Some Printers Still Casting Wary Eye at the Web

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Recent alliances among online print services companies would suggest that their notoriously fragmented market is becoming more solidified.


However, industry players admit the Internet-based print market is still characterized by uncertainty.


For example, stock prices plummeted for some online print dot-coms. Many printers have been reluctant to partner with e-commerce sites because they've heard that venture capital or private money is drying up, said Oliver Pflug, CEO at Printchannel.com, San Francisco, a print services site.


"We've heard printers ask, 'Are you going to be around in two, three or four years?' " he said. "Another one is, 'Does your [service] have enough automation to create real value?' I don't think you can just take what you were doing offline, put it on the Internet, and necessarily call that value."


For many, this market space has confusing terminology because upstarts are using inventive tags to describe their business models, said Rich Begert, CEO at ImageX.com, Bellevue, WA, a destination for print sellers and buyers.


The new sites have typically dubbed themselves as marketplaces, auction sites or print management sites. There are several subdivisions of these categories. The vague terminology and the general high-speed change of the Web have intimidated some printers from investing in the space, Begert said.


"These printers, a lot of times, are craftsmen in the traditional sense and wary of some of this technology," he said. "There's so many different types of business models. A lot of them aren't sure which ones they should work with. I'd be confused too."


Pflug added that there is a backlash among printers toward e-commerce because some corporate buyers have gone to printers with an ultimatum: Incorporate the standard technology or protocol language used by my print portal or I will go elsewhere.


"This can leave them in the position where they'll have to go with a [system] they wouldn't normally choose -- one that maybe isn't the best in the market -- when they would've gotten a different one," Pflug said.


However, collaborative efforts within the industry hint that this market sector is on the verge of maturing.


In response to network protocol differences that exist between print-based online firms, Pflug and other online industry members launched PrintTalk, an association for e-commerce print software developers.


PrintTalk, Reston, VA, is based on Job Definition Format, a standardized network protocol for the online print industry. The association plans to create a membership-based community of print software developers who use the protocol the same way the World Wide Web uses HTTP as its URL.


This will give online print services companies the ability to offer their printers and buyers streamlined production capabilities without having to manually plug into each other's networks.


PrintTalk spent the summer in a "stealth" mode as it finalized its network protocol. Nineteen companies have signed up for the $2,000-a-year membership.

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