Web-to-print is targeted toward commercial users or to the general public, and both groups may access public or private online storefronts or catalogues offered by print houses. Within these storefronts, customers can choose pre-designed templates where they can alter the typeface, copy, images, and layout within a template, or approve a template layout and design that has been created by another person. While most Web-to-print applications allow clients to customize pre-designed templates it also frequently possible for clients to upload their own unique content for automated print production. When a digital press is used for the final output, the template usually is transformed into a PDF file that serves as the ‘master plate’ for the digital press. In more traditional printing processes, like offset printing, the template is used to create a plate or plates that are used to produce the final printed product.
Materials produced by a Web-to-print process include business cards, brochures, and stationery, among other printed matter, that can be printed in full color or in black and white on various papers and on various presses.
The front-end of the Web-to-print process is similar to desktop publishing (DTP) in that individuals or graphic designers use desktop publishing software to create pre-defined templates. These templates are then posted online for later customization by end-users and automated production by a print house or commercial printer. Unlike DTP, Web-to-print can bypass the use of traditional design tools by the end-user as the templates utilized in this process are based upon a WYSIWYG (often browser-based) interface that can be edited and approved by a client and by the print house without a graphic designer’s assistance.
Commercial Web-to-print applications can include both Print on Demand (POD) or pre-printed materials that are pulled from inventory. (POD) documents can have static content or include elements of Variable Data Printing (VDP), a form of POD that is mainly used for personalization of marketing materials with product or customer data that is pulled from a database. VDP is geared toward mass customization, whereas Web-to-print focuses only on changes made from order to order. VDP pre dates Web-to-print although at that time the design process was carried out via close collaboration with the printer for documents such as invoices.
The origin of the phrase "Web to Print" is unknown, but Jim Frew made the earliest known public use of the phrase in an online article entitled, "From Web to Print," for WebMonkey, an online resource for Web designers, on 9 February 1999. This article was geared toward Web designers who wanted to know more about DTP and the printing process from commercial, technical, and design aspects.
The use of the term "Web-to-print" from the perspective of a transition between Web-driven technology to printed matter means that the term "Web" connotes the World Wide Web (WWW), rather than the web that is used as a term for a web rotary press developed by William Bullock. Bullock’s web press revolutionized newspaper printing, and the WWW is now used to alter how corporations and individuals create commercial and personal printed matter.
The term has become ubiquitous, as businesses have picked upon the "Web2Print" phrase to name software designed specifically to manage the Web-to-print process. Graphic design and Web design firms that have branched out into print services also use the term to subhead their company trade name, or they use the phrase as a subheading for public relations materials.
Advantages to the use of a Web-to-print system include the ability for print houses, graphic designers, corporate clients, and the general public to access a private or public online catalog where last-minute changes to a prepress template are possible. Within this process, the client can approve the materials without the need for a face-to-face meeting with the printer. Additionally, templates allow print customers to control brand management and content, as portions of a constantly used template can remain consistent throughout a series of print projects. This system is often cost-effective for clients and time-effective for print houses.
The disadvantage to this system as it exists today is that small- to mid-sized print houses and print brokers are limited in their access to software and server system solutions for a Web-to-print service offering to clients. Most proprietary and trade name software that was developed with Web-to-print projects in mind remains prohibitively expensive for this sector. Additionally, these systems often require the use of digital systems that only a larger print house would maintain.
The main challenge for Web-to-print expansion is centered on both the affordability of this solution and software and hardware companies' abilities to converge desktop vector-graphic tools with server technologies designed expressly for a Web-to-print goal. While specific software set the stage for major print houses to offer Web-to-print services to corporate clients and to the general public, brand name software companies have nudged into this business to offer mid- to high-range solutions.
To address the prohibitive cost of traditional Web-to-print software solutions (software, systems, periodic software upgrades, technical staff, ...) noted earlier, providers offer Web-to-print as "hosted" or Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. Using this model application creation, maintenance, enhancement, technical support, application upgrades, and hosting, are provided as an out-sourced service. Since the software, systems, and support resources are spread over a larger client base costs can be reduced significantly. This makes it possible for any print house or print broker to offer professional Web-to-print applications and services with only a modest investment of time and capital.
SaaS solutions are generally delivered through a purely online environment - allowing them to take advantage of relatively low-cost-per-seat, cross-platform compatibility, multi-user collaboration, and live database integration for product and Digital Asset Management (DAM).
Another niche in Web-to-print solutions that is seen by some as being an indicator of things to come is the provision of WYSIWYG design support. Products provide such ability by allowing elements within a template to be moved, inserted, and deleted by end-users following strict rules established by the administrator of the system. This type of system begins to blur the lines between Desktop Publishing applications and Web-to-print systems, and lets non-designers edit and proof customized artwork within a 'safe' environment.