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Competitive Acrobatics

July 11, 2007

To the bleary-eyed college student putting off her honors thesis until the last weekend of the semester, the new version of Adobe Reader might sound like a blessing. The software, which is widely used to read and publish documents in PDF format, now sports a prominent new button that lets anyone "Send to FedEx Kinko's" -- in effect, deliver a file electronically to the nearest of the chain's shops for printing or even mailing.

Adobe added the feature to version 8.1 of the program last month, a move that will place the button on millions of computer screens worldwide and potentially widen FedEx Kinko's market base. That might be a boon for procrastinators and home publishers worldwide, but Adobe is already catching flak from a historically loyal constituent: local and university print shops. They argue, in part, that this move will undermine operations on which colleges depend and shift printing away from entities that give colleges some control over documents' appearance and adherence to copyright.

The smaller businesses have had competition from the FedEx Kinko's chain for some time. But many fear that the deal represents a betrayal of sorts, since Adobe's suite of design and publishing software, including Acrobat, Photoshop and InDesign, are heavily used within the industry. While most users were already able to electronically send documents to printers, including ones run by colleges and universities, the feeling among those protesting the new feature in Adobe Reader is that the decision of which printer to use will now be made for them, potentially siphoning off business to the larger chain.

"By putting this link on the Adobe Acrobat client, what you're doing is allowing anyone on campus to bypass the structure" of quality and copyright control, "and allow anybody to go to Kinko’s," said Ray Chambers, who has spent 30 years in the higher ed printing business and now runs the Chambers Management Group, an operations consulting firm for colleges and universities. Chambers has collected the names of over 300 print managers for a petition he is sending to Adobe expressing opposition to the Kinko's feature.

Of course, students have always had the option of using a local, private printer. And unless they decide to mail an electronic document directly to their professors via FedEx, they'd still have to pick up the hard copy, as before, once the uploaded file is printed out on site -- essentially reducing two trips to one. But the (almost) one-click nature of the service, and its attachment to a major piece of document publishing software, have members of the publishing community raising objections in blog chatter, listservs and appeals to Adobe.

FedEx Kinko's has responded with a statement emphasizing the value to its customers, adding, "The link to FedEx Kinko's through Adobe Reader gives our customers quick, convenient access to our network of office and print centers throughout the United States. We value this alliance and believe it provides a simple printing option for many users of Adobe Reader."

In a letter to Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, Steve Johnson, president of the National Association of Quick Printers, along with Joseph P. Truncale, the president of its umbrella organization, the National Association for Printing Leadership, wrote that "Adobe has, in our view, provided an unfair competitive advantage to FedEx Kinko’s." They added: "The advantage gained by FedEx Kinko’s through this agreement with Adobe comes at the expense of the many other printers -- including many of our members -- who have played such a pivotal role in establishing Adobe as the de facto standard among many end users for reading documents and printing file submission. Many of our member companies have, with the encouragement of Adobe, actively promoted the use of Adobe Acrobat products -- and a PDF workflow -- with their clients."

The feature is being seen as a threat by both off-campus print shops in college towns and university-run copy centers. "I have not been affected directly by it, but I think there’s potential," said Tom Tozier, the director of printing services at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the acting president of the Association of College and University Printers. "It is not a university-centered issue. Small printers could be affected as well."

John M. Henry certainly feels that way. At Mitchell Printing & Mailing, which serves the State University of New York at Oswego, Henry offers higher-end services such as a color press and large bindery operations, which aren't available at the on-campus facilities. With 40 percent of his business coming from users who send their documents electronically, Henry could potentially lose out if FedEx Kinko's comes into town.

"It really bothers us that that button is right there, our customers can see it," he said. "Once Kinko’s gets their foot in, they keep expanding and doing what they’re doing."

In a letter he sent to the CEO of Adobe, Henry said that he and other printers would consider switching to alternative software platforms or different formats (such as Microsoft's new XPS). There has also been talk of using an open-source alternative that would be free to use (unlike Acrobat, which encodes PDF files).

"We’re sort of viewed as an ancillary player … but if you look at higher ed as a group, we put Adobe where it is," Chambers said. "We are responsible for a lot of Adobe’s growth. So what you’re going to see, I think … is some movement towards an open-source alternative to the Adobe Acrobat client."

Chambers lives in State College, home of Penn State University, where there is a Kinko's down the street from the campus. Its convenience of location, and now of online access, worries him for an additional reason: Its quality, in some cases, might not compare to the services offered on campus for specific university-focused needs. For various university departments and faculty members -- key customers, besides students -- prices for some services may actually be higher and the chain "may not provide the same services in terms of turnaround times." (The Adobe-FedEx Kinko's service could take several hours or up to a day, depending on the document.)

For official publications and class materials, on-campus centers also preserve the institution's brand integrity and protect against copyright infringement, Chambers added.

"We have the majority of students" using printing services on the Santa Cruz campus, "but beyond students it’s also the departments," Tozier said. With the Kinko's button on Adobe Reader, he could be losing "the academic and administrative departments ... the internal operations that may be going to Kinko’s," which is five miles away.

Adobe's response so far has been to organize a forum to serve as "an advisory council to Adobe on this issue," tentatively scheduled for July 17 in San Francisco, where it has an office.

"It is clear that the recent announcement to connect Adobe Reader with FedEx Kinko’s online printing capabilities has caused concern among some of our partners and key business allies in the print community," said Johnny Loiacono, a senior vice president at Adobe, in a released statement. "Our motivation for the deal was simple -- offer customers, who are already printing and shipping through FedEx Kinko’s, a more seamless way of getting their print jobs done. Clearly, the industry did not view our announcement in that way. It was not Adobe’s intent to upset our loyal print partners or in-house print service providers. Adobe has a long history with the print community that we appreciate and value greatly."

 

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