The transition to cloud computing has not been all that kind to Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Over the years, HP has unfurled one cloud service and then another, only to rescind the services a short while later after a lack of interest from consumers. Such is life when you’re a company used to selling computing infrastructure goods that arrive via forklift rather than URL.
HP does have a secret weapon in the cloud, though, and that’s its line of online publishing services, which happen to be very good and often quite novel. The lead service—outside of Snapfish, which HP got through an acquisition—is MagCloud. It lets you create a magazine or a brochure and sell it on demand to the public for a price of your choosing. A DIY rocket enthusiast, for example, could craft a magazine dedicated to the goings-on in his local rocket building scene and then sell it to the club members. You can find some real examples of the magazines here.
To make such a service work required HP altering traditional printing economics. Typically you would need to guarantee the purchase of thousands of copies from a standard printing press to make it worth the company’s while to set up a run of high-quality, glossy publications. HP, though, relies on its own large digital presses that can create a single magazine copy for the same underlying price as thousands of copies.
As you fiddle with this model, some slick services emerge. You can hop on MagCloud, for instance, and create your own version of a Lorax-themed book with your kids. Through a deal with Universal, HP secured the digital rights to the Lorax characters and scenes that can be arranged any way you like. With a couple of mouse clicks, you can then fill in your own text—rhyming is, of course, recommended—and concoct a proper story. The book costs about $10 and gets sent to your house in its full psychedelic glory.
HP has done similar things with wallpaper, or, as HP calls it, wall art. You can basically come up with your own design or take a photo and turn it into wallpaper that HP will print with its digital presses and mail to you in strips. For the kids, you can also get scenes from films like Harry Potter, and rearrange characters and items to suit the specifications of your room.
It blows me away that such stuff exists, but other people seem less moved by the technology. You hardly ever hear about these services from HP, and they’re buried on the company’s website. “Most of our customers come through word of mouth,” says Andrew Bolwell, the head of the MagCloud service.
When MagCloud got its start, consumers could peruse the available publications online, order them, and receive them in the mail. HP later released an iPad app, and this week rolled out a Web viewer so that people can read the digital versions of the publications as well. Publishers can pick if they want to give the digital version away for free with the print copy or charge for the digital version as a separate product. HP takes a 30 percent cut for its effort.
Bolwell says there are now “thousands” of publishers using MagCloud and that about 70 percent of them include a digital option with their publications. HP has, in essence, created a serious hub for DIY publications and given people a distribution channel with critical mass.
On the whole, HP has been pushing the digital press idea for a number of years now, pitching grocery stores on printing custom coupons for customers and marketers on doing custom mailings. But, while digital presses offer so much more flexibility over traditional presses, they remain expensive. That, and HP’s woeful marketing efforts, have kept these custom printing services from hitting the public’s radar.