by September 17, 2003 0 comments

In the Laser printer market, prices are going down and duplexing (double-sided printing) is slowly becoming a universal feature. Even color printing is becoming affordable. The action in the inkjet market is only slightly more exciting. Printer prices are down, the cartridge wars are on, and the vendors are waiting for the next big thing, the explosion of the photo-printing market. The happening sector seems to be that of MFDs. So we will concentrate on these two segments–MFDs and photo printing.

Refills  anyone?

The price of an entry-level inkjet has fallen below the Rs 3000 level. An average inkjet will cost many times that amount in inks supply during its life time. Add these two facts up, and you will easily understand the lay of the market. Vendors stand to make more money selling ink than from selling the printer. In fact, it is rumored that they sell the printer at a loss. 

The action in the ink cartridge market has heated up substantially with printer vendors turning up the heat on the other two players, refill vendors and ink
refillers. At least two significant refill vendors operate in the Indian
market-Lipi and Abee from Mumbai and Pune respectively. HP is by far the most aggressive of the printer vendors, what with free gifts along with fresh cartridges, a toll-free cartridge order line and even free home delivery! The latest news is that Canon is offering similar services to its customers of bubble jet printers, all-in-one and fax products. All customers have to do is log onto Canon India’s website and place an order for cartridges or ink tanks, and the same would be delivered within four hours, and that too without any additional charges.

This year, this has been the hot and happening category . In the Users’ Choice 2003 survey, we found that 45% of the respondents at the enterprise level have already invested in MFDs and 21% intend to buy one within the next one year, making MFDs something to watch out for in the coming year also
MFDs combine the functions of a printer, scanner, fax machine and copier into a single device. Like most printing solutions, MFDs, too, come in two flavors: laser-based ones for large-volume use and inkjet-based ones for small offices and homes. The heavy-duty laser MFDs cost a couple of lakh rupees, with some of them, such as HP LJ 9000 MFP, having a capacity to print up to 300,000 pages per month at a speed of 50 ppm. One emerging trend in laser MFDs is the move to color printing. Canon’s ImageRunner C3200, a color laser MFD, has recently been launched. It can convert color hard-copy originals into digital files and transmit them digitally as e-mail attachments. With some MFDs like the Gestetner 4502, you can set it to print confidential files only when you provide a password. These machines are meant to be used over the network and most have the ADF (Automatic document feeder) , duplexer, stacking and stapling features.

The price of inkjet MFDs begins at around Rs 10,000, though HP has a cheaper model at Rs 6000. These machines print mostly in color, fax in monochrome or color and use either a flatbed or roller scanner for scanning. Inkjet MFDs are capable of serving networks and they come with network protocols, different operating environments and many printer languages.

Some offer a function called mopying. Instead of printing one original and then making copies on a copying machine, you get several originals of the document (or high-quality copies). Another feature, called Duplexer, allows automatic printing on both sides of a sheet, without any manual intervention. Some MFDs also have a Flash memory card slot, a feature useful in photo labs and design studios. You take pictures on a digicam and then place its memory card in the slot on the MFD and take prints.

Broad  trends
Color lasers go cheap
Inkjets get faster
MFDs finally arrive
Inkjet prices fall and fall
Photo printing gets touted as the next big wave

What are the benefits? The biggest is that it’s much cheaper to buy an MFD than to spend on many separate machines. Also, it’s cheaper to maintain one machine than several. On the downside, with MFDs you will have to compromise on certain features that you may get from a stand-alone device. For example, you may not be able to print labels or on envelops from an MFD, something that you can do with a regular printer. 

Photo printers
Switching over to the personal space, Photo printers are expected to drive the next growth wave in printing. Polaroids gave you photo prints instantaneously. That’s why they became popular. Now, the digicam plus photo printer combo promises the same instantaneity. 

is dead
Only a couple of years back inkjet vendors used to have terrible battles over dpi or the number of dots per inch that a printer can print. Even laser printers were not exempt from that battle. As print quality differences became minimal, that is one battle that has subsided, never to return. 

Photo printers are of two types: dye-sublimation printers for professional photographers or graphic artists and inkjets for small business or home use. Dye-subs use very stable and fade-resistant dyes to produce very continuous tone images. They also require specially-coated paper to print on. Though these take the running costs of dye-subs high, they also contribute to producing high-quality prints that don’t fade very easily.

Higher-end photo inkjets have two or three extra colors-a second lot of cyan, magenta and, sometimes, black-for better skin-tone reproduction. Though inkjets are cheaper than dye-subs, and can be used for other printing jobs as well, they have a high running cost, the primary one being that of ink. 

Some photo printers give you the option to connect your camera directly to the printer and print, without needing a computer.

Since this ‘direct print’ standard is not fully interoperable yet, your printer and camera have to be from the same manufacturer.

Such printers have slots for reading various types of Flash memory and some even come with an LCD. The LCD, which of course comes at an additional cost, is useful when printing directly from a memory stick as you can see what you want to print rather than remembering the file names of the images that you want to print. 

At the small business level, photo printers are becoming ubiquitous in photo labs. The local photo studio, for instance, has started to use a digicam and photo inkjet to do your passport photographs in minutes. Another niche application here is for printing on the face of CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. Videographers, for example, can use such printers to print pictures from their film on the CD face. To print on thicker media, the printer needs a lever that adjusts the height of the print-head to accommodate the media.

Print on 
the move

Nothing much has happened with mobile printers, though they have been around for quite some time now. They, like most other printers, have begun to offer photo-printing capabilities. But, the price of these products remains high and the demand low. What might drive developments here could be wireless connectivity. Mobile printers such as the Canon i70 come with IR connectivity these days.

At the consumer end, the demand for photo printers is currently very low. The choice of printer here will be dictated by the cost of consumables. Moreover, home users generally own low-resolution cameras, so will not really require a high-quality printer. Vendors, though, are doing their bit to fuel demand. HP very recently announced over a 100 consumer products, ranging from digicams and printers to ink cartridges and paper. Their paper, called HP Everyday Photo Paper, is claimed to be the industry’s least expensive photo paper. 

Remote printing services
This is something new to India, though companies such as Kinkos in the US have been offering print services for many years now. In India, this effort is being given a try by WeP, which has opened up the first of its centers in Bangalore, with plans to expand all over the country.

What’s remote printing? Sitting in your Delhi office, you could upload your file and remotely ask for copies of your report to be printed and delivered to your Bangalore office. Or, if your report is confidential, you could even password protect it and have someone from your Bangalore office, who knows the password, go to the print center and fire the print command himself. 

How will it help? One, you don’t need to invest in higher-end expensive printers for large-volume printing or worry about maintenance and the cost of consumables. Instead, they just pay for the pages printed at the center. 

Two, they need not print and deliver, thus incurring the cost of courier, and the time involved. Instead they can print nearer to the location where the print is required. Such services are targeted at SMEs and professionals who would need lower capital investment and printing costs. 

Another service that WeP offers is that of printer rentals, something that Xerox did with its copiers. WeP will install a printer suitable to your needs in your office and take care of the maintenance and consumables. Again, you need to pay for the pages that you print. 

By Juhi Bhambal 

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