Happy snap printing apps

That’s not a phone in your pocket. It’s a miniature computer. And it is fast becoming the commerce portal of the modern day. From purchasing music to downloading apps to mobile-enabled shopping sites for leading retailers, there’s a multitude of ways companies are monetising mobile connections in this always-online world.

According to ABS figures, Australian businesses brought in $237 billion via the internet in 2011-12, a rise of 25%. Within that, mobile commerce is flourishing.

But the mobile revolution is also meant to be another nail in the coffin for print – or so the thinking goes. In our tablet-enabled, smartphone-ready world, few will be surprised at the results of a recent UK study of almost 35,000 eight- to 16-year-olds, which found that 52% preferred reading on screen. That’s not great news for those who trade in ink on paper rather than pixels. The current generation of tech users – and as anyone who’s sat in a meeting or on a bus or stood at a crossing recently can testify, it’s not just teenagers – spend their life glued to the flat panel display of the latest smartphone.

According to global imaging think thank InfoTrends, there are opportunities here for printers, both for job approval and to receive orders. In a blog post earlier this year, InfoTrends research analyst Christopher Little group wrote: “Another advancement that we have seen in the web-to-print space is the development of support within solutions for mobile enablement, via smartphones and tablets, for services that typically offered online.

“Most mobile interfaces are delivered through a mobile-optimised website or native mobile application, allowing customers to virtually proof and approve jobs, review order status, and even conduct mobile commerce by ordering print products from their mobile device.”

A select few local printers are already grabbing the opportunities presented by this growing market. Sydney-based Digitalpress revealed it has been working with Australia Post to print the postcards ordered through the postal operator’s new smartphone app. Brisbane-based ColourChiefs works with Touchnote, a UK-owned company that has been doing something similar since 2008. UK-owned Moonpig has had a mobile app since 2010; the personalised greetings card company has a network of printers around the world, including Sydney-based digital company Group Momentum.

The pics are in the post

The latest app to join the mobile-to-print scene is Picture Postie. It seeks to solve a first-world problem of the camera-phone era: what to do with all those photos. These days, the pre-eminent way to publish and share smartphone photos is via social media. According to an article in Wired magazine, Facebook is home to 240 billion photos, with 350 million added every day. That was in January; it could be more than 300 billion by now. 

But all these photos posted to Facebook and Instagram, another popular photo sharing site, are just a fraction of all the photos actually taken. Photography blog, 1000 Memories, has suggested that just 20% of all photos end up on Facebook.

Others get printed. But how? According to a study by InfoTrends, nearly 55% of people print their mobile phone photos out at home, with 12.7% using a photo kiosk, 11.7% ordering prints online for home delivery and 8.2% ordering online for a store pick-up.

What with the high cost of ink and toner refills, not to mention the wastage of misprints, printing at home is often a false economy. According to a Choice magazine study, which was referenced in a recent segment on ABC’s consumer affairs series, The Checkout, some desktop printers cost as much as $2.47 per full-colour page. The makers of the TV program tested several desktop printers; one of them, a $49 printer with a $50 cartridge, was only good for 43 pages at photo quality.

Cost savings are one argument for consumers to print mobile phone photos commercially instead. But is that at odds with convenience? What could be easier than printing out your holiday snaps right there in the comfort of your own home? Sometimes convenience, not cost, is king. To compete, a mobile-to-print system must be convenient, user-friendly and fast.

This is where Melbourne-based Picture Postie steps in. Director Jennifer Roberts tells ProPrint that the app “brings to life photos that may have been ‘stuck’ on phones and in social media”.

She adds that the company’s aim is to create “an enjoyable photo printing experience that is not a chore”.

ProPrint tested the Picture Postie app, along with the other smartphone apps mentioned in this article (see overleaf). Roberts’ ambitions have been realised: ordering a set of standard 6×4 prints using the app was simple and painless. We’re not the only one to have that experience – the app had a five-star rating from 62 reviews on the Apple App Store. This made Picture Postie the best reviewed app of any we looked at for this article.

Smartphone users are an impatient bunch. Picture Postie clearly knows its market: there was a delay of less than two hours between placing the order and receiving notification that the job had been dispatched.

Picture Postie uses a combination of internal and external production, says Roberts. “We printed in-house to begin with, leveraging the Fuji Frontier solution and have since expanded to a larger printing premises. Workflow is integrated with no pre-production required.”

She won’t be drawn into revealing the name of its third-party print provider, and will only say: “Picture Postie commenced with in-house printing and now has the support of an Australian-based supplier to fulfill most of the range. There is a seamless process in place for order fulfillment, resulting in some orders being dispatched on the same day depending on the time the order was received.”

Missed opportunity

What’s worth pointing out is that the core team behind Picture Postie aren’t even from this industry, The four entrepreneurs brings marketing, sales, social media and IT expertise, says Roberts. “We have experience working within start-ups, and have successfully sold a previous venture. Our extended team has significant print and logistics experience.”

It seems that outside entrepreneurs see opportunities in printing that those within the industry have yet to grasp.

One of the longest-running M2P companies is Touchnote, based in the UK. Earlier this year, Touchnote founder and director Raam Thakrar, told UK magazine PrintWeek: “We set up Touchnote in 2008. I was trying to work out why I couldn’t send physical versions of the hundreds of photos stored on my mobile phone. We can do it digitally with Instagram and Facebook, but print hasn’t woken up to the potential to create physical versions of these photos that can be shared.”

The company clearly latched onto an untapped market; in 2012 alone, it achieved two million downloads of its app, which enables cards and postcards to be posted to friends and relatives featuring photos from your phone. Touchnote now has print partners in the US, UK, Germany – and Australia, where production is done at Brisbane-based Colour Chiefs.

John Fletcher, director of ColourChiefs, first made contact with Touchnote via a referral from another customer.

“Then, when we were at Drupa, my business partner, Angus Ross, and I flew to London and had a chat with them.”

Fletcher lists a number of reasons why Touchnote chose to partner with the 30-staff printshop. “For one, it was personal referral. It was also our equipment, having the HP Indigo 7500. And it was our background: we were originally a standalone pre-press studio, so software and rules-base automation, which is what they were looking for, is very familiar to us. It is a comfortable space.”

Printing for pennies

Automation is key to this market. It’s hard to think of a job with a lower per-job cost that a single postcard. To make money, the production, from order to production, must be totally hands-free.

“We personally had the skills to write that rules-based automation into Kodak Prinergy. The app is one part but refining how to get it through our system with the least amount of people touching is another. It is getting your employees’ heads around it – you don’t do five makereadies when you are producing just one postcard.”

ColourChiefs’ rules-based automation automatically imposes cards then sends the job to the press. “The operator doesn’t touch it until it pops out,” he says.

Fletcher explains that tight turnarounds are fundamental to Touchnote’s strategy. “Someone can be at the Eiffel Tower, take a shot and the next day it is put in the mail here. We only deliver postcards for Australia. That is quite neat; they have different printers in different regions.”

Integration is the name of the game here, agrees Theo Pettaras from Digitalpress, which supplies the Australia Post Postcard app. He says it is “very important to understand an app’s application programming interface (API) and how it can integrate with one’s MIS. Once that is established, a suitable workflow must be in place.

“Australia Post wanted a seamless process – someone who could take the data and get it from the iPhone app to the press. This is a typical example of where web-to-print really works.”

The biggest challenge of this type of work is making it pay when the runs are miniscule. Pettaras says it is all about automation. “It’s all about reducing the number of touch-points and increasing the frequency of orders.

“The biggest challenge is print order frequency. The more orders the merrier. Unfortunately, to set up even a basic system requires tens of thousands of dollars – if not hundreds of thousands – so to realise the return on investment will take quite some time.”

Touchnote and Australia Post Postcard are evidence of just how much the M2P sector is dominated by photo products. One reason is the basic ordering capability: mobile phone platforms are not sophisticated enough to spec out complex products. Even desktop web-to-print portals generally focus on standardised items, such as business cards and flyers.

Another reason is the type of content: smartphone create photos. This makes M2P predominantly a business-to-consumer (B2C) market.

In fact, there are three distinct types of mobile photo app catering to the broader B2C mobile-to-print market. The first is like Picture Postie, allowing consumers to order standard photos via a smart-phone, as well as photo gifts, such as canvas prints and fridge magnets. The second type is more focused on ultra short-run personalised pieces: postcard apps like Touchnote and Australia Post Postcard and greetings cards from Moonpig.

The third type is a local solution, printing direct from a smartphone to a nearby device via a WiFi connection. In the broadest sense, this would include native apps like Apple AirPrint, as well as commercial systems, such as Fujifilm Transpix and Kodak Kiosk Connect App, both of which allow users to print wire-lessly from their smartphone to a kiosk, whether in OfficeWorks with Kodak or Big W and Harvey Norman with Fuifilm.

Among the options mentioned above, one common theme stuck out: ProPrint was unable to find any mobile-to-print endeavours devised by print companies. That’s not to say some print companies aren’t using smartphones to get ahead in business – they are. Examples include Opus Group, which has two strategic partnerships with mobile technology developers. There’s also diversified Melbourne digital printer Excell, which recently acquired a Thailand-based mobile software developer. And some printers are starting to see the benefits of phone- and tablet-enabled workflow tools.

But so far, it doesn’t seem as if any local print companies have found the secret to mobile commerce success.

One business that ProPrint suspected could benefit from M2P photo revolution is PhotoCreate. The company, based in the regional NSW town of Glen Innes, is a photo printing powerhouse, with the largest fleet of HP Indigos in Australia. PhotoCreate is the core print supplier to the largest photo brands in the country, including HP’s Snapfish, Big W and Harvey Norman.

PhotoCreate prints on a fleet of seven Indigos, with a further three in New Zealand, as well as Fujifilm Frontier minilabs. The company is no stranger to new media: its Facebook business, Winkiwoo, has 150,000 Likes on the social network. According to an article published by photo retailing blog Photo Counter, the Winkiwoo Facebook application has helped the Glen Innes company tap into the social media market.

The firm is notoriously shy. It refused to comment to ProPrint for this article. But it seems that PhotoCreate is not, as of yet, involved in the M2P space. That said, PhotoCreate is indirectly involved as the print production partner for others testing the waters of mobile commerce, such as Big W and Harvey Norman. HP’s Snapfish business is a huge player in the online photo ordering space, but the Snapfish smartphone app currently only interacts with the online portal: users can upload photos direct from their phone, but need to log onto a computer to actually order.

Perhaps one reason PhotoCreate and other savvy printers would not comment to ProPrint is that they don’t want to offer insight into this untapped and potentially very lucrative market. Group Momentum, which prints for Moonpig and is thought to have other mobile activities on the go, also refused to comment. Opus Group works with two separate mobile companies, Tilt & Co in Sydney and MTC in the Philippines, but Opus chief executive Cliff Brigstocke said the work was too “market- and competitor-sensitive” to discuss in detail.

Early days for M2P

Three distinct apps are powered by Fujifilm: the Big W and Harvey Norman apps, as well as Fujifilm’s own tool, Fujifilm Imagine Mobile. ProPrint spoke to Belinda Sims a product manager at Fujifilm’s CloudNet division, who says it is “definitely early days of this technology”.

The Big W and Harvey Norman systems were all developed by Whitech, a Fujifilm-owned company based in Pyrmont, Sydney, she says. The company also makes its kiosk software.

It makes sense for Fujifilm to be involved in this M2P market, considering its decades of experience in the photo market. For the actual print production, Fujifilm also uses PhotoCreate, which runs Fujifilm Frontier minilabs. Sims says: “The file actually goes through our software first and renders in our software then outputs to PhotoCreate to download hat job.

“That happens in an hour maxi-mum. It reaches their workflow, they print it, package it up then send to it to the customer or to the store for pick-up.”

She explained that Fujifilm’s endeavours in the M2P space are still a work in progress and that there is “room for improvement”. To ram this point home, you only need to look at the ratings of the products on the App Store. Harvey Norman had a lowly 2.5 stars, while Big W had fared even worse with customers, rating just 1.5 stars.

In fact, although ProPrint tried to order photos via all the apps mentioned in this article, we gave up on the Big W one after it repeatedly crashed.

Fujifilm is also developing Fujifilm Imagine Mobile – although it is available for download from the App Store, it has not been officially launched. This app will be aimed at independent photo retailers, acting as bridge for these smaller firms to get into the M2P space.

Like everything in the mobile world, the M2P sector is evolving rapidly. It may only be a matter of time before commercial printers strike App Store gold.

 


 

APP TEST: HOW THEY SHAPED UP

ProPrint tested the mobile-to-print photo apps referenced in this article. For Touchnote, Australia Post Postcard and Moonpig, we ordered a single piece. For Picture Postie, Big W and Harvey Norman, we ordered 50 prints each. The Big W app crashed four times trying to upload these files and we gave up. All orders were placed on a two-year-old iPhone 4S running the latest iOS.

Moonpig Australia

Description “Send real personalised cards and postcards, on the move, using your iPhone. You can take your own photos, upload them, write a caption or message and send as a greetings card or postcard to friends and family.”

Platforms iOS, Android

App Store 3 stars (40 ratings)

Google Play 4.5 stars (58 ratings)

Cost $6.65 (one greetings card incl delivery)

Delivery promise 2-5 days

Actual delivery Next day

Our review The app is clear and easy to use. Cards can be personalised by name or with photos from either the phone’s Camera Roll or by taking a new photo. The app integrates with the phone’s Contacts to make adding address details quick and painless.

Touchnote

Description “We print and deliver your iPhone photos as beautiful postcards.”

Platforms iOS, Android

App Store 4.5 stars (264 ratings)

Google Play 4 stars (8,813 ratings)

Cost $1.49 (one postcard incl delivery)

Delivery promise Printed and sent next day

Actual delivery Two working days

Our review Of the two apps here aimed at postcard printing, Touchnote wins out thanks to extra functionality. It includes the ability to add a photo from the Camera Roll, take a new photo or add one from Facebook, which is a neat function. It also integrated with the phone’s Contacts to add address details. It populates address details based on postcode – a nice touch.

Australia Post Postcards

Description “Australia Post Postcards app is our award-winning postcards app for iPhone. Create and send unique postcards and greetings to friends and family in Australia or overseas, using this free iPhone app from Australia Post.”

Platforms iOS

App Store 4.5 stars (525 ratings)

Cost $1.99 (one postcard incl delivery)

Delivery promise within 6 business days

Actual delivery Overnight

Our review The app is designed to be viewed landscape format, like a postcard. It offers a handwriting-style font for the text on the postcard. Of all the apps, it was the easiest to add contact information – not surprising  given Australia’s Post’s database. When entering the postcode, the phone keypad automatically switches to the numbers-only display. When choosing state, a drop-down of choices appeared.

Picture Postie

Description “Welcome to Picture Postie. We’re a super charged photo printing kiosk, with a focus on customer service!”

Platforms iOS

App Store 5 stars (68 ratings)

Cost 15c (per 6×4 print)

Upload time for 50 photos 10-12 minutes

Delivery promise None advertised

Actual delivery Two working days

Our review Picture Postie offers the widest range of any app here, including canvas print, frames and magnets, as well as the ability to add effects such as borders to regular prints. The interface was easy to use. It only took around 10 minutes to upload 50 photos. The app also offered the widest array of sources: users can order prints from the phone’s Camera Roll, Instagram, Facebook or Flickr. 

Harvey Norman Photocentre Mobile

Description “Order prints, gifts, canvas and posters using images from your iPhone. Imagine Mobile offers an easy way to turn your photos into a wide variety of different products. It integrates with your Imagine Online account so you can use images from there as well.”

Platforms iOS

App Store 2 stars (27 ratings)

Cost 9c (per 6×4 print)

Delivery promise 10 days (regular post: $2.95)

Actual delivery Two working days

Our review The interface is difficult to navigate. Text is very small. Icons are slow and unresponsive, particularly the ‘Press and Hold to Preview’ function. Lots of minor user interface annoyances made this app a chore to use. It took 45 minutes to upload 50 photos.

Big W Photos Mobile

Description (same as Harvey Norman, above)

Platforms iOS

App Store 1.5 stars (79 ratings)

Cost 15c (per 6×4 print)

Delivery promise 7 days (Express Post: $6.95)

Actual delivery N/A

Our review The worst of the bunch. Uses same interface as the Harvey Norman app. The Big W app crashed repeatedly and we did not order.

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