In terms of high-performance editor environments or mobile-enhanced PDF rendering, Chili Publish currently has two really hot irons in the fire – Publisher 5.0 and Rendro.
I found out in an in-depth conversation with Bram Verniest (COO) and Kevin Goeminne (CEO) what the Belgian company has up its sleeve for the online print market and what it has developed together with and on behalf of the print market.
Bernd Zipper: Some people expressed critics in the past because it was very complicated or too expensive with the Magento plug-in to implement Chili Publisher in third party tools. In the new version you have an API. What changes the API for users or integrators?
Bram Verniest: It’s surprising to hear that – because we’ve always had the API. Since day one we haven’t changed the API by one bit. Even our own interface is nothing else than a skin on the API. So the API is really the heart of the product.
Kevin Goeminne: I think it’s really a misconception. Maybe it is part of the evolution especially in the typical printer space where six years ago data integrating solutions were complex – or people thought that. And maybe there is an evolution today as well. But it is useful to have a lot of connectors in the market. In Germany there is a company specialized in Magento plug-ins. We see integrations done in a couple of days and more complex ones in three months. I think it’s a question of the perception.
Bram Verniest: It might be that the perception of the people buying products has changed. Five years ago, people thought they can buy a web to print solution and thought: “To save my business as a printer I only have to buy a web to print solution – and that’s it. But the business process is more complex. Is it my business putting ink on paper or is it my business making information available to various public? And I think the level of technical expertise of the customers has also grown. They are not expecting turnkey solutions anymore. The company that builds the connector in Germany is called Inobis and they have a very powerful Magento connector. There are other connectors out there from different companies, Laudert, Oxit for example. So there are ways of doing that. But we see the discussions with people thinking about online editing. The technical guys and the programmers get involved sooner in the process. And they are often the ones to turn around to their business owners and say, “Listen it’s time. This API is great, I can work with this, we can have this up and running in a week.” And then it just makes the discussion a lot easier with the business owner who are looking for a solution, not just for a product or a platform.
Kevin Goeminne: It’s really funny what we see in our sales: We have a harder job convincing the marketing departments than the technical people because Chili Publisher can be used in so many different variations. It can be a packaging solution or a typical web-to-print solution, it could be a brand management solution or an automated label production solution. For the developers it’s much easier to see that. From a technical point of view those are actually our partners in the purchasing process and that’s quite easy for us to convince.
Bernd Zipper: The reason I’m talking about that is the discussion about four years ago. At that time we talked about the Magento connector and not about the API. If I remember well, the 3D presentation for packaging, large format and so on, was in my opinion the presentation of factors and then you mapped for example JPEGs inside. For now with the version 5.0 I understood that you are using more common technologies like HTML5. So did something change the presentation of 3D objects?
Bram Verniest: Yes, when you switch from flash to HTML5 it is re-writing from the ground. And you start from scratch with state of the art modern things like WebGL. It is basically that strategy of burnt earth where you start from scratch that allows you to make a huge jump forward. The functionality and the feature set is the same but we’re just using a new browser platform.
Kevin Goeminne: From day one we support COLLADA files, we have two types of 3D representation. We have, what we call folding, where you can visualize any folds. And then we have COLLADA, which are 3D objects. What we added now are finishing option effects like gloss, gold, embossing etc. And that is really gaining a lot of traction. We are doing quite well, since we are in Asia and proud that we actually have customer five or six now in China. This is a great achievement because it is not an easy market. In China they have these little books, notebooks and they like the gold on the covers. They are just crazy about gold and such kinds of extended finishing. This is capable with the WebGL because it’s much faster. The technology natively runs better on iPads and other devices. So yes, it allows to do much more in HTML5.
Bernd Zipper: With HTML5 you also have the opportunity to use the presentation on mobiles without any restrictions in this direction. At drupa we talked about the possibility to IFrame the presentation, for example from a box or folding carton or whatever, inside a shop. With this I can use the pictures I generated in Chili and use that as a preview file inside my shop. Correct?
Bram Verniest: Correct. The editor always runs in an IFrame inside a solution if it’s a shop or workflow solution, it doesn’t matter. And we use that principle, you run in an IFrame. We also have made the new interface with the HTML5 more responsive, which means that the buttons get slightly bigger as the platform gets smaller. We use little tweaks to make it more easy to use on mobile devices. There is an open discussion whether people are really going to edit content on a mobile device or only approve it, but both is possible of course.
Kevin Goeminne: Coming back to 3D – I think that was kind of your question as well – we allow to generate previews. You can also choose the angle, it could be even a sequence. So it could become an animated GIF as well if you want or something similar, to use in your shopping cart or approval experience or you can even use it for mailing.
Bernd Zipper: That’s cool. I don’t know if you did that before, but it’s new for me that you are using cloud support to Google Drive now. This is what I found in the research. Are you thinking about further cloud solutions like Amazon for example?
Kevin Goeminne: It is more the future on our roadmap. Actually we are looking at partnerships with Microsoft for Azure and Amazon, too. This will probably be something that we will look at next year. It’s not a priority for this year, to support the scaling options of those cloud solutions. We have a lot of customers using variable data. But we are not the high end transactional solution, we are no GMC that is doing a million of batches. We see that a lot of those customers feel restricted with the functionality there. They handle variable data very well, but from a design perspective it cannot make fancy templates, or it costs them a lot of effort to create templates. They really love the Chili approach from a templating side. Customers are asking for higher and higher volumes and better and better rendering times and that’s one of the reasons why we want to look at those cloud scaling solutions.
Bernd Zipper: I´m looking forward to your attempts concerning the cloud business.In the new version of Chili Publisher you are supporting Chinese, I think Cantonese, Korean and Indonesian language. What’s about Arabic or Hebrew?
Bram Verniest: The only way to do that, and that makes us unique in comparison to many other online editors, is to run our own rendering technologies also for typographic rendering. We can do things like micro typography, tracking, kerning, leading, offering functions that you don’t necessarily find often in online applications. We have full control on the font rendering. We invested a lot of energy into that up to speed into generating these Chinese characters. We have Korean customers as well as customers who work in Cyrillic. For that reason our own rendering engine is key.
Kevin Goeminne: The Arabic and the Cyrillic languages as well as Hebrew were already supported in the past, they are currently supported. The only thing we are not capable of yet is Japanese. Last year we decided to go into Asia. We opened an office in Singapore, where we also have a business developer, because we believe in that market. It’s a huge opportunity, as you cannot find a lot of professional online editing solutions there. Obviously there is XMPIE and Xerox doing a little bit, maybe some other solutions, but no high end solution like us.
We are really committed to that market and we’ll keep adding languages. For us Chinese is the most important. Another market that we’re looking at is the Indian market. We actually have several customers in India. But we want to support at least a top five or six languages in India because we feel that’s also a key market for us.
“Chili is quite rightly one of the most popular online editors. The tool may be powerful but it is also pretty complex. In this respect online print users need to know exactly how they want to present Chili to their customers.” – Bernd Zipper
Bernd Zipper: At last year’s drupa I saw your new PDF rendering engine called Chili Rendro. What was the reason to develop something like that?
Kevin Goeminne: We have a philosophy in Chili that we don’t buy OEM technology which means that we want to own the technology. We want to patent the technology preferably. It’s not because we are arrogant or ignorant but we want to have full control.
Bram Verniest: We made this decision to replace OEM technologies by our own technology two and a half years ago. One of the founders started working on product two, three and four. For that time he is completely out of the normal development team, working on how can I render an image, how can I render JPEG, how can I do this in HTML5. Without knowing that the end result was Chilli Rendro we started developing these technologies. As a consequence that evolved to PDFs because we obviously also previewed PDFs in Chili. We first wanted to develop these libraries. But then we figured out that there was a huge opportunity in the PDF market, in the PDF space by talking to people like David Zwang, who is the chairman of the GWG (Ghent Workgroup), and some other industry experts who told us, “Look, there is actually no or almost no solution on a mobile device.” Even Adobe Acrobat does not render overprints in their mobile app. I’m not saying that Adobe is not capable to do this and they probably have a reason why they don’t enable it in their app.
Due to that, we started looking at our solutions and there is a lot of open source technology in PDF viewers besides high end approval systems. Just think about server rendering. So they send the PDF to the server, they need to generate all these previews in various resolutions where we said, “this can be done better.” We already knew how to draw characters, we knew how to draw overprint in HTML5 canvas – so why can we not interpret a PDF natively on the HTML5 canvas and draw everything? That’s how Rendro really started.
Bernd Zipper: Looking a little bit into the future a lot of your customers are deeply inside online print or near the brand web to print marketing solutions. What was the reason to support the applications on mobile devices? Do you see that there is a big need in the future to support mobile for complex layouts?
Bram Verniest: That’s a difficult question and my personal opinion is: There is no immediate need, but a market demand. Whether that market demand is valid or not, whether everybody is going to start editing documents on phones – I don’t know. It’s like almost a fashion thing: If you haven’t asked “is it mobile?” you are not a serious business person. So is there a need? Yes, there is quite a lot of demand from the markets to supply that technology. It’s too early to say whether people are ready to start editing documents on a mobile phone.
Kevin Goeminne: In addition to that, the main reason why we did it, is the transition from flash to HTML5. First of all it’s a technology thing. And obviously once you go full HTML5 you can start optimizing for mobile devices. But we still have our computer. And what I believe is that my computer in a few years will just be an iPad Pro – a combination of a touch screen with a keyboard, it’s going to be something like that. As a consequence it´s important for us to have the technology ready. Do we believe that a lot of people are going to do complex brochure editing on the phone? No, not really. Do we believe that people will create Christmas cards on their phone? Perhaps. But do you have all your pictures there? Furthermore you should not forget that an integrator has to make good connections to all the pictures and the data. And there is a big difference between the finger and the mouse, it’s impossible to select a pixel with a finger.
Bernd Zipper: Another issue is that the online print market is growing while the normal print market is shrinking. Where do you see the fields to grow? Is it still the enlargement of Chili Publisher to roll it out as a worldwide technology or do you think that this might be the end of a success story?
Kevin Goeminne: No, we got started and we will accelerate the next years. Within the commercial printing markets we see consolidation, but there is still potential. And there is also the packaging and label market where we see potential for the next years. There are players in this market but not a lot of them are professional. We have high end packaging besides the label market – the mid segment label market has a lot of potential. And what about the brand donors? We keep on growing with them. A jewel company for example wants to produce brochures that people can take out of the stores. Chains like that might have a thousand stores worldwide. An iPad is not the only solution. We still see a lot of growth in those vertical markets.
Bernd Zipper: Another big trend – if you can rely on Cimpress and other vendors – is mass customization. Printing on cigarette boxes or lighters or pens or whatever. This is a great opportunity for small online vendors to expand their business. But for that we need more automation. Do you have something in mind to automate mass customization? Of course it’s possible to connect an Excel list as a template, but for mass customization the process needs to be simplified.
Kevin Goeminne: We have some customers doing this today. Rajapack is one of the largest cardboard companies in Europe – they are a customer of Chili. Their market is mostly E-commerce businesses. If you want to have branded wrapping paper or branded boxes – they manage that kind of business. From our point of view: first you have to find a customer with a vision – then anything is possible. You can build it in steps, step one is the frontend, step two the backend, step three the visualization in 3D. Therefore I think it’s project dependent because if you are going to personalize a door it’s completely different than to personalize the inside of a watch. Each type of product will require a different type of integration.
Bram Verniest: And this is also a pretty good growth potential for a typical online printer. If you have the capability or production facilities for print, you have a platform to customize anything, then you can subcontract the screen print, the large format prints and all that. And whether you produce by yourself or you have somebody else producing, it doesn’t matter. But you have the customer’s data, the customer’s CI, and the branded content – you can do it. You find an example for that in Germany where a company don’t do all that themselves but they own the platform. And in this case the brand owners invested in this and own the platform. Therefore all of the smaller painting companies can connect to that and buy all kinds of branded materials personalized for their point of sale. But for a traditional printer, that’s a potential for growth.
Bernd Zipper: Another topic. I talked to some Chili users and asked them why they are not using Chili for all their solutions and they told me, “Sometimes it’s too complex.” That means that there are too many functions and the customers get more and more confused. Is there an opportunity to strip down the functionality of Chili? In a way that I can for example realize a small application in an IFrame?
Bram Verniest: Basically we’ve done that from the start. We start with an interface that has all the tools and we call that the workspace admin interface. And if you want to give a workspace or user interface to an end user you start switching off tools. So the difference between an admin workspace with all the tools and an end user workspace is that the end user workspace only can take some of the tools.
Kevin Goeminne: If you talk to existing customers sometimes the problem is that they need some time. They bought Chili, they have their first training and they have a first project for which they did the investments. At that point they are not really thinking about making it even simpler. That requires a bit of training. And it sometimes works in our disadvantage because people think Chili is too much – but it’s actually not. What I mean: You need that advanced features even though you are going to strip down the scope of functions. One of the great things about Chili is that with your investment you can create a very simple business card editor. You can also make a door personalization tool and visualize it in 3D, you can also handle your variable data and you can have a marketing management solution. That all runs on the same technology. But it is just a fact of tweaking and tuning it. One of the things we want to do is to educate our user community much better. In the last year we had spicy talks with our user group. We will organize another one later this year as well and we really want to educate our users and show them examples.
Bram Verniest: What’s also important is to strip down and tweak the user’s interface. That’s not a programmer’s job, that’s somebody who makes templates, a graphics operator. After two days training you can basically say, “These tools I switch off for an end user,” and make a template very simple or very complex.
Bernd Zipper: Let’s look into the future. What can we expect from Chili in the next 12 months? Are there some things you can already talk about or can you give us some kind of outlook what’s going on?
Kevin Goeminne: There are things I cannot talk about yet. I mean what can you expect? First of all we want to release Chili-rendro. Don’t pin us to a date since we are now focusing on the quality and speed. We will probably announce some OEM deals around that technology as well. There is a lot of OEM appetite for Chili-rendro. As for CHILI publisher, we showed the HTML5 version at Drupa and we are now releasing it. The next step is continue working on new features. We have a lot of good ideas, maybe also around alternative output formats, not just PDF.
Bram Verniest: We are basically a technology company. But technology only does not sell, so we make products around the technology. Our look into the future is based on 2 main strategies: keep working on ground breaking technology, and secondly market new products around that technology. The technology behind CHILI publisher and CHILI rendro is very promising, and we believe new products or services will be offered in the near future.
Bernd Zipper: If you have the trend of mass customization in mind it’s not only about printing. It is also about to edit and manufacture 3D printing.
Kevin Goeminne: The big challenge is that people think in 2D and not in 3D. And if they start designing in 3D – that’s a big challenge.
Bernd Zipper: I think it’s a small step from packaging in this direction. Anyway, let’s think about that later on. Thank you so far for this revealing interview and the time that you have taken for this.
My take: focused and yet multifaceted. Chili is likely to have secured its place among the top providers to the online print industry, given the tools it already provides and is still developing for browser-based editing tasks in the future. That’s because Chili reacts flexibly to changes in the marketplace and is growing as the market grows. But some Chili Publisher users are unable to cope with the tool’s complexity and therefore don’t use it for all editing tasks, although that is definitely feasible. If a remedy is found here and the potential of the new Chili Rendro is fully realized in the marketplace, demand for what these Belgian software professionals have to offer is certainly not going to diminish. However there are plenty of other fish in the sea – I wonder how the competition will respond.