With a foreword by Ayelet Szabo-Melamed:
It was the American astronomer and science writer Dr Carl Sagan, who declared, « You have to know the past to understand the present. ». In the case of XMPie, this is very applicable; understanding the events and ideas that led to the founding of XMPie will help to understand its present and even how it will develop going forward.
XMPie was founded with two key objectives:
- DEMOCRATIZE VDP: give creatives full control over personalization and mass customization in Print (VDP). This objective matches that of desktop publishing, which democratized the publishing process. And also EFI’s color technologies (which along with Adobe) democratized color in desktop publishing.
- BRIDGE PRINT AND DIGITAL FOR PERSONALIZATION: Develop one platform to deliver communications across all media channels that (a) guarantees consistency at every touchpoint, and (b) offers unlimited design creativity. Jacob called it Cross-Media in a white paper co-written with Cary Sherburn, years before the word omnichannel became widely used. Jacob argued that Cross Media, with guaranteed consistency across channels, was the holy grail in this industry.
While these days more and more professionals in marketing and at brands understand the importance of Print (like direct mail) in the media mix, few realize that for an effective and efficient integration of Print and Digital, one must practice the above two foundational principles behind XMPie technology.
XMPie’s history surprises many: How a company built to deliver omnichannel communications is almost twenty-years-old when the term itself has only been used for a decade. In the interview below, it is clear how, from the beginng XMPie’s definition of cross-media was not simply the use of multiple channels in a personalized communication campaign. Rather it was about the guaranteed consistency of brand, message, and offer across all media and over time. In today’s terms this is what we call a customer journey, along multiple touchpoints, using different media types, all individualized and relevant and appear as part of the same dialogue – the ultimate goal of Omnichannel communications.
The following article was originally published on Italia Publishers (italiapublishers.com) and gives a unique perspective into how XMPie and our industry evolved. It also includes Jacob’s outlook on the challenges faced by our industry today, future directions for Print Service Providers, for brands, and for vendors.
In this interview Jacob Aizikowitz, Computer engineer at Scitex, co-author of EFI’s success, founder of XMPie, and its president in the Xerox era: the father of the cross-media variable data tells his story.
Mass customization is one of the most controversial technological issues in the printing industry. The enormous potential of variable data, in fact, has always been hindered by its difficult applicability — or rather, the reluctance of printers, creatives and brand owners to think, design, distribute and sell variable printed matter. Recently, however, customization has become very topical again, especially since manufacturers and integrators have identified software as a competitive factor. After more than twenty years of technical maturity and objective underutilization of this technology, clients, creatives and printers have returned to the question of how to make it a key ingredient of multichannel campaigns and consumer engagement projects as well as of simpler commercial printing such as mailing, labels and packaging orders.
The doyens of the sector well know, and the most attentive observers can imagine, that Israel is not only home to some of the main technological innovations in printing, but also one of the places where variable data technology has its roots. When the graphic arts were digitalized in the 1990s, Israel was the starting point for the most incredible entrepreneurial stories, such as that of Benny Landa, founder of Indigo and, later, Landa Digital Printing, and of Efi Arazi, father of the legendary Scitex Corporation and EFI. Other important and influential people who have contributed to the changes in this sector have also been born or raised in Israel or emigrated there.
Among them is Jacob Aizikowitz, founder of XMPie, a company and software platform exclusively and inextricably linked to variable data printing — a man and brand whose reputations have grown since Xerox Corporation acquired the company for $54 million in 2006. We used one of our latest forays into Israel to meet with Aizikowitz, who decided to retire this year and, in coordination with Xerox management, handed the baton over to Eran Baron, former CFO and Business Operations Leader of XMPie. We asked Aizikowitz to go through the highlights of his life with us, starting with his studies in computer science, and to accompany us through the most important stages of the digitization of our industry.
Studying computer science in the 1970s was not an obvious choice…
After graduation in 1969, I wanted to study physics. But in Israel, military service is typically performed first. After three years in the army and with the advice of a schoolmate, I decided to study computer science at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, where I graduated in 1977.
How did you get into our industry?
At Technion, I met Nava Hefetz. She was also studying computer science and, years later, she agreed to marry me. A good friend of hers had direct contact with Scitex’s R&D team and got me an interview with Mini-Systems, the group’s software house. I had other opportunities, all more traditional, but Mini had an aura of innovation, professionalism and freshness. In hindsight, I’d say it tasted like a startup. Great professionals worked in the Mini-Systems team, including Professor Amir Pnueli, co-founder of the company, with whom I held one of the most exciting, challenging and formative jobs a computer science graduate can dream of.
During those early years, were you already talking about digital printing?
Today in the graphic arts, the use of software applications is a natural and essential fact. In the 1970s, however, applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign did not exist. At Scitex, I was focused on operating systems, not application software. My system challenges involved processing, storing and recovering large amounts of data.
I only became familiar with graphic arts years later, in the early 1990s, when I became director of research and development at EFI.
What brought you to EFI?
It’s a long story, starting in 1982, while I was still at Scitex. That year, Efi Arazi, founder and head of the company, had organized a trip to the United States. Efi believed that managers and developers should directly experience the market and the world outside Israel. The itinerary included HP’s labs, Xerox’s PARC and Daisy Systems’ headquarters. When I visited PARC, I saw the future in action; the things I read in scientific journals and articles were there, and they worked. Star workstations with WYSIWYG bitmap displays and related software were connected by Ethernet.
From that came the awareness that, while we were doing the projects of the highest level in Herzliya, there was a bigger world out there, and I wanted to experience it directly. However, it became clear to me that without a PhD in a technological area, I had no chance of getting into laboratories like PARC. So, I left Scitex and enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
When I finished my PhD in computer science in 1989, Efi Arazi was about to move to the United States. He contacted me, sent me research on color management, and invited me to San Francisco to discuss what would later become EFI. Once there, he persuaded me to give up my academic career to join his startup.
How did you perceive Arazi’s technological vision?
Arazi’s dream was to bring color into desktop publishing, democratize its management, take it away from the few magicians of its « black art » and put it in the hands of designers, creatives and content creators. To turn the vision into reality, he was forced to move to Silicon Valley, where there were leaders like Adobe, Apple and NeXT, allowing EFI to interact with these companies. Our initial focus was broad and included high-quality color printing, color-matching software and image-compression technology. But if color was the soul of EFI, the project that advanced the fastest was a color printer controller, which would later become Fiery — a computer connected to the local network and the print engine, capable of processing PostScript received from the network and driving the machine. The intuition was that a Canon color copier had a digital data path between the scanner and the print unit. Reverse engineering this data made it possible to introduce Fiery, transforming digital copiers into color printers. This sparked conversations and business relationships with Xerox, Kodak, Adobe, and practically any digital printer manufacturer.
What was the winning recipe for EFI?
Arazi was an admirer of William Schreiber, professor at MIT and owner of the patent for a color-management system. He negotiated the patent license with MIT and then used it to build a deep relationship with Adobe, Apple, Xerox, Canon, Kodak and others. These relationships, which were partially forced by the use of the patent, were the cornerstones of EFI’s initial success.
Fiery became the spearhead and eventually turned EFI into a company almost exclusively focused on it. Excellent engineering and operational efficiencies, together with the aura of leadership in color and Schrieber’s patent, convinced almost all hardware suppliers to use Fiery. Basically, EFI became the Adobe of color printing, and because Fiery used an Adobe RIP, there was a great business relationship between the two companies, which was profitable for both.
Where, when, and why did you separate from EFI?
There are two main reasons: the first was our family decision to return to Israel; the second was EFI’s excessive focus on Fiery.
Back in Israel, in 1992, both my wife and I were recruited by IBM Research in Haifa. There I helped found a group that focused on finding commercial solutions for the market based on research carried out in our laboratories.
What made you go back to your Scitex roots?
Eliezer Lev, a close colleague in the early days of Scitex, and then in the army years, led the Systems Division of Scitex. They were developing workstations, storage solutions, commercial print controllers and, surprisingly, digital print-engine controllers. In particular, they were working on a controller for the Xerox DocuColor 40 and what would later become iGen, as well as a controller for the high-performance inkjet machine that Scitex Digital Printing was building in Dayton, Ohio. They needed guidance for their research and development, and, for me, it was like coming home and working with people I knew. Leaving out the details, my focus was on digital printing controllers, a rapidly evolving field. I leveraged much of the experience gained in Silicon Valley, helping to bring the product to users and emphasizing the ease of use of desktop publishing. I also took advantage of my academic background, understanding the need to create a special language, derived from PostScript, to specify a device-independent variable data print. So, we created VPS (Variable Print Specifications), which later became the basis of PPML (Personalized Print Markup Language) — an activity I did with Israel Roth and Reuven Sherwin, who would later become the co-founders of XMPie. Those days in Scitex gave me food for thought about what variable data printing really means, and, while we were developing what would become Creo controllers, Darwin software and the VPS language, we were already wondering what the evolution would be.
Why did you create XMPie?
Together with Roth and Sherwin, I had the desire to do something of my own. I had started working as CTO under the direction of Miki Nagler, who managed all Scitex products. Miki assured us that if we found something suitable to be handled externally, he would support us in the spin-off. We saw the opportunity to democratize variable data printing and connect the printing world with the digital world, creating a single platform for personalization. We wanted to offer variable data printing what desktop publishing had offered the graphic arts.
What made you so confident you could do it?
It just made a lot of sense. We were confident in our ability to make the necessary technological advances, and we knew it was a proven path. We would apply desktop publishing paradigms to variable data printing, and we were convinced that customization should be media-independent, i.e., not exclusively internet-related. So, we chose the name XMPie for our startup, the acronym for Cross-media Personalization in e-Business.
How did you proceed?
We met with some agencies and got a positive response. Sherwin and Roth created the first prototypes to show what we had in mind. Dan Doron, who joined us later, helped us reach potential customers and validators. So, our Scitex colleagues introduced us to Larry Zusman, who led the Xerox 1:1 communications team. His opinion on the value and uniqueness of our proposal was very positive. Through these relationships, we were able to compare our approach with key influencers, including agencies, and have confirmation of the feasibility of our plan.
What obstacles did you face?
The biggest initial obstacle was raising funds from investors. Scitex, which allowed the spin-off of XMPie, invested a modest amount but did not follow up on the investment. Many potential investors saw us as a new player in the printing field and did not appreciate the fact that Scitex was not on board. Finally, JVP, one of the leading venture capital funds in Israel, became our investor. They understood the value of XMPie beyond its role as an enabler in printing.
The initial years, from 2000 to 2003, were very difficult in operational and economic terms. The dot-com crisis led to the closure of many startups and brought attention back to the business. Not without some difficulty, we completed the first installations, and this gave us credibility and visibility, encouraging further investment.
Did everything go according to plan?
Absolutely not. Our initial focus, which aimed at involving advertising agencies, proved unproductive from a commercial point of view. Everyone liked the creative features of our software and the ability to integrate print and digital media. But, they didn’t buy it. We had to win paying customers, without whom our vision would not have received validation and, frankly, XMPie could not have existed.
How did you get out of it?
We got the printers involved. We knew them, mainly through Xerox, thanks to our work at Scitex. Everyone used digital printing; variable data was one of their activities and they were ready to pay. We offered them a new and fresh variable data solution, as well as tools to expand their vision and enter an area where printing is only one possible channel.
How relevant was the acquisition of Nuvisio?
It was mainly a catalyst to move forward and a means to add value to XMPie. Moreover, Nuvisio had great people, and some of them became central to the future of XMPie. One of them, Eran Baron, takes my place at the head of the company today.
What changed after the acquisition of XMPie by Xerox?
Xerox has allowed us to maintain our unique character and innovative spirit, and to make our decisions by relieving us of the burning question of survival. For example, we all know how problematic 2008 was from a business point of view. My personal assessment is that if we hadn’t been part of Xerox, we might have disappeared by then. With them, we had more ways to approach the market and the possibility of involving large enterprise customers. In these cases, knowing that there is a large entity behind the software is an advantage.
It’s amazing to see how our team has remained intact for several years — and people who have been part of the company since the beginning still work at XMPie today. I believe there is plenty of room to grow, and I hope for the team and Xerox that these opportunities, while risky, will be explored with vigor and determination.
What do you see in the future of our industry?
Our sector consists of print service providers, but also of in-plant production centers. For Xerox and XMPie, there is also a market outside the graphic arts that touches on communication management, marketing automation and many other topics.
Brand owners, small and large companies, and customers in the printing industry are switching to digital at the speed of light. To be successful, printers will need to transform themselves into service providers that go beyond printing. If they do not, they will cease to be relevant to their customers, and their days will be numbered.
Beyond the opportunities, what are the limits?
Let me make an observation. I know it’s biased, but I think I’ve earned the right to do it. As an industrial sector, we need to go beyond the need to continually emphasize the role of printing in the media mix. The observations and articles that aim to demonstrate this concept are important, and the more there are, the better. However, the real challenge goes beyond that. It lies in the way print and digital media combine.
It is essential to understand that the technologies used in the customization of printer products must allow smooth integration with those used in the customization of products distributed through digital media. Bringing technologies with these characteristics onto the market, and mastering them, is the key to transformation.
Since we introduced XMPie, we have never thought of treating print and digital media as two separate silos. The whole idea, and a large part of the technological challenge, was and still is the union of the two worlds under one common platform, without taking their own peculiarities away from either of them.
There are also great developments on the hardware front…
Inkjet technology is advancing rapidly, and that enables us to build printers that don’t sacrifice quality for speed. The wealth of compatible substrates also makes this technology relevant to a wide range of applications, including labels and packaging. But it is essential to remember that in almost no application area will printing survive as a single medium. The tendency to communicate by combining print and digital media is constantly growing. Moreover, since there is no longer a compromise between speed and quality, the software must enable creative potential in its entirety, and it is very different from the times when the only priority was to produce high-speed transactional documents.
There’s a lot of buzz around artificial intelligence. How much do you think it’ll affect the printing industry?
Artificial intelligence and machine learning will be key elements for generating applications and opportunities. The adoption of these technologies has been moving incredibly fast by the abundance of computer and network resources that cloud computing offers. My feeling is that we will soon see artificial intelligence in color management, marketing automation, content selection and probably also customer service.
Why retire now?
I think it’s time. Running a business is exhausting. I want to take some space, spend time with the family and develop new visions that can take me in different directions.
Will we see Jacob Aizikowitz in the market again in the next few years?
I will continue to be involved with various companies, helping startups and other industry players, so much so that I could draw up new specifications and innovations.
* * *
Revolutionizing a digital revolution: here’s how it happened
The drum scanner for color separation was a key element for the graphic arts. A color slide was placed on the reading device which, by rotating, created four films one at a time. One for cyan, one for magenta, one for yellow and one for black. The films, properly assembled with the other graphic elements, were then used to expose the four offset plates and reproduce the image. The result of the primary color combination had to faithfully reproduce the input slide. Realizing that the connection between the scanner input and output was (in fact) digital, the Scitex team disrupted this process. By « breaking » the connection, Scitex took the digital data from the input and sent it to a computer, thus creating a digital image file and enabling an operator (with the help of a monitor) to interactively correct colors, adjust graphics, add text, crop, rotate and assemble different images. The resulting file was then processed to create the four separation files and expose the films. All this was years before Photoshop, Illustrator and the PostScript language itself.
Scitex systems have offered prepress professionals powerful tools and simplified their work, without changing the balance between the « originators » and « producers » of the image. For Efi Arazi, founder of Scitex, deciding to found EFI to change this paradigm, focusing on desktop publishing solutions and taking out the « magicians of color », was a remarkable, rather rare move – a move that, in a way, revolutionized its own revolution.