Seven Trends in Multi-Channel Communications

Historically, Silicon Publishing has delivered publishing solutions across a gamut of communications channels. In the first place, our Silicon Paginator product (first released in 2005 as the "XML Formatting Engine"), is a platform for flowing data through InDesign templates. As in traditional XML publishing, Paginator generates web, email, print and mobile app output from a single rendition-agnostic content source (or from diverse, orchestrated, content sources).

Multi-channel rendition, connectivity and interfacing are persistent themes in our practice, ever since the late 1990s when "multi-channel" became a buzzword to deer-in-the-headlights printers faced with the need to generalize into "communications" from the too-physical, too-easily-commoditized, craft of print.

I remember a channel called "CD-ROM" and now face channels such as "WebVR", "IoT", and "geolocated social" - the only constant is change.

Based on my experience in this space over the past 2 decades, I see seven major trends in multi-channel publishing as we approach Graph Expo this September of 2016. (Visit us in Booth 2383!) Here goes:

1. APIs as a metaphor for – and reality of – business

Some have argued that companies are defined by their Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. Real APIs are a buzzword and a growing phenomena in the software industry, and now that the concept has so permeated the general business community, even brick and mortar organizations are being analyzed in terms of "points of interface" as if traditional services are now web services. The API concept has completely invaded our world.

In our work connecting Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator to DAM systems, we have learned the ins and outs of diverse APIs serving a common use case. The 20+ different systems we've connected to the Creative Cloud have had 20+ different APIs, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Integration and ease of interface is very valuable, as we see with forward-thinking companies like Zapier. Organizations scale best when they clearly define their points of interface.

APIs

It is not a given that you want to expose your whole application to the entire web for the lifetime of your company. It is also not great to base your business on top of someone else's APIs. Twitter, for example, started out with amazing APIs yet backed right out of openness in the face of commercial opportunity. Third parties, including numerous startups based entirely on Twitter APIs, were left holding the bag.

APIs evolve over time. We have seen our DAM partners, for example, update their APIs, requiring adaptation from any products we have that need to interface. With multi-channel publishing it is prudent to accept that connection points will invariably change. It is also important to stay abreast of the inevitable evolution of APIs, both to make sure things still connect, as well as to understand the new depths of potentially available functionality.

2. Virtual/Augmented Reality

VR/AR is the most uncharted territory in communication, but clearly is a huge thing whichever way it goes. See Pokemon Go. VR and AR may be popularized by gaming, yet publishing possibilities are extended — for example publishing into a virtual world, or distributing print pieces that support an augmented reality experience from a companion mobile app. Beyond the new output channels/formats, the core rendition functionality provided by WebGL (now ubiquitous across all modern browsers and devices, and increasingly available on more and more servers) opens new avenues of graphic and interactive functionality never before possible.

Visionaries such as Tony Parisi have finally seen their dreams become feasible, if not yet fulfilled. There is no end in sight to the evolution of this space, and as Tony will tell you there are many things still to be defined today (such as, importantly, "how do virtual worlds cross-reference each other?" as well as "what will be the 'mouse' of VR?"). No doubt this is the future, but there is much less clarity about where it will end up. One dimension of this new technology is expressed in the comparison of "walled garden" vs. "open web" and we at Silicon Publishing are particularly interested in what is known as "Web VR". Yet it remains to be seen just how far this goes vs. the closed systems from companies like Apple and Facebook.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Electronic communications should be efficient, and print even more so. There are strategies for achieving great response rates, and the tools to predict and influence improve with each passing day. "Deep learning" and other advances in AI, coupled with ever more powerful computing capability and continued growth in the number of data points available, mean that communications can be personalized and targeted as never before.

Someone once lamented that the best minds of our generation are being squandered on figuring out how to make humans click on a particular button on a web page. Artificial minds are already spending a similar proportion of their time tackling the same problem.

Artificial Intelligence

GPUs are proliferating, they are now standard on phones and computers, and starting to appear more and more on servers (the last remaining computing devices that are typically CPU-only). As GPU stands for "Graphics Processing Unit" and is often associated with CAD or high-end graphics, it may be surprising to learn that on servers, GPUs are much more commonly used for big data analytics. Their cheap processing power offers an ever-increasing capability to identify who to target for a marketing campaign, and which messages will make sense, across which channels.

4. On-demand 3D Printing

Companies like ShapeWays and others have brought on-demand 3D printing into the state of commercially viable technology.  The fact that a kid can create something in Minecraft and order a physical rendition of it represents a very cool advance, yet that is just scratching the surface.

In parallel with the production advances, software tools are evolving quite rapidly. We are finding our work in 2D editing blossoming rapidly into the third dimension: initially it was mainly projecting 2D graphics (created online with Silicon Designer) onto 3D surfaces, but we've already built tools that let users create and visualize personalized 3D products, and our document model has been extended accordingly.

5. Mature Social Media

As Social Media seems to calm its pace of disruption, the surviving big players are now evolving at a slower pace, and organizations are better able to plan and maintain their communications, anticipating a finite degree of disruption. Certainly there will still be changes, and policies of the leading social media channels can and will change overnight from time to time, but today social media has been around long enough that there are increasingly codified best practices in publishing to — and enhancing publishing through — social media.

After Facebook killed Friendster, there have not been many contenders to take its place. SnapChat is probably the most disruptive contender left, yet it is a quite different experience destined to exist in parallel. If Google itself couldn't disrupt Facebook, it is clearly non-trivial to do so. Certainly new social networks will arise, but most organizations are getting used to the familiar players and refining practices rather than inventing them.

Facebook has faced quite legitimate criticism from luminaries such as Dave Winer that they are becoming a walled garden, and I hope they take note and evolve to make publishing more powerful through their platform.

6. Responsive Rendition

As screens evolve in both directions – into bigger monitors with even more pixels in one direction and onto ever smaller devices in the other (I can't wait for the Apple Ring) – the art of creating content is becoming "multi-channel" with a vengeance. Try making a responsive page that looks great on both a tiny phone and a large monitor: "mobile first" is great for mobile but ideally a site will also offer a good experience to those with big monitors and plenty of pixels.

Beyond basic rendition, there are now countless devices (the majority) that don't have a mouse, so there is the additional complexity of detecting and managing touch interface for users without a mouse. Finally, the world of mobile apps has to be considered, so device detection may include guiding users into the walled garden by suggesting or insisting that the users experience content through an app instead of a mobile browser.

These days, maintaining a "web site" is far more involved than it once was, as sites are served up to mobile browsers, laptops, and big screens. The fine art of design is intimately connected to development, and the "designer/developer workflow" is behind most successful responsive sites – only very rarely will you find a single person capable of mastering both code and design. Fortunately content management systems such as WordPress have evolved to be quite robust, and well-built templates save the day for mere mortals.

7. The Internet of Things

You can publish to more and more, ever stranger and stranger things, over time. Publishing today can include dispersing communications channels themselves, for example: you might distribute chips capable of receiving and processing subsequent communications. This means that "tracking responses" can take on entirely new meanings, as items purchased or distributed have such wonderful (or frightening) capabilities to "call home."

Advances in MEMS and sensors enable wearable devices that can both publish (as when people tweet their jogging route) and be published to (as the environment can serve up content to a nearby device). It would seem the number of data points is going to explode: the Internet of Things will provide so much additional information that the advances in parallel processing and data analysis will have to continue in order to simply keep pace.


With all of these exciting new channels and functionality, there is a far less obvious and more of a one-size-fits-all approach to publishing. While once the targets were perhaps just "web" and "print" (and even that old dichotomy remains a challenge for the majority of organizations), now the possibilities are so limitless that publishers and marketers need to pick their battles and plan carefully. It is no longer a game of checking off the expected main channels, but a more creative adventure of defining a unique multi-channel vision.