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Micrographics: From Glorious Past to Hybrid Future.

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" ‑ MARK TWAIN

By: Pat Lange
September, 1997 ‑ inform

Micrographics as an industry is dead... The market for microfilm is gone, as electronic imaging and optical disk storage have unceremoniously shoved micrographics out of the business market... Micrographics services and suppliers are going out of business, or else consolidating in order to stay in business... Since new technology is always better, regardless of the cost, any business which does not embrace the newest technology will be left behind.

Such dire statements and predictions regarding the micrographics industry can be read or inferred from the literature of the early 1990s. Whether the literature addresses it as micrographics, microfilm, computer‑output microfilm, microforms or micro‑imaging, the inference is about the micrographics industry. While some of the aforementioned statements are partly true, the purpose of this article is to show that micrographics, and microfilm in particular, has weathered the storm of electronic imaging competition and has bolstered its position so that it is far from a dead industry.

A Little History

Microfilm, a film‑based technology of photographically‑reduced images, dates back further than the Franco‑Prussian War of 1870‑71, when carrier pigeons took messages on microfilm. Therein lies a useful property of microfilm: a micro‑sized, space‑saving substitute for stacks of paper. It found its way into commercial use with the Recordak Corporation in 1928, and even today that aged film can be retrieved and viewed on any existing microfilm reader‑printer, since all one needs for viewing the film is a light source and magnifying lens.

Complementing its reduction capability is microfilm's stability, longevity and legal acceptance. When it is properly processed and stored, microfilm will remain stable for up to 100 years and, if produced in the regular course of business, it is legally acceptable as a substitute for paper documents. Thus, microfilm and other microforms, such as microfiche, computer‑output to microfilm (COM) and aperture cards grew in popularity as storage media for business records.

A 1995 article in Office Systems further explains the historical business market for micrographics:

The past two decades have witnessed tremendous changes... The 1970s saw the introduction of new products and technologies.... As the '80s came to a close, micrographics still dominated the document‑imaging market, but it was beginning to lose ground to electronic imaging. Midway through the 1990s, the micrographics market is declining. Some manufacturers have totally abandoned the technology, and others have consolidated with companies who were once competitors.

Indeed, AIIM reports that it was 1991 when electronic imaging surpassed micrographics in total sales. Since commercial electronic imaging systems first appeared on the market in 1984, this quick rise in market share from a new technology seemed to portend the end of a once noble microimage industry.

Going Digital

Micrographics is an image technology dependent on photographic processing. Electronic document imaging is computer‑based, and thus digital, which is one of many reasons for its rise in popularity.

Andrew Grove, chief executive officer of Intel, summarizes the environment that explains the business outlook for microfilm versus the newer electronic imaging technology of the 90s. He states in a Forbes article: I have a rule... 'What can be done, will be done.' Like a natural force, technology is impossible to hold back. It finds its way no matter what obstacles people put in its place. The beauty of this rule is that it can be used to look into the future. All we need to do is remember what already can be done: All information can be expressed digitally. All information can be transported in digital form. All information can be stored in digital form. If all this can be done, the rule says, it will be.

This inevitable force of technology had disciples in the imaging industry. It led to feelings that businesses should at least be investigating conversion from micrographics to imaging to avoid being left several technological generations behind in records and information management, not to mention being left behind in the profits race.

A Rebirth

Time and technologies march on, and the explosion of the information age, with its consequent business needs, catches micrographic systems in a technology time‑warp. Electronic imaging technology allows timely information to be delivered to the user at a desktop, whereas micrographics technology does not, and, as imaging technology matures, micrographics is viewed solely as an archival medium. Well, some may have had this view, but not all.

It was January 1996 when Anacomp, noted as being in a dying industry that converts data to microfilm and microfiche, filed for bankruptcy and reorganized. The situation was not as bad as it seemed, because Riva Atlas, in a July 1996 Forbes article, revealed that the securities analyst studying Anacomp and the micrographics industry expressed the opinion that "the micrographics business isn't dead. Converting data to micrographics costs 10 per cent of what it costs to convert data digitally... While this business is mature here and in Europe, it's growing in Asia and other emerging markets." Six months later, a press release was issued with a headline that FileNet, a major player in the imaging industry, and Anacomp, a leader in computer‑output to microfilm (COM), were joining to provide integrated information delivery software applications to streamline customer service processes, regardless of document type or legacy system.

Further, a business brief in the January 1997 issue of Inform noted that Anacomp had entered into a five‑year agreement to provide EDS with COM services, systems, supplies and digital media output services and devices. While there might have been a shakeout in the old micrographics industry, Anacomp is a survivor in this new era and a testimonial to the high regard which many in the business world continue to hold for this medium.

Benefits of Age

Other than paper, microfilm is the only storage medium that has been around for more than 50 years that is still accessible to the user. Like electronic images, it offers compact storage, as well as unique features like image‑capture speed, long life, standardised access, readability without electronic aids, and a legal status established in case law. One roll or cartridge of commonly used 16 mm microfilm can store the equivalent capacity of one drawer of a file cabinet, making microfilm a cost‑effective choice for archiving a great amount of information that can be accessed whenever needed. It is also used by many companies for preservation of vital business records that can be reconstructed easily if a disaster strikes.

In the right applications, microfilm still beats paper and optical media, providing advantages in conversion of large drawings, large format republishing, repair and maintenance catalogue publishing, and archival preservation.

Not all companies have business records needs that benefit from or make good economic use of the latest technology's bells and whistles. Many libraries, hospitals, local governments and financial companies are able to function very well with micro‑images. A small micrographics vendor in Wisconsin makes a good case for the viability of microfilm and microfiche because the company continues to gain market share and increase sales in these media, as noted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. The company says that "what often wins out is costÑconverting documents to microfiche costs 12 cents for 98 pages, and one page of a parts catalogue costs three cents."

The Hybrid Solution

It is common knowledge that the paperless office is a failed promise. Tom Dale of the Cambridge Consulting Group estimates that 90 percent of business information is still on paper. Nevertheless, organizations have not given up on the paper problem, but continue to search for feasible technology that can ease the burden of document management. Interestingly, the integration of microfilm with electronic document imaging, in what is called a hybrid system, seems to be the best guarantee of a future for microfilm, while at the same time it forms a new weapon in the war against paper. In a hybrid system, microfilm and microfiche devices take on an electronic character, in that their images are scanned and digitized into an electronic format, whereupon they can be transported to users or peripheral devices by any electronic means. Now microfilm is in the best of both worlds an archival medium, but with the timeliness of electronic imaging.

In a past issue of Inform, Joan Andrew explained it this way: Microfilm storage and electronic access give you fast retrieval and secure archival retention of documents. About 80 percent of today's applications have an initial high‑retrieval phase when information is current... The need to combine images with text and data and to electronically route information throughout the organization makes digital storage the ideal selection for the active phase. But what happens at the end, when files are closed and rarely retrieved? The limitations of digital storage relative cost, emerging standards, rapid rate of obsolescence and low archival ratings make it a risky choice for long‑term retention.

Staying Power

Whether or not integrated in hybrid systems, microfilm and other micrographic media are still in use today, more than 126 years since the carrier pigeon delivery system for war messages and 13 years beyond the advent of the newer electronic imaging technology. When the electronic imaging market surged past microfilm's market in the early 1990s, many thought the use of microfilm and its market would diminish very drastically over time, but that has not happened. According to the Industry Specific Group (ISG) for Microfilm in ARMA International, the 1996 revenues from microfilm equipment and services were estimated to be about $2.8 billion of the $6 billion imaging industry." Additionally, micrographics vendors are consolidating and seeking new alliances to answer market challenges.

It is difficult to push an inexpensive, long‑lasting and legally‑admissible records storage medium out of the way when organizations continue to find uses for it. The venerable microfilm has remained viable long enough to bridge the analog‑digital gap to hybrid systems and come to the archival rescue of the younger electronic imaging. Today, micrographics can declare, along with Mark Twain, that the reports of its death are greatly exaggerated!

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