The days when printers were devices that merely copied other pages and printed electronic documents are long gone; advances in mobility, application development and cloud computing mean that today, the printer fleet is as important a part of an IT manager’s brief as servers, PCs, laptops and networking gear.
Ever since networked PCs were connected to printers, printer software has gained in importance, and over the past few years printer vendors have started offering increasingly sophisticated management software to go with their appliances.
Much printer software today goes far beyond just deciding on what gets printed when, and extends into functions more commonly associated with specialist document management software.
And, as mobile devices proliferate, printer vendors are answering demand and providing connections from mobile devices to their printers.
All these trends are shaping the future of the printer industry, but, says IDC Australia infrastructure group senior analyst Trevor Clarke, “What CIOs and IT decision-makers are telling us they are after is a managed-print services offering that integrates with other IT projects and priorities to help align IT with the business goals, and is holistic in nature.
“This may be from the software side of things, or it may also be from the device side.”
The ever-more sophisticated software offerings from printer vendors are going some way toward addressing this, as well as on document management software vendors and on mainstream IT companies, Clarke says.
“The momentum in the printing space at the moment is definitely towards managed print services offerings that usually have a strong software component,” he says.
“What we are seeing is traditional printer vendors starting to compete with copier and document solutions vendors, with an overall push towards end-to-end offerings.
“We will continue to see this kind of market convergence.”
Software is becoming more important, but is still second to tangibles when it comes to printer vendors’ revenues, he says.
“The printing game has for a long time been about consumables.
“That has been the revenue cash cow for most printing vendors and it will continue to be.
“However, we see a shift happening towards services offerings such as managed print services that include software solutions.
“While I can’t say how much software-specific revenues have risen, I don’t believe it would be significant in the overall scale of the printing game.
“However, as a feature within bundled offerings, and as a point of differentiation for vendors, the software component is vital.”
Like the trend towards more feature-rich management software, the move to mobile printing is noticeable, but the majority of printing in the near future will continue to be done from wired networks, not wireless ones, Clarke says.
“Mobile printing is an exciting, new technology that promises to allow users to print from any device in pretty much any location.
“While there will be a lot of marketing focus on mobile printing in 2011, it is unlikely you will see much adoption. This year is really the period that vendors will be planting the seeds of future growth in mobile printing.
“I do think small business employees that travel a lot will find mobile printing a useful offering if they are able to securely print at convenient locations.”
Clarke’s views on printer management software and mobile printing as the future of the industry are broadly mirrored by printer vendors.
Hamish Alexander, country manager for Hewlett-Packard’s imaging and printing group, says software is at the forefront of HP’s printer offerings, with printer management packages such as the web-based HP WebJetAdmin, which can manage both HP and non-HP printers, widely used.
“WebJetAdmin is widely used in enterprise sites to manage printing”, Alexander says.
“It allows us to make printing easier, more seamless and more sustainable.”
HP is addressing the mobile device explosion with ePrint, a broad-based mobile printing initative that was launched globally last year.
EPrint assigns an email address to printers, allowing users to send text and attachments via email, through HP’s cloud infrastructure, to that printer. Most mobile email clients are available for ePrint.
The service is being progressively rolled out across HP’s printer range, starting with consumer and small to medium-sized business models, then enterprise-grade printers.
“We are very excited about this technology.”
Another mobile printing initiative HP is involved in is a partnership with Apple linking HP printers to AirPrint, an Apple wireless printing initiative.
AirPrint allows Apple mobile device users to send material to ePrint-enabled printers; users of Apple devices running the iOS 4.2 mobile operating system can use it.
“The potential for mobile printing is huge,” Alexander says.
“Real estate, office products, banking and finance, it is endless.”
An early adopter of HP mobile printing is Air New Zealand, whose Koru lounges are set up for printing from passengers’ mobile devices, he says.
Lexmark Australia SMB and channel manager Stephen Bell says software is becoming more important in the printer world.
“There are two aspects to this, first printer management, and second, information management and connectivity to the broader IT world.”
The company has a range of management tools, either managed by the customer, Lexmark itself or partners, which provide greater visibility into printer use, Bell says.
“There are still many customers that don’t have a handle on what they have got and what’s optimal for them.”
The software gives organisations the chance to take cost-saving steps such as automating administrative tasks such as toner ordering and service calls, and allows users to get a snapshot of the printer fleet from remote locations.
“It’s an up-front cost, but offers continuous improvement.”
Regarding the second aspect of printer software, the broader interface to organisations’ IT environment, Lexmark recently acquired Perceptive, a content management software provider. Its offerings include a direct interface to Microsoft SharePoint and other collaboration tools, allowing documents to be extensively modified without having to be printed, thus improving workflow and reducing paper use.
Lexmark has applications in this area, such as Follow Me Print, which incorporates swipe cards and printing from remote offices.
Ricoh is another printer vendor that is getting into the mobile printing space, with the HotSpot Printing for Mobile Devices offering, which allows users to send documents to special HotSpot printers via mobile devices.
Ricoh New Zealand business solutions manager Greg Quirk says, in a statement from the company “We recognised the need to develop Ricoh HotSpot printing to help service-focused organisations such as educational institutes, hotels, airports and cafes capture the opportunity to add value for their clientele.”
Cameron Mount, the company’s business solutions general manager, says of the service: “By leveraging cloud computing and SaaS, we ensured a high level of flexibility and scalability, making sure that it meets different location requirements without needing a particular network supplier.”
What are printer vendors doing about sustainability?
Besides increasingly sophisticated software and the development of mobile printing, another area in which printing is contributing to IT departments is through sustainability.
The exact meaning of the word “sustainable” is so vague that it is hard to actually measure whether a device or initiative is sustainable, but HP has several initiatives in place to reduce paper and ink use and save money through careful use of the printer fleet.
“For example, there is a programme with the LaserJet Pro M1212 that pays back the price of the printer in terms of savings,” HP’s Hamish Alexander says.
“We refund it if you don’t get paid back.”
This is done through the printer’s energy-saving application and other features.
Globally, HP operates the Planet Partners programme for recycling toner cartridges and WebJetAdmin offers insights into paper and energy use, he says.
Looking into the future of printers, Alexander sees the ongoing development of software for printers, driven by cloud computing, and the move from analogue to digital printing as major trends.
“If you look at all printing around the world, including newspapers and so on, only about 10 percent is done digitally.
“The future of the printing industry is digital and there is a huge opportunity to grow that space.”
Lexmark’s Stephen Bell says that a recent whole-of-lifecycle analysis of the firm’s printer products revealed that 80 percent of the environmental impact of a printer over its working life is in the usage phase, not manufacturing.
“The lion’s share of the input in the usage phase is in paper use,” he says. “Because paper is the biggest contributor to the environmental footprint of printing, Lexmark has a Print Less initiative, which focuses on helping customers use less paper.”
Examples include encouraging printing on both sides of paper and software for managing workflows within organisations.