The print versus digital debate raged on this past week between The Printing Industries of America (see open letter here) and the founders of Google. Mr. Michael Makin is PIA’s President and CEO. His primary thoughts are we all need to protect the environment, that Google uses a lot of energy running their servers, and that their Go Paperless Initiative requires the use of non-renewable resources. Great points really, and no argument here.

On the other hand, Google and its partners has seen the technology transition writing on the wall (or computer screen and tablets) is probably more accurate. Adding fuel to the fire is the US Environmental Protection Agency stating the average US office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. And, in 2010, the amount of paper recovered for recycling averaged 334 pounds for each person living in the US, according to the American Forest & Paper Association.

Google and its digital partners, developed their website under the name of The Paperless Coalition website:

  • Google Drive – Cloud storage
  • HelloFax – Online faxing
  • Manilla –Online bill management
  • HelloSign – e-Signatures
  • Expensify – Online expense reports
  • Xero – Online business accounting
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap – The world’s best scanners

But what is at the heart of this argument?  Frankly, it seems the natural genesis of a conventional analog industry being moved by the market to go to the next digital thing. At the heart of the PIA’s problems lies its shrinking membership. What about all of the printing industry employees who have lost their jobs in an industry that has shrunk by nearly 50% in the past 20 years? And by most estimates, this industry will continue to shrink and layoff more employees each year. And what about all of the wholesale service and manufacturing companies who have drastically shrunk their workforces, not to mention the enormous conventional film companies who are no longer with us?

At the heart of the debate is the long-term viability of print. Major books have been written on the subject and we’re not going to decide the printing industry’s fate in this blog post. But it does seem fairly obvious that the market will ultimately decide how much is or isn’t printed, regardless what the PIA or Google or any other organization for that matter thinks.

We could look back to the debate that raged when the automobile was first introduced. The horse, at that time, was the primary mode of transportation. The auto industry led by Mr. Ford rated its engine in ‘horsepower’ and that’s something that’s continued to this day. Buggy makers were outraged as were the wholesalers who produced companion products.

One company understood they were in the leather business, not the transportation business. That company was Coach and they are doing well even today. The company transitioned from buggy seats to leather for trains and high-end automobiles, and a host of other products such as purses, cases and wallets. Saddle companies, on the other hand, went out of business.

The printing industry has to figure out sooner than later that it’s in the communications business, not the print industry, or suffer the same fate of saddle makers of years past.