I used to print about 75k-100k sheets per year, and I’m down to 10k-15k as everything becomes web based. I expect print volumes to continue to drop, eventually leveling off at about 2k. Some things need to be physical and will always need to be printed, and in my case the most critical one is labels.

As I consolidate the technologies I use around web-based apps and ditch traditional fat client report writers, I’m finding the precision of web-based printing to be a real issue. This is even more acute with the tight tolerances of labels. The print capabilities of CSS seem to be an afterthought, more as a crutch for those still in the dark ages of printing, with the real precision work only being done in the on-screen world.

Many apps with precision needs resort to PDF generation, including most online label generators and even the mighty Google Docs. But this feels like a cop-out; CSS is supposed to give us the precision we need. Those that have pressed forward with the HTML/CSS ideal are clearly fighting inconsistencies in the browser implementations and unification doesn’t seem imminent.

After spending an entire day on it I don’t have the stable core routine I’m looking for. The technology just isn’t mature yet, and so I’m reverting back to my fat client report writer tool for at least the next two years. Depressing.

There are a few sources I found that seem interesting, and I want to remember when I look at this issue again in a couple years:

  • onlinelabels.com, a site I’ve used in the past for buying custom labels, has an online tool called Maestro. I can’t vouch for the software but it does both sheets of labels and mailmerge (although it runs on their server only, so much for data security). It uses PDFs, and it is unlikely to change; its a good benchmark.
  • labelgrid.net tries to do it all with just CSS and HTML, with some success. It behaves badly in Chrome and doesn’t allow for a feed of unique data sets (e.g., mail merge), although I can modify it to read from a service. It also runs locally and is otherwise a cool and functional project.

That’s it – no great insight, just a gripe and a prayer. Here’s hoping the kings of the web don’t forget about the old school printing needs. Failing that, a call to action for the Acid Test guys is in order – lets give those rendering engines some exercise in the real world.