by August 4, 2004 0 comments



Printing, over the years, was slowly getting to be mundane enough to start moving out of the domain of the IT purchaser or implementer and getting into that of facilities or administration managers. But three key developments have pushed this segment back into the IT department. These are the coming good of the MFD (or MFP as some vendors would have it), the advent of networked printer management and the arrival of affordable color laser printers. Technologies in the printing space have matured enough for low-end printers to become commodity products. So, obviously, more than technology, the decision factors here are now costs and manageability. One factor that is adding the push to manageability is the cost of consumables.
As most organizations run many printers, this tends to become quite significant indeed. More on that later.

The two technology issues that used to have a significant role in printer purchase were quality of printouts, particularly in color printers, and the speed of printing. The first of these has since ceased to be an issue with even entry-level printers being able to produce acceptable and better quality on normal paper stock. So, unless it is for specialized professional needs, purchasers can safely give lower priority to this concern. Similarly with printing speeds, the entry level has been pushed suitably up to fifteen or sixteen ppm for network lasers. 

The DMP, as with every year, refuses to die out, retaining its niche market of billing and other multipart printing applications. Increasing usage of computers in retail operations across the country has, if anything, only increased the possible markets for DMPs. And models like the proton from TVS should benefit from this. Line printers, the highest end of the DMP market, sold by the likes of Lipi, continue to remain a narrowly focused segment.

Inkjet: Likely to be limited to niche and low-end personal printing. Facing an onslaught from MFDs
MFD:
The new kid in town. Primary market is individuals and small businesses. May find only limited appeal with enterprise customers when compared to the laser printers
Laser printer: The enterprise workhorse. Network-wide management is the focus here. Adoption of color is on the increase
High-end printer/digital copier: Options and add ons can add up to much more than what you were planning to spend. Look for innovative pricing and buy back offers

The biggest product trend in this area is the coming of age of the MFD. The MFD is today available at such low prices and vendors are so aggressively pushing it that the inkjet printer appears to be in the danger of imminent extinction, driven off the consumer space at the low end by affordable MFDs delivering high quality prints. On the upper, networked end, in spite of the odd model, the inkjet has not been able to meet the challenge of higher and higher printing speeds at lower and lower costs. 

Epson, quite an old player in the Indian market, seems to be quietly building a niche presence in specialty inkjet printing, such as printing on different material and large-format printing. This, incidentally, is something that Tectronix did with its Phaser line before it was sold. 

In the enterprise market, it is difficult to envisage the MFD taking over all printing functions mainly because not all work groups would require to scan and fax. But that is quite a possibility in the personal space. Thus, the inkjet printer seems to be at the loosing end of the game right now. In the slightly longer term, we might move to a three-product market, a liquid ink-based MFD at the lower end and a laser-based MFD or a high-speed laser printer at the network end. A fourth choice that shows some chances of emerging, as a distinct niche, is the digital copier. Now, what is the digital copier? There seems to be quite a bit of confusion and overlap in the definitions of the MFD and the digital copier. Simply put, a digital copier is a device that uses digital instead of analog technologies to copy documents. So, the device can save the documents in digital form as well as modify (edit, independent X and Y zoom) them in memory. Digital copiers are fairly high-end devices and almost, all of them support multiple functions, a-la MFDs, and hence the overlap. Xerox, another old player, is also making a comeback in this space with its WorkCentres. In the longer term, the laser MFD and the digital copier segments may merge.

MFD

Low price
High cost per print
Color is standard

High price
Networkable
Lots of options
Can edit documents in memory
Color and monochrome
Network management

PRINTER

INK

LASER

Low price
Low-volume printing
High-cost per print
Color is standard

High-volume printing
Network management
Low cost per print
Monochrome is standard
Color is coming in

What is perhaps even more interesting, at least in the Indian market, is that the printer segment is no longer a one horse race. Gone are the days when HP used to be the leading choice, with Epson coming in as a far second. Today, the printer market in India presents a more competitive picture than ever before. The credit for creating this change in the market goes to the advent of the MFDs from a product perspective. Suddenly, every vendor saw a virtually virgin market, and an opportunity wherein they could differentiate their products and brands. From a vendor perspective, credit goes particularly to Canon and Samsung for creating a multiplayer market. Brother and Toshiba are the two brands to watch in this context, particularly with
MFDs. 

With hardware prices touching rock bottom and going even lower, it was to consumables and options that the vendors turned to build up their bottom lines. Thus, the last year saw significant investments being made by the leading vendors to make their consumables available, not only at every nook and corner, but also just a phone call away. Here again, HP established an early lead, with the others playing catch up. In spite of all this, refilling of cartridges, both ink and laser, continues to be the norm and refilling is slowly moving away from being roadside operations with dirty syringes to respectable businesses that also do house calls, with names such as Lipi Data Systems entering the business.

On the enterprise front, the big news is the increasing use of network printer management. It is not that this is new. Only, with more and more printers being connected to the enterprise network, and with consumables and maintenance becoming issues of concern, enterprise IT managers are increasingly implementing network-wide printer monitoring and management. Second to printer management is wireless printing. Wireless printing is slowly making its appearance, and with more and more corporate offices implementing wireless LANs, wireless printing may also stay.

Though it is early days yet for them, two other trends are worth mentioning here, in case you want to give either of them a try. One, printing as a service. WeP is the one that is trying this out. The attempt is to set up printing bureaus, to which you would send your printing jobs over the Net. The bureau would download the jobs, print and package them properly and have them delivered. In theory, you could, say, send your annual report from Bangalore, for 25 copies to be printed and delivered in Delhi, another 15 in Mumbai and so on. As a service, this one is about two to three years old, but my guess is that critical mass is still some time away. The second is pay per print. Again, this is nothing new. All photocopier vendors followed this model. You buy the unit and then pay a certain amount per page printed towards toner, maintenance and other consumables.

Sharp is following the same model with their network lasers MFDs. They also provide an assurance of service response times to users adopting the model. This is a tried and proven model, at least in the photocopier space. Whether will be willing to accept the same for their printing needs has to be seen. 

By Krishna Kumar

COMING UP




Mobile printing has been a big challenge from the technology perspective. The challenge is to build a light portable printer that will not spill ink, be compact enough and give good quality prints. Early attempts at this had all failed on one or more of these fronts. With notebooks becoming increasingly common, the market seems ripe for an innovative approach. Two efforts stand out in the crowd. The first, by Printdreams (www.printdreams. com), envisages a wireless handheld device that creates the print while it is swept over the paper, or for that matter any other surface much like a hand held scanner. They call it Random Movement Print Technology. 

The second one, by Samsung, sends the paper through a ring, instead of keeping it flat, thus reducing the form factor of the printer. The prototype went on to win a gold in the annual Business week design awards this year.

This is one space that would require watching

IN BRIEF




The printer segment is in transition, with vendors jockeying for positioning afresh. That in itself opens up new options in available models and opportunities for cutting interesting deals. MFDs are creating a big buzz, the like of which has not been seen for some time now in the printer market. But the real news for those charged with enterprise IT implementation is in printer management and managing consumable costs. Options and add ons to the basic printer is another area that could consume more of your budget than you planned for

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