Whatever Happened to Distribute-Then-Print?
Make sure 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.