Whatever Happened to Distribute-Then-Print?
your electronic documents look and print right everywhere.
| By Glenn Widener
DOCUMENT Magazine, October 2003, pages 28-30
| "Distribute-then-print" was
originally coined in the context of on-demand production printing, intended
to reduce the cost of shipping and storing paper. Local printing of
national newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and Time
is a visible example. When the Internet arrived, distribute then print
took on new meaning as it grew to include broadcasting and point-to-point
delivery of printable electronic documents.|
Why "printable" when it seems that computers and the Internet should lead to paperless offices? Actually, the
opposite has happened: paper usage by American companies has grown dramatically in the past 20 years. People like
reading paper and computer screens are still too crude and harsh on the eyes. Consider the slow acceptance of eBooks.
Important documents like legal contracts, engineering design specifications and financial reports are expected on paper -
and that paper is expected to be accurate.
Lack of accuracy is part of what limits electronic distribution. To compete with slow and costly physical delivery,
both reader and author must have confidence that remotely printed documents are highly accurate. Assuring authenticity
on paper depends on the electronic format. Format defines how a document looks when printed. It also defines
readability and print quality in addition to other requirements such as the ability to search, select or index text.
|A Closer Look at File Formats
|Every program produces its own original format. Universal formats, many of which are open source, can be viewed and
printed on a variety of platforms, with widely available software, which is often free. Here are some of the most popular.
Display/Non-print formats - HTML is based on embedded links,
which work fundamentally differently than text on a page. The layout
is designed to display in a flexible browser window, so HTML lacks many
document print layout specifications. As a result, printing results
are highly variable. HTML text is selectable and searchable, editable
with wide variety of tools, and indexable.
Display and print formats: Converted formats - By definition, software that converts a document
creates a different format that is not the same as the original document. Conversion can change the appearance of
information on the page, which then alters the accuracy and integrity of the document. For that reason, converted
electronic files are not accepted as exact substitutes for paper for many legal, financial and government documents.
PDF is a converted format designed by Adobe Corporation based on the print format PostScript (PS). PDF is the most
successful of many attempts to turn proprietary formats into portable document standards. Adobe offers the Acrobat
Reader that allows users to view and print PDF for free, but the company charges licensing fees for the software needed
to create PDFs. PDF is optimized for presentation on a wide range of electronic displays and for printing on a
range of printers, not just PS printers. At the same time, because of the conversion process, PDF does not have
as precise control of printing as the original print format. For legal use, it is worth noting that the free Acrobat
reader cannot properly print files with mixed legal and letter pages. PDF is ideal for heavily formatted graphical
documents where on-screen viewing is valued more than printing.
TIF, JPG, faxes, etc., are conversions of files to purely graphical pixilated images that lose all textual
content. Because TIF files are rendered pixel-by-pixel, they are often large files; however, they yet are usually
lower-resolution than the original. Without textual content, TIF requires optical character recognition to select,
search, and index text. While TIF has long standing support as an archiving format because of its neutrality, its
size and lack of searchable content make other formats worth considering, especially for text-oriented documents.
Display and print formats: Unconverted formats - Printer formats like PCL, HPGL and PostScript
are NOT conversions. They represent the actual document on screen exactly as the author printed it to his/her own
printer. Because these formats are the final print file, there is no need to proof the file. And since there
is no re-authoring, they are free to create: There are no software licensing fees for using these formats. Quality
viewers for print formats are widely available for small licensing fees. Printer-ready formats are ideal for
documents that must conform exactly to a very fixed format in order to be considered accurate, legal, and/or binding.
Many forms, contracts and financial documents and statements fall into this category, because information must appear
in exactly the right place on each page, every time.
PCL (printer control language) PCL is the defacto industry standard print format for most business
office printers. Thanks to PCL viewer technology, PCL can also print perfectly on ink-jet, dot-matrix, and other
non-PCL printers. PCL viewers let readers see documents on-screen exactly as they will print. This is
useful when distributing large documents where a reader may only want to print a few pages. PCL text is selectable,
searchable and indexable. Pages can be selectively printed, and PCL will print mixed legal and letter on
duplexing printers. PCL is ideal for any document. It's is especially good for mixed legal/letter documents
and reports with very large numbers of pages.
|Many companies use PCL|
|Your choice of format must be a central part of your distribute-then-print system. For example,
one firm, Data-Trac, must collect interest rate information every night in up to 300 individualized reports ranging from
three to 25 pages. They considered converting reports to HTML or Adobe PDF, but soon abandoned the notion.
"All database managers want to do is to manage the process," says Dean DeBack, systems engineer. "They don't want
six months of converting documents." Automated converters are available, he noted, but "they're not exact, and without
absolute accuracy, DataTrac's reports would be immediately suspect." Using PCL, Data-Trac was very quickly able to
put data from an existing system directly on the web while streamlining the workflow, and preserving the accuracy of the reports.
In a world where appearance is often as important as content, isn't it critical to ask how your electronically distributed
document will look, print and function on the receiving end? Delivering printer-ready formats eliminates unnecessary
format conversion and assures highly accurate remotely viewable and printable documents, without re-proofing before transmission.
About the author: Glenn Widener is Director of Internet
Technology for SwiftView, Inc.