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DIGITAL PROOFING is now a central (and controversial) component of the trend toward color-managed workflows, CTP, automated press controls and Internet-enabled collaboration between designers and print producers. To assess the state of the art, and perhaps even to help push it forward, we conducted a public test of digital color proofing systems. The test was held at Seybold Seminars Boston 2000, Feb. 7-11 in the Hynes Convention Center exposition hall.
As always happens when the industry is in the middle of a transition from tried-and-true technologies to promising-but-unproven technologies, there is a great deal of customer confusion and uncertainty about which products are appropriate for what applications and whether the time to adopt the new technology has arrived or not. In conducting this Shootout, we hoped to dispel some of the confusion by creating a uniform environment in which all the products in this market could be compared against each other.
Comparing all the products turned out to be impossible. While we were planning the project, new vendors entered the market using new technologies that our Shootout could not test. A number of vendors declined to participate, for reasons such as manpower constraints or technical obstacles. Others demurred that our test was focused on commercial offset printing, while their products were aimed at other markets: packaging, newspapers, imposition, etc. Still other vendors objected that our Shootout was primarily a test of one component of a digital proofing system-the color management software-and was slighting other, possibly more important aspects of a production system.
Nevertheless, by the time the show opened in Boston, we had received 18 proofs. These represented an interesting mix of technologies, target markets and price points.
There are several distinct applications under the proofing umbrella: design comps, revision approvals, imposition dummies, process control checks and color contract documentation, among others. For this Shootout, our focus was on commercial contract-color proofing. Our test design was guided by the belief that a good proof is one that accurately forecasts the appearance of the final printed sheets.
However, it is important to state at the outset that we did not attempt to test every quality that a good proof should possess. For example, our test design could not measure the longevity and stability of the proofs. This would be a useful thing to measure, because several proofers use low-cost ink-jet printers and dye-based inks that are susceptible to fading. In time, we are told, the ink makers will develop pigment-based inks, which are much more stable over time. (In fact, at Seybold Seminars, Kodak joined the ranks of vendors who offer a large-format ink-jet printer that uses pigmented inks.) But for the rest of this year, at least, color stability will continue to be an issue.
In addition, our test design did not attempt to highlight different products' abilities to warn of potential press problems-moire, improper traps and overprints, insufficient margins for grippers and color control strips, etc. Clearly, a proof that smoked out such problems at an early stage, when they could be corrected at least cost, would offer some advantage.
Toward a better workflow. A deeper purpose of the Shootout was to assess how much progress the industry has made toward fully color- managed production workflows. We believe that a fundamental change is overtaking the industry: the elimination of all intermediaries between the page designer and the press. Like all transitions, this one is painful while we are living through it, but we think that it is necessary.
(We use the term "necessary" in a rather Darwinian sense: Those firms that do not come to terms with the change will go out of business. There is no implication that we'll all be the better for it afterward. Rather, the survivors will have the dubious pleasure of still being around to complain about how much better things were in the old days.)
As we see it, even the very concept of a press is changing. Whether the print professionals like it or not, the customers' notion of a press is growing to encompass copiers, clusters of laser printers, dynamically rewritable plates, electronic paper and still other techniques that are over the horizon. To the list we may add the World Wide Web, which is not itself a press technology but enables the reader to print his own selections right at his desktop. The reason we include all of these items is that they are taking over some of the jobs that used to be the sole province of printing presses. The printer's customers are therefore going to demand that the production workflows accommodate all of these technologies.
That, in turn, means that workflows must manage color across all these devices, including the devices that we don't control. It's a tough problem for which there are no ready-made solutions. Nevertheless, proofing systems are going to need full flexibility to work with all of these alternative production …