Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    London Drugs moves out in front with quick-turnaround photographs on disc for desktop publishing applications

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #292  May 20, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    In some ways, personal computers have held out a promise (or threat) similar to that of self-serve gas stations--no need for gas jockeys, do the work yourself. So now we have business people doing their own typing, their own taxes, their own financial analyses and their own page design and layout.

    It can be argued whether or not this is progress... Certainly, graphics professionals can point to a lot of ugly pages with too many fonts and little or no sense of white space--all telltale signs that amateurs are loose with desktop publishing (DTP) software.

    Nevertheless, this software-based levelling seems to be here to stay. While the initial generation of pricey and often hard to use publishing software like Ventura Publisher or Quark XPress simply created a new computer-using generation of graphics professionals, newer programs like Microsoft Publisher or Serif's PagePlus put a significant whack of professional power on the casual user's desktop.

    Until recently, however, a big difference between the pros and the once-in-a-while DTP enthusiasts was the use (or abuse) of photos. Nothing stopped anyone from using photos in their home-made computer-generated page designs, but how would they get the photos onto their computer? The high-end folks had access to lots of tools--$2,000 and up for a flatbed scanner (a photocopier-like machine which sends a picture into the computer) and expensive photo-editing software like Adobe PhotoShop.

    The amateurs could use clipart--stock cartoons and the like--or they could glue a snapshot onto the completed printout, forgoing the ability to resize or alter the photo.

    But the everyday user got a break a couple of years ago when Kodak released its PhotoCD format, which allowed anyone to take a roll of 35mm film to the local developer and have it put onto a CD-ROM disc. Cost was about $1 or so per photo. But this never really caught on, and Kodak seemed unsure of how to market it. Were we supposed to buy another sort of home CD-player, so we could show the vacation snapshots to Grandma on the TV? And a turnaround time of up to two weeks made this impractical for most people trying to produce a newsletter on a tight schedule.

    Kodak has recently released an upgraded version, aimed at the DTP pros, and users can pay a premium for faster processing time, but it's still a matter of days, not hours or minutes.

    But now Seattle Filmworks has moved into the Lower Mainland market from its Washington state base. From a Richmond office, it offers photofinishing by mail, providing prints, slides, and images on disk, all from the same roll of film. This is more convenient than PhotoCD, but relying on the mail means we're still forced to live with that two-week time between taking the picture and being able to work with the results.

    Local photofinishing giant London Drugs has recently stepped up to the plate, providing digital photos from the one-hour photo lab in the chain's Broadway store. (Don't take the one-hour part literally: you actually get next-day service.) If customers go for it, London Drugs promises to expand to other outlets throughout B.C. and Alberta.

    For $24.88, a user gets a set of 24 prints along with the same pictures on a disk. If you prefer, a digitized collection can be created from any 4"x5" photo. Basic software to view and work with the photos is included on each disk.

    Note that there are a number of limitations--this can only be done from 4"x5" prints. Slides or images of other sizes can't be processed. And it's a Windows-only process--a tad inconvenient when professional-level computerized photo-editing is still primarily done with Macs. As well, compressing 24 photos onto a single floppy can only be done by scanning at a relatively low level. If you only put a few, or even one picture on the disk, you can get scans done at higher resolution.

    The software works fine, but is very basic. Photos are saved in a proprietary format, and can't directly be used with other applications. The software does allow you to copy a picture to a clipboard, letting you paste it directly into your page-layout software or into an image-editing program to be cropped, altered, and saved. Even with 24 images on a disk, the pictures look good on screen, and will print just fine on laser printers or colour inkjets.

    But this service isn't really being aimed at graphics professionals: it's aimed at the large number of business and home casual publishers--people who may need to produce a leaflet or newsletter now and then. Real estate people can now quickly produce a leaflet with photos of houses for sale (or post them on the Internet, as we saw a few weeks ago). Product catalogues can be produced for printout, or distributed electronically online or on disk. Photos can be easily added to any other document that's produced on a (PC) computer desktop.

    While graphics professionals could do all this for years, what's new is London Drugs making it widely (and quickly) available to people without the budget or need to purchase a scanner.

    I wouldn't be surprised if similar services quickly become available from other large photofinishers. And with colour inkjet printers becoming more available, the next hurdle--colour hard copy--starts to become more realistic. Now if only we'd get widely available, cheap colour photocopying!

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan