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Whatever happened to IBM – Magazine article

Thursday, 20 April 2006
By Print 21 Online Article
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Back in the 1980s when companies engaged in transactional printing were just beginning to discover remote printing, IBM was the leader in developing both hardware and software. Its Infoprint engines were the de facto industry standard, but the company’s real strength and future influence lay in its development of the enabling datastream architecture, Advanced Function Printing (AFP).

One of the first systems designed to be printer-independent, AFP provided the backbone for high-speed transaction printing. Initially it was developed to be independent of IBM’s own printers but as more companies moved into the printer market, its open architecture proved invaluable. Many, if not most, large transactional operations today still rely on IBM’s architecture at some part of the process.

With such an early commanding position IBM’s current low profile, especially in Australia, and its small market share in high-end printers needs some explaining. According to Mike James, Director of Printing Systems, IBM Asia Pacific, part of the explanation lies in the company’s belief that major customers would retain control of their printing functions: a classic in-house as opposed to outsourcing dichotomy. To this end IBM during the 1990s never formed the close relationships with the emerging Salmats and HPA’s in the same way companies such as Fuji Xerox and Océ did. As James admits, “We didn’t see the market shift.”

It’s not as if IBM made a conscious decision to get out of high-end transactional printing. In fact, it still processes Westpac’s statements from its headquarters in St Leonards. It still has a line-up of mono high-speed Infoprint printing engines in both laser and impact machines, cutsheet and web that can match it with the best, as shown by its extensive installed base in the USA. It claims the largest bureau in the world, ADP, as one of its customers. The company is also very active in digital book production, with its engines producing 4.5 million books every month, providing print on demand technology to R.R. Donnelly for Barnes & Noble publishing.

Big Blue is back

The real strength of IBM still lies in the development and ubiquity of AFP. Output management is its key focus, ensuring the integrity of the data and maintaining workflow security. With the introduction of colour into transactional printing it has moved to take leadership of the AFP Color Consortium. This industry-wide group is working to enlarge the scope of a common open architecture to provide comprehensive colour management capability, based on existing industry standards. Members include heavyweights such as Xerox, Océ, Lexmark and Kodak, as well as a host of software companies.

With a revived interest in enlarging its market share, and a new high-speed colour machine on the way, the 4100, expect to hear more from IBM.

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