Just-in-time Media

Old-school media in a digital worldA recent conversation about Amazon's print-on-demand model triggered a few thoughts about the old just-in-time (JIT) philosophy as it was originally applied to manufacturing—first in the automotive industry, from which it spread to all manner of production systems—and more recently its promise as a solution to the distribution problems facing the print-media industry. If it's possible to order a book online, which is then printed—and possibly even customized in certain ways—on an as-needed basis, a similar process might be applied to virtually any printed product. Whether it's used for making cars and electronics or printing books, magazines, or newspapers, the idea is to avoid producing something that may never be sold, thereby eliminating excess inventory and all the warehousing and support costs that go with it. It's a sensible way of doing things, so why hasn't it caught on in a big way? Where are the print-on-demand newspapers, or magazines? Where, for that matter, are all the JIT-enabled books?

Maybe the answer has to do with applying a sensible idea to a medium that probably shouldn't even exist anymore. Obviously, paper has been around for a very long time, and it has served us well. But is it necessary, really? Nearly everything is available online—in an instant or two—so paper seems more tradition than necessity now. Sure, it's convenient to grab a newspaper or magazine on the way to work, and a paperback doesn't ask much of its reader; all are cheap, easy, and disposable. On the other hand, none of those paper products offer much in the way of flexibility; they're hardwired, single-purpose, one-way communications with a lifespan similar to that of many common insects. But a computer—whether it's a phone or a slightly larger, more dedicated incarnation—is limited only by the requirements and desires of its owner. It's everything, in one place, all the time.

While it's certainly possible to circumvent the promise of a paperless world by—to use the classic workplace example—insisting on a hardcopy version of anything and everything that passes across the computer's display, I'm encouraged by the trend toward ultraportable, wireless computers that make paper increasingly unnecessary, if not undesirable. At one time, paper enabled the portability of information, but that was only because computers weren't portable in any practical sense of the word. But times have changed, and if you factor things like pocketable e-book readers into the near-future equation—and trees, of course—the whole idea of paper becomes increasingly absurd. Printing is better done on a computer display anyway.

Not that the print-on-demand concept is absurd; it's the stubborn refusal to abandon a primitive medium that seems so misguided. When it comes to fiscal—not to mention environmental—responsibility, I wouldn't want to be remembered as the guy who continued to throw money at an outdated medium in spite of every indication to the contrary. Paper isn't dead just yet, but I wouldn't invest my future in it.



  1. Great discussion and terrific conclusion! I had been wondering why print-on-demand hadn't already caught on a huge way, and you answered!

  2. Thanks, Craig. Maybe someone will figure out a way to preserve the look, feel, and smell of bookshops and libraries -- olfactory holographics, maybe -- because forever losing those to technology would be a shame.