“The Golden Age of Paper,” The Rise of the World Wide Web (Internet), and Shift of Paper From Necessary to Convenience

Mundo-3WTwenty-five years ago, in 1991, the World Wide Web was born. Yes, each time you type www.xxx.com you are using the World Wide Web, the Internet! The rise of the Internet was in many ways a golden time for paper. Initially, email was predominantly used as a creation and ‘transport’ mechanism. People would write emails and send them from their desktop (or by the late 90’s, their portable), but most people still printed off emails to read them. In fact, during the 90’s one of the highest volumes of printed material was email.

It’s hard for many of you to imagine (yes, believe it or not, most millennials were born AFTER the Internet appeared), but traditionally paper was the predominant form of non-verbal communication. If you didn’t call someone, you wrote a letter or sent them a memo.  Yes, there was such a thing as a memo and it was a common form of communication. In fact, prior to the 90’s, the biggest innovations were how do you move paper as quickly as possible (remember when FedEx next day delivery was ‘ultra-fast’). So paper was a critical aspect of office communication. At the same time, paper played a key role in transactions. From writing checks, to receipts for transactions and even physical invoices and purchase orders, paper was the medium for documenting business transactions. Paper was the central element which made the office and most business processes run.

So how did the Internet change all this.  Fundamentally, the internet created the platform for digitizing business processes. As the input and output platforms improved (MFPs with advanced scanning capabilities, kiosks, tablets, etc.) to become intuitive and easy to use with consumer like interfaces, and the use of document security and secure signatures has evolved, paper is being relegated to ‘convenience’, not necessary. This is the fundamental shift in our industry.

Does this mean paper goes away? Not always, but in many ways it does. I recently sold my house and bought a farm. During the entire process, until the closing, all of the paperwork was created, stored, edited, and signed digitally. And when we did get to closing, the actual number of documents I signed was a fraction of the mound of paperwork I signed almost 12 years earlier when I bought my previous house. And the volume of paper through the entire process (listings, inspections, offers, counter offers, etc.) was a fraction (less than 25%) of the former volume.

Remember overnighting the paper invoice to make sure it was in the customers hands the next day? When is the last time you did that? Or when is the last time you faxed an invoice?

Now, is this to say that you don’t print anymore? Absolutely not. But the reason you print has probably changed. Is print now a convenience for you or a necessity? This has serious ramifications for our industry. Is your time spent trying to chase the remaining pages? Or is it spent helping customers digitize their workflows? Do you look for people that know how to sell ‘speeds and feeds’, or people that can consult with the customer to understand how their workflow processes can be improved and optimized? Have your hiring practices changed as much as the business environment has changed in the last 25 years?

I have now been in business for 31 years.  When I first started we still had secretaries who took phone calls (because voice mail was just appearing), we didn’t have cell phones, and everyone had a desktop PC with the state of the art printing being the 24 pin dot matrix printer. The main device for producing high quality business documents were – typewriters. Within five years the dominant office technology was the HP LaserJet. This heralded the ‘golden age’ of office printing with massive volumes of high quality documents being produced quickly and easily (by the way – this was a massive boon for the copier industry because of the need to copy all those laser printed documents!). Next, desktop publishing created an entire new level of capability for producing high quality documents with integrated graphics. Then email arrived and pages exploded as it became easier and less expensive to share your documents and content with anyone in the world.

But at the same time, with email (and the internet) came the ability to communicate through web pages and with the advent of Adobe Reader and PDF’s, you could share that document, without losing its formatting with anyone regardless of the technology they were using. Boom – more pages exploded as we shifted to creating data sheets, posting them on the internet or emailing them, and letting the customer print them out on their own printer (and their own dime).  More pages for the office and home printer (sorry analogue presses – flexibility and ‘on demand printing’ beat out low cost high volume). So during the 1990’s print was at its peak. We were all our own content creators (oh by the way – did anyone notice that secretarial jobs dropped dramatically as we were all enabled to be our own personal assistants!). While there were questions of how would the web and digital workflow impact printing – volumes were going up and up and we really couldn’t see any other game than building the installed base of printers.

Then the ‘shift’ happened.  Suddenly a new technology (thank you Apple) appeared which made it easy to create content, view content, and store content in a convenient, paper-sized device – the IPad. Along with it the evolution of telecommunications resulted in almost universal high capacity cellular availability. In addition, wireless access points and ubiquitous internet availability mean that true digital work flow was a reality.  As financial transactions moved to electronic, so did many other workflows. When was the last time you received a paper bank statement for your checking account? As the infrastructure enabled digital workflows, habits were slow to change.

Then came the 2008 financial crash. Cost containment and efficiency became a priority. How to do more with less became the mantra. Managed Print Services became a disruptive force in the industry, if nothing else, changing the balance of power to those firms that could capture large enterprise fleets through their MPS contracts. At the same time, a new workforce began appearing. The Millennial generation. This is a generation that grew up on digital technology, in fact, most of them were born after the internet (interesting side note – I’ve spent more time on this earth without the internet than with it. All of my kids but one was born after the internet was launched!).

And this is the shift. Printing on paper has moved from a necessity to a convenience. This is big. Again, I’m not arguing that all print applications go away – but certainly many do. So once again I ask the question – what business are you in? Helping customers digitize their workflows, or finding pages?

So let’s make this real. We actually have a 1971 Selectric Typewriter in our office on display – it’s an antique. A symbol of a bygone era.  Next to it is a MemJet Pagewide array inkjet printer on display – an example of more recent technology. How long will it take for it to be an antique? I would love to hear your thoughts!

by Edward Crowley, CEO, Photizo Group