Today I see, via John Gruber, that Pantone has been acquired by X-Rite. In 1995, I gave Pantone’s CEO some advice that might have made them a lot of money. He didn’t take it, but it’s an amusing story.

What happened was, I was a Vice-President and founder of Open Text, then mostly in the search and retrieval business, which was at that time part of the publishing business. We’d long been attendees of the “Seybold Seminars”, for many years the Conference that Mattered in the publishing-tech business. When Open Text suddenly hit the big time in 1995 with one of the first Web Search Engines, I became something of a Web Authority, and spoke regularly on the subject at Seybold.

That year, we had a partnership with Yahoo! (the employee count was still in the low double digits, but they had white-hot buzz). At that fall’s Seybold, I was invited to the “Founders’ Dinner” at a really nice San Francisco restaurant. I called the hosts and asked if I could bring Jerry Yang from this weird new Web-Startup world along. Jerry got a lot of attention; the Web was absolutely Terra Incognita to those guys at that time.

Later in the evening, I was chatted up by the Pantone CEO, a grizzled guy in a rumpled suit. He asked “Is there anything Pantone could do to make its mark on this new Internet thing?”.

The answer seemed obvious. I said “Well, color online mostly sucks, and that’s partly because computer geeks mostly totally don’t understand it. Why don’t you guys write some software that takes a Pantone number as input and really works hard, using everything it knows about your computer and operating system and monitor and video card, to come as close to that color as you’re gonna get, on-screen.”

He asked “Well, how do I make money?”

I said “Give the software away to Netscape and Microsoft (for IE). If it’s good, millions of page designs on the Net will be specced in Pantone numbers. Your upside is huge.”

He looked at me like I was completely fucking nuts. To his credit, he was polite, but it was obvious he thought I was from another planet.

I dunno, I think it might have worked. And we might have better-looking Web pages too.

Postscript · Writing this made me feel nostalgic for the Yahoo! of way back then. I did some poking around, and the original directory that fueled the first stage of that particular Internet Rocket is still there. But you really have to look to find it.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Sam (Aug 26 2007, at 13:06)

The page you link to is actually the search front-end to the directory. The site you are actually looking for (I think) is which is either off under "More Yahoo Services" or if you search for "yahoo directory" on either Yahoo or Google it is the first result.


From: ian (Aug 26 2007, at 19:08)

If I was pantone's CEO i would have laughed at you also. If you understand what is involved with accurate color reproduction, you would have never made this comment. This was 1995, most color screens displayed 256 colors, 216 were "web safe". Most people were using CRTs still, but who knew what settings they were using on their monitors, White point, brightness, contrast, some displays even let you control the R, G, and B guns separately.

One would think that software could be written smart enough to take all these settings in account and adjust for them. The problem is CRT's at that time could display the same RGB value differently across the screen. There was no guarantee that R127/G127/B127 which is middle grey, was actually neutral inches apart on the same display. Now that we're in 2007, and most people are using LCD's it's even less likely. I've tried to used hardware calibration systems on LCDs and they would not even create a profile because the degree that the display was off was so much, no amount of software could compensate, and this was just on one point of the display, not across it's 17".

Pantone did not want to degrade it's name by associating it with web color that there was no chance that it would be accurate. Next time you buy something online, online clothing sale this effects most, hold the garment up to the display and see how well it matches.


From: Mark (Aug 26 2007, at 20:32)

Uh, so ... you didn't really answer his question, "How do I make money?" Are you saying that web designers would have gone out and bought Pantone ink sample books to use when choosing colors? Or that OS vendors would license the software that they gave to browser makers? Or CRT display manufacturers would have somehow paid them money for something?

At any rate, Pantone in Japan doing O.K. licensing their name to T-shirt makers, colored notebook makers, and, my favorite, Softbank, for a line of colored cell phones. "Pantone 7547 is the new Pantone 7413."


From: Pantone CEO (Aug 27 2007, at 04:48)

You know what?

You *are* fucking nuts!


From: DBL (Aug 27 2007, at 08:45)

Tha Pantone exec didn't react to the idea of the difficulty of reproducing colour on the web, but rather to the idea of giving the software away, so one of the comments above is not applicable.

As for how to make money, this really should be obvious once pantone is on almost every website in the world. Every step you make in the market from then on will be magnified a thousandfold. Any books you publish, any pro-level software you offer, authoring programs, all of it launches directly into the stratosphere.

The correct follow-up to this idea should be, 'How do you NOT make money?' Companies that don't perceive this landscape correctly, end up sold to X-Rite.


From: Nate (Aug 27 2007, at 10:29)

Opportunities. They're like gold, and in the right hands they're as valuable as cold hard cash. Or in the hands of a former Pantone CEO they're as good as a few grains of sand. The "how do I make money on this" question could be answered with one word. Licensing.

Instead of complaining about all of the inconsistencies that monitors have encountered over the years, do something to make them better. Pantone missed out on that one.

Corrdinate the 216/256 standard screen colors with the Pantone system. The licensing rights on a standard like that are unlimited. Pantone missed out on that one.

The ways to make money on that idea are boundless. All you needed was a little creativity, solid planning and business savy. Without that, you end up getting bougt out by X-Rite. What a shame.


From: ThePortableConsultant (Aug 27 2007, at 12:14)

And now all these years later, a search on "Open Text" brings up a list of links to:





and Eloquent

...amongst others.

How Open Text has changed.

-TPC (a former Open Text Index admin.)


From: Mark (Aug 27 2007, at 17:33)

"And now all these years later, a search on 'Open Text' ..."

Ouch! The situation seems pretty similar to Pantone: A company with an established business (in the case of Open Text, licensing search software to corporations) didn't want to go too far out on a limb in pursuing a new opportunity.

At any rate, if I recall correctly, circa October 1995 when my company was trying to license Open Text for the web in Japan, the Web Authority was rather detached from the company, working out of his home in Vancouver, while the headquarters was in Waterloo.

Open Text ended up sending out a trading company partner to talk to us, and the trading company apparently had never heard of the internet. We gave up and licensed a spider from a 4-man outfit in Santa Clara instead (who we found by tracing all the spiders in our referer log).


From: Teresa Nielsen Hayden (Aug 27 2007, at 20:52)

I used to wonder the same thing: why didn't Pantone play Spec The World? They could have done it. They had the best color description system going. Instead, they hoarded their system, maintaining its price and exclusivity, and the web got built with HTML color codes instead. HTML colors aren't as good as Pantone's, but they were there, ready to be used.


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