As the British author James Burke once demonstrated in an episode of "Connections," his fascinating television series tracing the advance and effects of technology, the pace of change seems quickly to be leaving many of us behind.
In one episode, he wanders through a 19th-century factory passing conveyors, gears, wheels, valves, pistons and pipes, making the point that while we might not know what the factory had produced, most of us could understand the principles underlying the technology that made it work.
The scene then jumps to a late 20th-century laboratory where Burke opens the back of a Cray computer exposing a complex of circuit boards chips and wiring. Learning how it worked was easy.
"Get a Ph.D.," he quipped.
That was nearly 25 years ago. The rate at which new gadgetry appears on the consumer market today seems mind-numbingly faster than even as short ago as the late 1970s. The best some of us can hope to achieve, it would seem, is learning which buttons make the latest doohickey do its thing. Figuring out just how something actually functions isn't even in the cards.
For small-business owners, however, keeping up with and understanding the new technologies in their fields may well be critical to economic survival. Take the case of two small Homer companies. One sells computers and computer paraphernalia and also printing services, the other offers photo finishing to a picture-happy public. Both fields are highly competitive with tight profit margins, wherein it is often better to be the Joneses than to try and keep up with them.
Kevin Fraley is the owner of Super Software Inc. and its printing services arm Print Works, located in the Lakeside Mall in Homer. Fraley, who has had a career in the printing business, said everything is changing.
"The print side (of the business) is very dependent on the latest in technology," he said. "We are pushing very hard to be on the cutting edge."
Survival, he said, means constantly educating oneself about the latest innovations.
"There are a lot of old printers up here that really don't have the volume to warrant upgrading their technology, but that technology is getting less expensive to get into, and it's becoming more of a necessity to move in that direction," Fraley said. "As new people enter into the game, they buy the new technology, because they can't buy the old technology."
That new technology is a veritable digital explosion.
"It's all going to the digital era," Fraley said. "So we are moving from creating hand-drawn pieces of art into scanning things and manipulating and producing digital work and taking it from that digital realm and putting it onto the printing press."
Digitizing modern production and printing operations has reduced the cost of materials and labor.
"My background in the print industry was in film stripping, working in the darkroom and making film be ready for plate," he said. "I was in a shop in Los Angeles with maybe 30 guys who did that. The average wage was $30 an hour."
Those jobs and their salaries are gone.
"A whole aspect of the printing industry is completely leaving," he said.
Artists and designers once depended on the expertise of pre-press workers. Now, they do that job themselves on ever more sophisticated software.
"Where we are now is direct-to-plate," Fraley said.
Today, software can match form and color better than ever before, and the days of having to wait for a print job to roll off the press to see if the color is right are nearly gone, thanks to new software and industry standards that match computers and presses, Fraley said.
Print Works also handles print and graphics produced by customers on their home computers, although, Fraley said, he would prefer to sell his own design and production services.
"The problem is that there are industry-standard software that are commercial grade software that the normal person can't afford to buy," Fraley said.
Leif Gustafson, computer department manager for Super Software, said it is a misconception that desktop publishing and home printing is cheaper than a print shop. Once the volume reaches a certain level, the costs of a home printer, such as ink and paper, rapidly outstrip those of a print service and their presses.
"It's a whole lot cheaper to go on a press than on a printer. Plus, you get better quality," he said.
Super Software also sells computers and maintenance services. The availability of Digital Subscriber Line telephone services, commonly called DSL, has led to the rapid growth of office networking on the lower Kenai Peninsula, Gustafson said. As more businesses network, Super Software stays busy troubleshooting inevitable network glitches.
"With every new thing there are always a few problems as well," Gustafson said. "They just need to be resolved."
The next big thing in the consumer market is the move away from cathode ray tube to liquid crystal display monitors, mostly because of the space an LCD opens on a desktop. LCDs are more reliable, will last longer, and their prices are dropping rapidly.
"In two or three years you won't see any big monitors anymore," Gustafson said.
Also gaining popularity are wireless keyboards and mice. As wiring becomes less necessary, more jobs may disappear, he said.
Eagle Eye Photo on Pioneer Avenue in Homer began offering photo-finishing services in 1983. For nearly 20 years, John and Suzi Luzadder have worked to stay ahead of the technology curve in a business subject to the whims of amateur photographers.
In the weeks following the Sept. 11 disaster in New York, business fell off dramatically.
People were worried, and taking pictures was an easy thing not to do, John Luzadder said. But Eagle Eye had a great Christmas season, and volume is getting back to normal, he said.
Like Fraley and Gustafson, the Luzadders have a fairly good idea about what's coming.
"As far as we're concerned, it's definitely digital," John Luzadder said. "Last Christmas, digital cameras were supposed to outsell traditional cameras."
While film processing still dominates Eagle Eye's daily routine, representing 95 percent of the photo processing business, that percentage is dropping as digital claims more and more of the market. Print quality is rising while prices are falling.
"We know that's the way it's going. Film will be replaced, there is no doubt," Luzadder said.
Eagle Eye has a portrait studio with what would qualify as "very good" digital capability. A back that records images digitally, produced by a company called Phase One, has replaced the film pack back on the studio's Mamiya 645 camera. That permits the photographer to shoot scores, even hundreds of shots, and let the customer help edit and crop the one's they like on a monitor before any processing is done.
"We keep taking them until the customer is happy," Luzadder said. "We are not limited by the expense of film."
For some time now, customers have been able to have their film processed and then select, edit and print the pictures they want from a screen.
Soon, that capability will be offered via the World Wide Web. Perhaps as soon as spring, Eagle Eye customers will be able to drop off their film or discs and shortly thereafter pull up Eagle Eye's Web page and edit and order their shots from their own computer screen.
Eagle Eye Photo also offers copying services with the latest generation of self-serve copying machines.
The company is getting ready to open in Kenai, across the road from Big Kmart.
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