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2006 Technologies & Trends

Dec 1, 2005 12:00 AM


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Prepress

Presenting seminars and workshops around the country for Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF) keeps me in constant contact with product vendors and graphic communications professionals. I’d like to share some of the trends and technologies that are sure to impact the print production world, especially prepress, in 2006 and beyond.

Metro/XPS and Native PDF creation in Office 12
This past May, Microsoft announced “Metro,” spawning endless Internet chatter as well as head-lines such as: “Can Microsoft’s Metro Replace PDF?” and “Microsoft Metro Takes Aim at Adobe.” According to “XPS Print Path FAQ” posted at www.microsoft.com, “XPS is a set of conventions for the use of XML and other widely available technologies to describe the content and appearance of paginated documents [in an XML format].”

XPS is an electronic document format, a spool file format and a page description language that will be part of the forthcoming Windows Vista (previously dubbed “Longhorn”) operating system. It’s expected to be released in December 2006. The specification is freely available from the Microsoft Web site, but it comes as a Windows executable file, so Mac users are out of luck. Windows users can download an XPS viewer (the tool required to look at these files) from Microsoft’s Web site.

The prospect of a new container file format from Microsoft sent chills up my spine and presumably the collective spines of many other prepress production professionals. Just about any kind of Microsoft file has been known to cause prepress headaches—so it’s not unreasonable for us to wonder if XPS files will be an exception. As many readers know from painful experience, native files from Microsoft Office applications, especially Word, are prone to text reflow problems. It’s also no picnic to get prepress specific things such as a custom page size or page bleed from Word or even Publisher. PDF files exported from these applications often contain RGB “black” text and graphics that generally will be included in a PDF file in the RGB color space even if they originally were specified with spot or process colors in the layout.

XPS isn’t likely to be a PDF killer—at least not the PDF we use for print production—because these files just can’t do everything PDF can. For one thing, XPS files themselves are Windows-specific and therefore don’t offer any of the cross-platform compatibility that makes PDF such a great print job delivery format. XPS files are delivered as zip compressed packets with XML descriptions for each page and probably won’t be as compact as PDF files. XPS will not support Type 1 (PostScript) fonts, nor will they support EPS graphics. It remains to be seen how well things like spot and CMYK colors will be handled and if ICC color management will be taken into consideration. When content creators are preparing files for a print shop, we can only hope they will save them as PDF files, an option the next version of Microsoft Office will offer.

Yes, Microsoft Office 12—as the next release of Office is now code-named—promises to allow direct export of PDF files, rendering all third-party PDF creation tools nearly obsolete. This is a native application solution, so PDF files will be created directly from, say, a Word document, and not via a printer driver. Microsoft did not license any Adobe technology for this functionality, so the PDF Library used was either written by Microsoft or licensed from another vendor.

Theoretically, prepress folks should be jumping for joy at this news, because native Word documents are probably the most troublesome files they deal with. But given the prior problems with Microsoft applications, most of us will take a good look before leaping. Direct PDF export could potentially eliminate or significantly reduce text reflow. And, unlike PDFs created with today’s Office products, we can hope colors will remain in the intended space rather than being converted to RGB. Of course, we’ll need to convince our content-creating customers to click the “Save as PDF” option, not the “Save as XPS” option, when preparing files for print production.

Looking for the latest on PDF and MS Office 12 news? Cyndy Wessling and Jeff Bell, Microsoft Office program managers, each have blogs at http://blogs.msdn.com.

Intel processor in Macs
Lots of Macophiles (and that’s what most prepress professionals are) probably still are reeling from Steve Jobs’ announcement that Apple will begin transitioning to Intel chips by June 2006. Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that we were all furtively (yet gleefully) slapping “Snail Inside” stickers onto our colleagues’ PCs? If Intel begins production in a year, it’slikely to be another year before all new Macs will be Intel-based. What should we do during this two-year limbo? Is it better to upgrade now and risk early obsolence or wait for the Intel-based Macs?

Because the Mac OS will remain the same, the change will be transparent to most users. Developers, however, will certainly take notice, because the new processor will require all applications to be rewritten. Rumor has it that many developers disliked the tools Apple provided, preferring to rely on third-party tools such as MetroWerks CodeWarrior. Unfortunately, CodeWarrior can’t be used to develop for this Intel platform, so developers will have to rely on Apple’s toolset, which might make the work for this group much more difficult. Whether application vendors will charge for the updated software that can run on Intel-based Macs remains to be seen; most likely, they will roll compatibility into an upcoming major upgrade. In any event, we can expect bumps in the road.

Quark 7
Although it was supposed to be released in 2005, it looks like it will be early 2006 before Quark 7 hits the street. This update has been widely reviewed and shown at trade shows, so the new options it offers are no secret. Purely in terms of features, it looks good. The problem is that it might be too late to stem the tide of those moving to Adobe’s InDesign. Although I haven’t taken a formal poll, in speaking with seminar participants over the past year, it seems there’s been a steady increase in InDesign users, particularly in the design community. Prepress operations will have to work with both applications, as they have to accommodate all customers, but content creators don’t, and many already have made the switch.

Quark 7 will include built-in PPML support—probably because some of Quark’s most loyal customers are using a Quark Xtension to merge variable data with their page layouts. Unlike Adobe’s applications, Quark’s new transparency feature offers opacity control for any color element of an object. We can only hope Quark’s solution avoids some of the issues that have plagued Adobe’s transparency approach. Rules-based preflighting is built into the application and PDF/X compliance now is an option with PDF export. Quark’s JDF-compliant Job Jacket can include details on required resources, rules, layout intent, output specifications and more. We can expect these tickets to feed information to our prepress workflow solutions a bit further down the road.

Workflow solutions: Want a new one?
Some of the companies that adopted higher-end workflows five or six years ago apparently are ready for a change. While many of them are evaluating upgrades of their current systems, staying with that vendor doesn’t seem to be a heavily weighted factor in the decision-making process. In fact, existing systems get the blame for a lot of production problems, even when an upgrade to the same system on a newer computer platform probably would eliminate the issues. Priorities include faster processing, RIP-based transparency handling, PDF handling, good color control and maximum process automation.

Some folks also are looking for a workflow solution but can’t afford the $75,000+ price tag typically associated with turnkey systems. Lower-cost solutions targeting smaller companies proliferated at PRINT 05. Buyers are getting fewer bells and whistles, but sufficient preflight, trapping, imposition, soft proofing and RIPing capabilities—for about 75 percent less than a high-end system. (See “Build it or buy it?” AMERICAN PRINTER, October 2005, p. 16.) Web-to-everything
In the past two months, Web-to-print portals represent the subject everyone is asking about. Unlike the dot-com boom and bust, printers are ready to take the plunge and establish some kind of Web-based link with their clients. The real challenge is determining which solution offers the best fit. There are vendor-specific workflow solutions, like Kodak Nextreme and Creo InSite (www.kodak.com), Xerox FreeFlow Web Services 4.0 (www.xerox.com) and EFI Digital StoreFront (www.efi.com). There are brand management focused solutions for database-driven document creation, such as PageFlex (www.pageflex.com), Saepio (www.saepio.com), Pica9 (www.pica9.com), XMPie (www.xmpie.com), Bluestream (www.mybluestream.com) and Printable (www.printable.com). Integrators offering custom solutions also are an option. Some are ASP models, some require a significant upfront investment (portal solution providers cite $30,000 to $150,000 as the investment required to set up a customized system for a printer.) It’s a topic many of us will be researching in 2006.

In addition to portals, there are document delivery solutions for helping clients use the Web to submit files. Some, like the Global Graphics technology, PDFCourier, the engine behind PrintTHAT! PDF delivery system (www.printthat.com), force the client to create print-viable PDF files for delivery through the use of a customized printer driver. Others, like PrintSure from DevZeroG (www.devzerog.com), offer online preflight, file repair and delivery of PDF files, but don’t restrict file creation procedures.

These tools will change the landscape of how graphic production professionals operate on both the content creation and prepress sides of the fence. As more companies offer portals with page-building capabilities, “design” moves toward a template-driven process. Such systems will make the life of the prepress operator easier, as the creation of a package file for delivery to the printer will take place through the portal. With JDF-based job ticketing a big part of these systems and the traditional desktop publishing applications, more automated systems surely will emerge.

So ready or not, here it comes: operating systems, file formats, computer platforms, updated software, and whole new workflow paradigms. In short, it’s business as usual in the printing world.



Digital & offset are coming together
The wall between prepress for conventional offset presses and digital printing presses is coming down. Granted, when I visit printers, I often see their digital presses physically residing in a separate location from prepress or the “heavy iron” pressroom.

But in the next few years, we can expect more hybrid projects. A hybrid project is one in which part of a job is produced via offset litho, say a magazine, while another part is produced via digital printing, say the magazine wrapper with a variable message to the subscriber. It only makes sense to keep all components of such a job together and manage them from a single system.

Speaking at the 2005 OnDemand Conference, keynote speaker Charles Pesko, managing director of InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, predicted print production software would experience $2 billion growth by 2008, with hybrid software accounting for the lion’s share.

Pesko said, “This growth will be driven by the introduction of digital devices into traditionally offset establishments, by ongoing industry consolidation, and the requirement to streamline operations.”


Julie Shaffer is the director of the PIA/GATF Center for Imaging Excellence (www.gain.org). Contact her at jshaffer@piagatf.org.