next week, let alone next year or next decade. It is sobering to note that the big companies that dominated prepress in the last decade (Creo, Scitex, Dupont, Crosfield) have all but disappeared in the present. The next decade could easily see disappearance of Kodak and the future of Agfa and Heidelberg are by no means assured. It could very well be that by default, HP, Epson and Xerox could dominate the decade which would mean the slow decline and death of traditional printing, and with it, prepress.

But I doubt it. There's a saying that has been repeated over and over since I started in the industry nearly 20 years old. Twenty percent of all printers make 100% of all the profit. And they keep very, very, quiet about it. I repeat, some companies out there are making money, continue to make money, and are quietly expanding even in this economic crisis.

So what is future of prepress? Well, that depends on how you define it. If I were to ask a Prinergy operator to define the process of "prepress," he or she might respond "prepress starts when I get the docket from the CSR and ends when I hand the plates off to the pressman." If we take that definition and don't try to expand it or stretch it then the future looks very uninteresting indeed. For we can impose the files with much greater ease than the previous decade, ripping the flats is a hundred times faster, trapping is automated to a remarkable degree, and if the designers could make pdf with any degree of competence, we would have very little work at all. Really, prepress in the way that is defined, is all but a closed book.

But it started to get interesting again if we ask the paradoxical question: Why is prepress now so dull, boring and routine? And the answer is because it became virtualized. Ask anybody who has been employed in prepress over the last two decades if they work more or less and they would tell you that productivity has increased dramatic per hour worked, not 50% or 100% but more like 500% or 1000%. So where did the work. It disappeared into the electronic workflow; it became virtual. And for those of us who made prepress our careers, that has either been a tremendous blessing or a curse. A blessing because we rode the tidal wave of progress that was known as the internet revolution or the bubble and a curse because the productivity gains came so fast and suddenly that it led to massive restructuring and unemployment in our industry.

And now here we are, and this is question that I will try to answer in this essay: The virtual bubble that started in prepress, with the advent of desktop publishing and Postscript Type fonts and the first Mac, what is going to swallow next? I don't think it's going to move any closer to the press for a long type, as it is blocked by dead-end technologies such as inkjet and impenetrable technical specifications such as JDF. But it's rapidly moving towards upstream to the CSR and even the sales department and transforming the industry from one heavily dependent on inside/outside sales staff to web-based marketing. Indeed, the commercial printers that heavily invest in the internet front-end will survive and the rest will die (no, maybe they won't die, print shops hardly ever die, they just enter a zombie-state and join the rest of the 80% who don't make money).

So that's the future of prepress, when's it going to get here? Answer: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet." (William Gibson, sci-fi writer).

{ 1 comment }

Reid Anderson March 16, 2009 at 6:17 am

I agree that the future of prepress is virtual, but the KODAK INSITE Storefront System is not going to have a monopoly on it. It will speed up the ordering process but will it actually improve the quality of the final printed piece? I have my doubts.

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