Jumping into the mainstream

MagCloud, an HP Labs-invented printing service, comes out of Beta


By Simon Firth

At two years old, MagCloud – HP’s pioneering print-on-demand magazine service – is all grown up.

In the last twenty four months the service has moved from vision, to private lab experiment, to a successful public beta offering that, as of this week, removes its ‘beta’ label to become a stand-alone offering in its own right.

HP New Business Initiatives Director Andrew Bolwell

HP New Business
Initiatives Director
Andrew Bolwell

“We’re celebrating,” says Andrew Bolwell, Director, HP New Business Initiatives and MagCloud’s chief executive. “We've added a lot of key features over the past year to move MagCloud to a very mature state. And we've got the reliability, the stability and all the necessary support behind it for it to really take off at scale. So we’re having a birthday bash and removing our ‘beta’ label.”

MagCloud allows anyone to become a magazine publisher. Simply upload a PDF of your publication to MagCloud’s web-based marketplace and you’re ready to sell high-quality color copies to a broad range of readers. Each copy is printed-on-demand using HP Indigo technology and shipped directly to the purchaser’s doorstep.

As the service drops its ‘beta’ label, MagCloud is expanding its shipping capabilities to better meet global interest by offering single copy shipping anywhere in the world. And it’s introducing other new features, such as tools to help publishers build communities around their publications and new binding options. The MagCloud team is also releasing an iPad application that will offer publishers a common platform through which to distribute both print and digital versions of their magazines.

These improvements are the latest in an ongoing process of constant development that Bolwell sees as key to the success that MagCloud has already enjoyed. “MagCloud now launches more new magazine titles every week or so than the entire US magazine industry did in 2009,” he reports.

Just as significant, suggests Bolwell, is the story of innovation behind MagCloud. The site began as an idea hatched by two researchers at HP Labs and was then carefully incubated within a ‘start-up’ like environment at the company.

“There’s a great story here,” he says, “first of innovating within HP Labs and then of our successfully migrating into the more mainstream world of HP business.”

A whole new category of print service

MagCloud Strategic Advisor Udi Chatow

MagCloud Strategic
Advisor Udi Chatow

The two researchers who first imagined MagCloud were long-time HP Labs technologist Andy Fitzhugh and Udi Chatow, who’d recently moved to HP Labs’ Palo Alto headquarters from HP’s Indigo digital commercial printing business in Israel.

“We were asking ourselves why, in this web-enabled world, you can’t just go out and print something on an Indigo commercial press?” says Fitzhugh, who’s now MagCloud’s Chief Technologist.

In the absence of such a service they decided to build one themselves. The result, says Fitzhugh, “is that you can now get a PDF that you created on your desktop professionally printed and it looks awesome. People just couldn’t do that before.”

Indeed, MagCloud single-handedly created an entirely new category of print service. While it’s still more economical to print very large magazine orders on traditional, offset printers, runs of several thousand or fewer at a time are cheaper to print on MagCloud. And because per-copy costs on an HP Indigo printer are the same whether you print one or a thousand copies of a magazine, MagCloud can offer publishers a print-on-demand facility. That means publishers don’t need to waste money, ink and paper printing copies that no-one will read.

The result, says Fitzhugh, “is that we’ve made commercial printing accessible to people who just couldn’t do it before.”

A publication for every topic

MagCloud Chief Technologist Andy Fitzhugh

MagCloud Chief
Technologist Andy
Fitzhugh

Among those rushing to publish for the first time have been people with a wide range of niche interests – from rockabilly music, to poetry, to car detailing, to aficionados of particular breeds of pet.

“It's amazing to see the vibrancy – and size -- of the communities that exist around even the most esoteric topics,” says Bolwell. “And in aggregate, those audiences are really significant,” he notes.

Schools and colleges are turning to MagCloud to create high-quality class magazines, while wedding photographers, architects and other small business owners are using the service to create glossy portfolios to share with potential clients.

MagCloud is also increasingly being used by traditional print publishers. LIFE.com uses MagCloud to offer special print editions based on their vast archives of content. Variety magazine produced an Oscar special with MagCloud that was given to all attendees of the exclusive Academy Awards Night Before party and made available publicly through MagCloud. Other recent publishers have included GQ, The Atlantic magazine and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong.org.

The service has even enabled a new breed of one-off, ‘pop-up’ magazines created by ad-hoc and widely distributed groups of professionals. “Strange Light,” for example, marked a spectacular Australian dust storm last year – the largest to hit the nation in 70 years – in the form of a critically lauded, 40 page photo-magazine that was conceived, produced and published in less than two days.

New features and more personalization

As MagCloud moves into its third year, it will keep improving its offerings, says Bolwell.

In addition to its new community features and a ‘perfect binding’ option that adds a printable spine to a publication, his team will soon bring online additional printing capacity in Europe allowing for more local printing and shipping of magazines.

Next they plan to start fully exploiting a unique feature of the Indigo commercial printing process: its ability to vary what it prints from copy to copy – and even from page to page – with no impact on the speed or cost of printing.

In the future, says Bolwell, “there's no reason why we can't allow publishers to create what I call ‘mash up magazines.’ Or to have those magazines personalized for the individual purchasing or receiving them.”

That could mean the service changing the advertisements in a magazine depending on the buyer. Realtors could easily create new brochures each week for houses they’re selling with up-to-date information about local sales, mortgage rates and comparable listings, all generated dynamically. And businesses could offer customers catalogs tailored to their particular interests.

In the case of a better-tailored catalog, suggests Andy Fitzhugh, “publishers will improve the effectiveness of their material, by not distracting recipients with products they aren’t interested in, while at the same time reducing their printing and shipping costs.”

A nimble, service-base business model

Underpinning MagCloud’s Web site is a sophisticated Web platform they have developed that lets publishers and 3rd parties build their own Web sites and services that can then tap into MagCloud’s print on demand fulfillment capabilities.

After all, says Bolwell, “we don't know about what everyone will want to use this for.”

But at the same time, he says, “because of this platform approach, our own development process is really quick at turning around new features that the market is asking for and iterating very quickly.”

That combination has created a nimble ecosystem that makes MagCloud a model for large companies looking to support start up-like new service businesses of their own, argues Bolwell.

“Our agile, iterative, small-team approach; our customer-centric model; and the collaboration we were able to secure across all of the different teams at HP to get this started have all been important,” he says.

Of course, as MagCloud grows, it also drives work to print shops running HP Indigo printers, using inks.

But equally important for HP, says Bolwell, “is that we’re allowing the company to move up the value chain and participate in these new digital publishing profit zones. Doing it with a service-based business model – and one that comes from HP Labs – is still somewhat new for HP. So we’re excited that MagCloud is a proving to be a good example of what's possible.”