Cloud Print: transforming digital Data as a Service

Digital publishing is growing rapidly and our affinity for consuming real-time media shows no signs of stopping. Despite this, as GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram recently reported much of the content we put online is actually getting lost in a non-stop stream of information. The problem is, hard-copy print is still best for some jobs — or for some audiences.

My frustration about this led me to start Peecho, a free service that lets people turn digital content into a physical product. Peecho’s service infrastructure draws on cloud printing, a technology that helps transform digital data into printed products by tapping into networks of production facilities through the cloud. Other companies in this arena include HubCastMagCloud, and Shapeways.

Here’s how the cloud print model can streamline the process. A big financial services company typically prints tens of thousands of annual reports it sends out to shareholders — most of whom promptly toss the reports in the garbage or recycling. What if that company instead asks its shareholders to specify print or digital versions of that report. Then the company uses a digital network  of providers to print copies just for those who will really read them, eliminating wasted materials, carbon emissions creating and shipping the hard copy product, not to mention postage. Since printing remains a volume business, the price per copy is higher now, but total cost to the company falls. And as more printers see the opportunity of cloud print, the economics may improve.

In the recently published Cloud Print Manifesto, I argue that cloud printing has a unique potential to revolutionize publishing. It promotes full-blown digitization by allowing for the “occasional” transformation of digital data into 2D or 3D objects on demand. This would help preserve valuable digital data while foregoing the aforementioned environmental costs of mass production.

Let’s explore the potential of cloud print to revolutionize publishing.

Trading virtual content for atoms 

The use of paper as the primary means of communication is coming to an end. For example, a few weeks ago, the Guardian reported that Amazon’s Kindle eBook sales are outstripping print for the first time, in line with the declining hardcover revenues reported by the Association of American Publishers in June 2012. With digital content exploding, it is hard to envision a future for print. Yet some content — lost amidst an ever-increasing amount of blog posts, status updates, tweets and videos — may be more persistent than daily news and carry deeper personal meaning.

This is exactly the kind of content that begs for the level of engagement and permanence provided by a physical product. Turning personalized, high-quality digital content into professionally managed physical objects is a service that will be increasingly in demand. Or as John Bracken eloquently states: “As more and more of the content we consume is based on bits, the ability to engage with atom-based media will, for some, gain value.”

A few applications are already embracing this model, using print to monetize digital content. PostagramPrintstagram and Canvaspop are some of the simplest examples, built to monetize Instagram photos.

The enormous amount of data on the Internet leads to a staggering market potential for these companies, but the execution is not that simple. So far, transforming digital data into physical objects is by no means a commodity.

Print as a Service

For website owners, the print feature should just work — like water from the tap or electricity in the home. In reality, the cultural differences between the digital world and the realm of mechanical product manufacturing pose a significant challenge. As a result, huge sums are spent on negotiating and integrating with one or more printing facilities, international expansion, global delivery, monitoring orders and customer service.

Therefore, simple infrastructure is required to provide Print as a Service instead. By accessing professional print as a hosted commodity resource, users can avoid the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware, software and processes.

Why didn’t anybody successfully implement this idea before? Only recently has the print industry started to shift from mass pre-production to the production of unique items on demand. Secondly, connecting a website to a service is much easier these days, using simple technologies like REST, JSON and JavaScript. However, the most important change is the decreased cost of the infrastructure itself.

Enter cloud print

The web contains a lot of content, but almost none of it conforms to required production standards: sizes, quality and aspect ratios differ greatly and cut marks, color management, spines, bleed margins or ISO certificates are unheard of. To put it bluntly, it is a mess. Transforming such heterogeneous online data to standardized, print-ready components requires serious processing firepower.

To keep associated costs and energy usage relative to revenue, systems should be able to scale up and down with demand. In other words, to cope with the Christmas peak and the January low at realistic cost levels and with as little energy consumption as possible a system should be fully elastic.  Cloud computing can offer this.

So, a profitable business case for Print as a Service can only be made by using automatically scaling cloud print.. 

The provider void

So far, significant steps towards a cloud print solution have been taken in the consumer market. Xerox(s xrx) and Ricoh followed in the footsteps of Google CloudPrint (s goog) with their mobile cloud solutions, while Hewlett-Packard(s hpq) implemented a similar mechanism with ePrint.

However, professional cloud print is not yet a commodity. Only a few independent players  — Hubcast, MagCloud, Shapeways and my company —  have ventured into this area, providing professional, on demand manufacturing of 2D and 3D products from digital assets using a network of printing facilities.

Cloud print will revolutionize publishing

 The potential of cloud print to revolutionize print publishing should not be underestimated. Websites, applications and games could be powered by a single cloud print infrastructure that allows access to a network of professional print facilities, leveraging print as a shared commodity resource while avoiding costs and complexity.

By providing eco-friendly, on-demand manufacturing, cloud print providers could support the global transition away from mass paper production towards full-blown digitization, promoting sustainability in the industry.

However, there is no dominant cloud print infrastructure provider for professional products yet. What do you think this provider should focus on? Join the discussion in the comments below and check out 

 Sander Nagtegaal, the CTO and co-founder of Peecho, will discuss what really motivates customer moves to the cloud at GigaOM’s Structure: Europe in Amsterdam next week. Prior to Peecho, Nagtegaal was chief architect at Albumprinter, which was acquired by Vistaprint in October 2011 for €65 million.  

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user imageZebra;  3d printer image courtesy of  devopstom