Spotification - the future for digital standards?

Many conference speeches and articles relating to the apparel color supply chain have discussed how to further progress the use of digital, rather than physical color processes in that supply chain, usually citing the undoubted cost and lead time reductions arising from such progress. One real-world influence on such progress, or lack of it, is not often mentioned though - the economic drivers for the key suppliers to these processes, namely the producers of spectrophotometers on one side and color standards on the other.  Given the influence their products have on the future of some of the world’s biggest companies, these producers are surprisingly small in comparison to their major customers, and their approaches to digital color measurements and standards vary significantly. As background for readers outside the aparel color supply chain, most textile specifiers choose color standards from one of a few standards providers, who typically provide, for each standard color, many physical standards whose color is tightly grouped around a “core standard” which is expressed as a digital measurement, and which is also provided to the specifier. Suppliers to the specifier then also buy those standards, physical and digital, and attempt to match their lab dips or production rolls to them. In a totally “physical” process the suppliers would visually match their submits to the physical standards, and then if necessary send the same submits to the specifiers, who would visually check them against their physical “copy” of the standard. In a totally “digital” process, the supplier would measure her submit with a spectrophotometer and compare it inside her software with the digital core standard for the target color. The specifier staff could if wished make the same comparison in their software after receiving a copy of the measurement of the submit.

In the real world, color approval processes are a mix of physical and digital. But it should be in the interests of the spectrophotometer suppliers for the process to go as far down the digital route as possible, as the more digital it goes, the more spectros will be needed. It is possible to imagine a world in which standards providers would also favor the digital process – they are the owners of the specifically named color as expressed by the physical and the digital standards, and if they could charge the same for every copy of the digital version as they could for every physical copy, they would have much lower costs and much higher profits. In the real world, though, they can not. This is not so much related to the pricing of the digital versus physical standards as to to the copyability of each type. It is obviously very hard to make a perfect copy of a physical color standard, but very easy to perfectly copy a digital measurement file. The copyability of the digital file is made even easier by the fact that the key data it contains is only 31 numbers and that it can also be subject to “analog capture” (any software that shows the data as a table or as a graph with data labels can be used to take  a screen shot even if the file can not be read directly) but there is an additional significant reason:  it seems reasonable to assume that it will always be in the interest of the spectro makers to make measurement files easy to copy. This assumption seems to be supported by the observation that the industry standard qtx file is still be in standard text file format, and the later cxf alternative is in open XML format.

There is a strong parallel here with the music industry. Once upon a time someone wishing to listen to a song in a time and place of their own choosing had to purchase a physical copy of a vinyl record. Once music could be digitised, they could still buy MP3 files if they wished, but it was also much easier to obtain free copies from friends, or cheap ones on dodgy marketplaces. And whilst the data owners (record companies) tried hard to stop such piracy, the producers of the MP3 players, or of the recorders that created the MP3 files, had very little interest in doing so.

Like the record companies, standard providers have tried several ways to make their libraries less copyable, for example by putting encrypted versions of their libraries inside the software provided with spectros by their producers. Apart from being an unlikely mix of interests in the long run, this also sets up significant complications in areas such as updating the libraries across different software versions and does not seem to be a long term option, any more than it was for similar approaches in the music industry.

So what has been the most successful recent business model to evolve recently in the music industry? Probably the "streaming”or “Spotify” model, where online software stores libraries of digital content and consumers pay in some way (sometimes financially, sometimes by being forced to view adverts) to access a selected music file, without ever getting to own or be able to copy the file itself. At this point it should be noted that whilst a consumer of digital music requires only a software player, a consumer of digital color requires a software “comparer”. Human color vision and digital color science are both based almost entirely on comparison, of one color to one or more other colors – a single color measurement is a sad, lonely and largely useless thing. So any color equivalent of the Spotify player must be able to bring in color data owned by the consumer, or chain of consumers, and compare it with the data owned by the standard provider without allowing access to the standard data directly.. Which makes it clear that “color Spotify” will need to be resident in the cloud..

Can such a model be developed? The answer to that question is yes, in fact it already has been. Online software such as from Colourmart Software allows standards providers to upload their libraries to it with absolute control over any user’s access to the color data… the user can pay per use, for a time based subscription, or in any other way the data owner wishes… the user can also order physical standards if required… just as important, the software also includes the functionality for the user to assign the standards to other users in her supply chain, and for her or the assigned users to upload measurements that they own to compare against the standards… plus the usual palette development functions, lab dip approval workflows… in fact the whole panoply of functions available in standalone color software..

So is this the way forward for color standards providers? It seems at least worth exploring…