Paper trail

The lines between printing, faxing and scanning are blurring, say analysts. Mainstream printers now have IP addresses and can manipulate and send documents without a PC. But do standalone printers make for smarter business?

The lines between printing, faxing and scanning are blurring, say analysts. Mainstream printers now have IP addresses and can manipulate and send documents without a PC. But do standalone printers make for smarter business?

The web is still not winning over the watermark. Growing use of the internet and email appears to have made no dent in the use of printers and copiers and has had little effect on the installation of faxes. Even the most IT-equipped, aggressively online organisations still want and, presumably in most cases need, hard copy. And they want it faster, by the shortest economical route.

This has led to new ways of connecting printers. Like storage, more and more are not attached to a particular server or PC but directly to the network with their own IP addresses, and enough smarts to diagnose their own and the network’s problems without needing to refer to “a computer”.

Under a traditional set-up if the server that the printer is attached to is down, or the PC is switched off, the printer naturally becomes inaccessible. Web-enabled printers with their own IP addresses permit remote diagnosis and management, says Hewlett-Packard market development manager for imaging, Elizabeth Hall.

“The person in Invercargill using the printer may not be an expert,” she says, “but they can call up a maintenance expert in Auckland who can log on to the printer and see that the relevant tray is empty, or not closed properly or that more toner is needed.” With the aid of HP’s WebJet Admin, for example, an email can be generated direct from a printer that is running short of toner, to order more.

And with the deployment of wireless LANs has come wireless printing. Printer makers have recently launched devices that do not need to be physically attached either to a PC or to a network.

Working harder, smarter

Instead of reducing the volume of printing, the internet and email have shifted its location and hence affected the distribution of technology used to render hard copy, Hall suggests. “While a company might previously have done a bulk print using a very large printer-copier, and distributed copies physically, nowadays they will email the document out and every office will print their own copies [probably on a smaller, less complex printer]. Just as much printing is being done, in fact probably more, but it’s being done in different places and on different devices.”

Network-attached printers, either directly or through a server, are becoming the rule, Hall says, but because of New Zealand’s larger proportion of small and medium-sized businesses — not big enough to afford or need a networked printer — more customers in New Zealand than other countries stick with personal printers attached to their PCs. “In a large organisation some people still want their own dedicated printer for security,” she says.

With direct-connect, hard-copy peripherals work faster. A document on its way through a server to a PC or another server with attached printer will be spooled two or even three times, says Bruce Armstrong, manager of Wellington printer reseller Laser Plus.

Network-attached printers go through only one spooling. The network can offer megabit-per-second speeds as against 450kbit/s on the typical printer cable, Armstrong says.

Outside the firewall

While most printers in the corporate world are now directly network-attached, Armstrong says, some organisations have put the printers even further out, on the internet outside the company firewall. This means a user in any office of the organisation can get to the same printer without having to transfer information through a dedicated WAN. But this is complex to set up, Armstrong says, and poses the usual security problems.

Even small organisations and small office/home office users can now avail themselves of economical high-quality printers, so have less need to buy combination devices, says Epson’s national technical manager, Ivan Tvrdeich. Likewise, network-attached printers are even appearing in homes hooked up to small networks, to avoid tying up any of the capacity of the PC. Direct-attach also avoids possible incompatibility between a printer and the processor in the printer server, says Trvrdeich — many printers will not attach easily to Apple Macs.

As company networks have increased in speed, this has been reflected in the efficiency of printing. And colour, Armstrong says, has quietly become standard with the emergence of laser colour printers with 30-page-per-minute rates. Many government organisations now have colour as standard, he says. It shows that the desire for colour has been there all the time; cost factors have just restricted its deployment. Meanwhile, the printers themselves continue to gain processing grunt. Epson’s C2000 colour laser, for instance, incorporates a 266MHz RISC processor.

Coming together

As printers get smarter and more powerful, the genres of hard copy equipment start to blur. “About 15% of copiers sold these days are connected to the network as printers,” estimates Armstrong.

Whether the entry of the copier manufacturers erodes the traditional printer market depends on who “owns the process”, he says. If the production of hard copy is considered an office administration matter, the person in charge of that function will see the sense and economy in merging the printer function with the copier function. If the decision is in the hands of IT, the organisation is more likely to stick with traditional printers for the directly IT-related functions. “The IT people look at networking and the kind of support the helpdesk can already provide. They stick with what they know.”

The line between printers and copiers blurs the most where the copier companies want to gain more ground, says Armstrong, and where they already have a strong relationship with senior executives such as the chief financial officer. Multifunction units (MFU), however, are being widely adopted, Hall says, because of reduction in space and capital cost, compared with having a separate printer, copier and fax. Because of the internet and email, she says, the copying function is less in demand, and is more economically maintained as one function of an MFU, rather than the sole function of a specialised machine.

However, while Manukau City Council has seen MFUs successfully deployed, second-position printer manufacturer Epson sees no market niche for the product at all, and has not released multifunction units in the local market. “Maybe it has something to do with the size of the market,” says Epson marketing manager Andrea Kahukiwa.

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