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Optimus offers a version of its MIS client on the iPad but is holding off developing a phone app for now
The ubiquity of smartphones means that a dedicated app potentially has a huge reach. Michael Walker looks at what they can do for print.
The convenience and reach of the go-anywhere, always-on communications that smartphones offer hasn't gone unnoticed in the print world, especially as more and more production and management software functions migrate into the Cloud. This means that it's MIS and workflow developers who are most closely involved, though some general e-commerce companies have also found applications in print for their tools.
The term "app" is used rather loosely and sometimes used to include access to online functions that are handled on the phone or tablet by a web browser rather than a dedicated piece of software but there are some important differences. True apps are written specifically for one or both of the main smartphone/tablet operating systems, either Apple's iOS which runs on its iPhones and iPads, and Google's Android, which runs on everything else.
The benefit is that the developer gets full control over how the app looks and behaves in a tightly specified environment, which should ensure a smooth user experience as it will follow all the conventions of the phone or tablet operating system, rather than relying on the vagaries of HTML and a variety of web browsers; despite advances in "responsive HTML" which takes note of the device type on which it's being displayed and should adjust things like type size, image placement and other layout aspects to suit the size and orientation of the screen in question, the more open programming environment can lead to unexpected results.
From the software developers' perspective, if they're already providing browser-based access for laptop and desktop computers, as the majority of MIS and workflow providers are, it's an extra task to have to develop and then maintain an app in addition, so there needs to be an adequate justification for doing so. Craig White of HP's Indigo R&D division says, 'Building a native app is really a business choice. You need to incrementally invest on the client side of the application - the Cloud side is the same and fully leveraged across web and native apps. It becomes a trade-off of more seamless and native experience versus incremental investment. Today it is standard to create a native app to get the wide distribution and use through iOS and Android.'
This is why the HP Mobile app exists. It's a constantly-evolving collection of individual tools, though, rather than a fixed-function offering, explains Print OS category manager for EMA Adam Goldthorp. 'It's a bit like Google Play. It includes the PrintBeat [the popular Indigo press monitoring tool] functionality but we continually expand it, based on what what's used, and develop accordingly, incorporating bits of Print OS,' he says, adding, 'The idea is to have one app that updates monthly rather than seven.' That said, HP doesn't offer its SiteFlow production management tool via the app, and this remains web-based.
The HP Mobile app includes PrintBeat for monitoring production on Indigo presses; other features are constantly being added in response to user uptake
Another firm that's stuck partly to its HTML guns is MIS developer Optimus, which does offer an iPad version for its quoting functions. 'It gives access to a large part of the full Optimus client - you can quote, see historical data, the customer profile, sales and production data, place an order, book the job and send an invoice,' says sales director Steve Richardson. 'It's a useful tool and has been well-received but it's quite a beast to try and get into a smaller screen, so we're pausing [app development] pending response to the tablet version. People order the iPad licenses but wind up putting it on a laptop, but give it two or three years and it might be quite a different conversation.'
EFI offers the EFI Go! app free to users of devices that are driven by its Fiery DFEs. This allows them to monitor the status of multiple Fiery driven devices. Users can browse jobs in a list, preview them (tablet version only), process, print and cancel functions and select print settings. It also sends alerts about server and consumables status, job errors and paper jams.
Wide format RIP and sign design software developer SAi has a couple of apps. On the production side is MyFlexi, which allows monitoring of the RIP and connected devices, and to support sales, FlexiQuote for job specification, pricing and order submission. Both require subscription to SAi's Flexi Cloud service.
Covering support functions but also aiming increasingly at sales is Zeoz from PrintMIS. This is quite different as although it is an app, it's also a peer-to-peer voice messaging service in which registered users compete for jobs (print in this case but the model supports any kind of retail transaction) by appearing in listings with profile data and customer feedback scores. Prospective customers can send voicemail enquiries which are routed immediately to the registered providers, usually selected by geographical proximity. The providers can review the customer's profile before deciding whether to respond. If they do, there's a "click charge", currently a little over £2, to have their voice response forwarded to the enquirer. Subsequent real-time conversations between supplier and customer are carried over the internet so there are no call charges.
PrintMIS CTO Max Mian explains that the charge for following up a lead will vary according to supply and demand, in the way that Google rates for its Ad Words do, but also says that some potential users have proposed a flat rate charge of £1 to see how it works out. At the moment Zeoz is being used to provide support message routing between PrintMIS and is customers - over 430 of whom are using it - and as an internal communications tool but Mr Mian says the company is also in discussion with some major brands to use the technology to reduce customer call waiting times.
Photo products ordering is a more established mobile app opportunity. As most photos are taken on phones these days, ordering prints, photobooks or other print items from the same phone is an obvious step. UK software developer Kite.ly, which was bought by Canon early in 2017, offers a white-label app for product design, photo selection and ordering. Canon's version is called Canon Photo Print Shop but other users range from Ticketmaster's FanPhoto to Instagram and YouTube influencers selling branded merchandise that's produced on demand.
It's a fast-developing field but one that will only continue to grow as our preoccupation with our phones shows no sign of abating.