Interview - Turned on its head

The new challenges for output processes

The output management world is in the throes of change. Why? Because recipients are not looking only in their mailboxes, but on their smartphones as well. That has consequences. In future, the output process will revolve around content, not pages. One thing's for sure: Output management must align itself more closely with recipients' preferences. The human factor is becoming more important. This turns output management on its head and makes production more complex, for one thing because the metadata become even more important in all phases of the output process. Harald Grumser, CEO of Compart AG, talks with the German magazine BIT about the output management challenges of today and tomorrow.

 

BIT: Mr. Grumser, until now output workflows have been a linear, one-dimensional trajectory from batch-processed raw data, or correspondence creation, to delivery. Even electronic delivery via PDF changed little in that regard. But mobile systems add other communication channels. What fundamental changes are needed?

Harald Grumser: It's no longer about pages, it's about content. Output processes need to reach beyond the A4 page, delivering well-described content to the dispatch system, where the decision is ultimately made to send it in a variable or page-dependent format, or even both. If documents are already formatted as pages, it's very tedious to regenerate them as format-independent, although we are working on that as well.

BIT: That means out with the rigid, predefined processing format. What does that involve?

Harald Grumser: Applications create data about data, what we call metadata, and reference sets of rules that need to be used at a later time in the document. Hence formatting or document preparation becomes part of the dispatch process. This strict separation between data and its presentation is hardly a new epoch-making requirement, but it is becoming more important in light of the increasing variety of output channels. It will take years for us to get there.

BIT: As the obligatory presentation and print format, PDF already contains metadata. Isn't that enough?

Harald Grumser: PDF was and is a page-oriented format suitable for hole punching and storing in a binder. And that isn't likely to change any time soon, because paper is and will remain a medium that people like using. They have been working with it for more than a thousand years and will probably do so for the next hundred. PDF also already offers enough options for "reformatting" data, albeit at some expense. But I believe PDF is losing significance and is being replaced with formats adapted to the output channels. Just as you can make a bedside rug from a tiger, but not vice-versa, it's relatively easy to generate a PDF from a document description. But the reverse requires deformatting and is very, very complex.

BIT: So the question is how to create formats that accommodate all the channels?

Harald Grumser: A format is needed that describes the layout and doesn't impose strict hyphenation, line and page breaks on the document. This format already exists. It's called HTML5 and I think it's greatly underestimated. It's very easy to generate print data and PDF documents from HTML5. Wikipedia, the Internet knowledge database, already does that in principle. HTML has always been a format that works independently of the size the display device. The advancements in HTML5 have met every conceivable need.

What's particularly great about this format is its ability to adapt the structure and layout of the information within the document overall to the size of the screen, like switching from a multi-column to a single-column design if the display is smaller than four inches. This adaptive design is supported by more and more special technologies in conjunction with the descriptive language style sheet. I'm sure there is much more to come. My question is whether we truly need Web applications and applets that involve an enormous amount of redundant development. Used properly, HTML5 works perfectly for devices with screen sizes from four to thirty inches. Interestingly, there are some on the market already.

BIT: Does that mean the end of PDF in output management?

Harald Grumser: No, definitely not. PDF, or more appropriately its PDF/A specification, should be available as an alternative format at any time. There will always be users that want to print certain documents and store them in a binder. PDF is also an extremely intelligent format that handles channels like print, fax and archiving very well. Additionally, PDF can be used to generate a print file, such as in the still popular AFP format.

BIT: What is the significance of PDF/UA for the private sector?

Harald Grumser: PDF/UA does affect the private sector. It's only a matter time before the first major insurance company is sued for not providing universally accessible documents. But to reduce the discussion of PDF/UA to the issue of impaired vision would be a mistake. The PDF/UA format has enormous potential. The overarching goal is to make documents smarter and provide them for all forms of reception and presentation. If you save the structure, language, etc. of a document as metadata,  as PDF/UA requires, you can do a lot more with that document, like run a clean full-text search beyond the boundaries of the page.

BIT: How do you envision individual electronic communications in the business environment? E-mail has long since replaced the classic business letter. Secure e-mail – whether De-Mail, E-Postbrief, Regify or others – is not yet the norm.

Harald Grumser: Electronic communication has to be confidential, binding, and legally compliant. In Germany, the legislature set the bar pretty high, which didn't exactly foster acceptance in the business and user community. Countries like Denmark (eBoks) and Spain (Metaposta) have made greater progress. Legally binding, electronic e-mail exchange will certainly get here. It's really only a matter of time, not how, and definitely not if. Some system will prevail in the end; whether it will be one or more is difficult to say. There will be no future without the electronic exchange of documents.

BIT: While they won't fully replace printed documents, sooner or later electronic distribution channels will surely dramatically reduce the volume of printed documents. How do you see that developing?

Harald Grumser: In fact, physical document volume has not dropped as drastically as once assumed, but the ratio is definitely shifting. More and more, transaction documents will be sent electronically, via portals, mobile devices, and electronic mail, whereas marketing mailings will continue to be sent in paper form. This is because color printing is becoming less and less expensive and economies of scale apply when document volumes are large.

BIT: So you're optimistic where print is concerned?

Harald Grumser: Printed documents will not become superfluous. Amidst the flood of electronic communications, it's more likely they will be even more attractive, say, for especially valuable documents like catalogs and sensitive business documents. Nor have digital media replaced billboard advertising. Posters are an important form of advertising at a heavily trafficked intersection. The paper document will not disappear either.

BIT: If paper becomes a premium product, and delivery of documents or digital customer communications via electronic channels increases, what does that mean for print service providers?

Harald Grumser: The potential for printed products with premium content, graphics and haptics is enormous and will grow as a counterpart to electronic documents. Even the generations that grew up with the Internet and smartphone will embrace paper products if they deliver added value that electronic content cannot offer. Mailings, in particular, are becoming more personalized and must have high haptic and optic value.

The print service providers who will succeed are those that are able to master both worlds, the electronic and the hard-copy. The ones in danger are those that can handle only one or the other.

BIT: In output management, specialized departments becoming more important, which is understandable. As a consequence, however, companies end up using many different applications and processes for generating documents. What do you think the chances are for a completely new platform to replace isolated solutions?

Harald Grumser: The page composition publishers dream of replacing this heterogeneous structure. Fulfilling this dream will remain an illusion for the foreseeable future. The challenge today really lies more in connecting legacy document creation applications to output workflows. No company today can afford to completely overhaul all of its document processing.

BIT: As a supplier of output platforms, what does Compart offer companies that want to consolidate their silos and applications?

Harald Grumser: The challenge right now is to embed all a company's documents, no matter how or where they are generated, into central document processing. Both print and electronic distribution have their place. A company's legacy applications are not going to disappear either. My job affords me the opportunity to speak with a lot of companies. Especially the large companies are constantly grappling with replacing 30-year-old legacy systems. In the best case, they no sooner finish replacing one and a new one pops up on the horizon. Age-old systems end up being replaced by "new, proven" systems that might already be ten years old. Companies often lack the courage or the organizational requirements to take a really big step.

BIT: Thank you for talking with us, Mr. Grumser.

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