Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Canon and the dollar

A Wall Street Journal article today tracks the finances of Canon Inc. The company is reportedly ready to set a record profit for the year, yet its stock price has been tumbling.

The reason for this seeming contradiction, according to the article, has to do with the falling dollar. “The company, which takes in three-quarters of its sales overseas, is one of Japan's biggest exporters. In this position, it is more vulnerable than most Japanese companies to fluctuating exchange rates and a slowing U.S. economy.” When the US economy sneezes, Canon is in danger of catching cold; the biggest decline, the article notes, came during the August mortgage-credit crunch in the US.

All this in spite of eight years in a row of record earnings and continued growth. But while Canon has hedged against currency fluctuations, the rapidity of the dollar’s decline versus the yen has surprised everyone. Investors are speculating that the dollar’s decline is not over. And 60% of Canon’s sales are in the US.

The point is that if Canon, with its strong market position and sustained profits is feeling the threat, its rivals, likewise highly dependent on Asian manufacturing, are likely to be suffering even more. For buyers of office equipment, it may be a mixed deal: the real cost in dollars of copiers and printers has to be going up, while the vendors, worried about a decline in sales, may be open to more aggressive bargaining.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Health and laser printers

A recent Australian study of office air quality raised some concerns about laser printers, more specifically the toner particles emitted by them. This so-called “ultra-fine particle pollution” can contribute to respiratory illnesses, much like having secondhand smoke from a nearby indoor smoker, something no office these days permits. As one of the scientist from Queensland University is quoted as saying “If a printer operates in an indoor environment, the concentration of ultra-fine particles would be of the same order of magnitude as if there was secondhand smoke in a similar environment.”

The curious thing is that some laser printers emit no or little toner, while others emit a high level. And even printers from the same vendor can range from totally clean to polluting. While all printers pass federal safety and health regulations, the Australian study points out a new area for concern.

The Australian group is still continuing its studies (they have found, for example, that copiers are generally less of a problem), and they may well discover why some printers emit give off more particles than others. There may be a manufacturing fix that can lower the particle count on the worst offending machines.

In a practical sense, offices should become more aware of general ventilation and air exchange, something that would be useful in general, for cutting down on colds and other air-borne viruses.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sharp’s new fax-based MFP

Faxing may be moribund, but some new products are adding new value by looking at these machines as appliances for routing documents and for enhancing office workflow. Such a machine scans in documents and distributes them using fax, email, FTP, or scan-to-folder.

That’s the approach Sharp is taking with its brand-new FO-IS125N fax-based multifunctional. This $600 (list) machine prints, copies, scans, and faxes. It uses Sharp’s Image SENDER™ technology, based on the same sophisticated scanning software that Sharp has on its high-end copier/MFPs.

According to Sharp product manager Gary Bailer, the concept was to make scanning to a destination as easy for non-tech-savvy users as faxing is. “How do I get a piece of paper form point A to point B very simply? We wanted to keep the simplicity of faxing while responding to current needs for document distribution.” Indeed, no other fax machines on the market offer the full range of scan-to options of the FO-IS125N.

In addition to allowing for the various scan-to options, the FO-IS125N offers a number of security features: including facilities for user authorization, fax rerouting, secure fax, and call restriction. For highly security-conscious sites, it offers a way of having each transmission, whether fax or scan-to-email authorized before being sent. The purpose of this feature is to automate some of the steps in gathering approvals for contract, press releases, and financial documents before they get released. That’s an area that such mandates as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA have made much more important.

Sharp has added some nice user features as well: a functional keyboard, dual-sided scanning, and LDAP addressing. True, the machine is on the slow side (prints and copies at 12ppm), but the concentration on providing an inexpensive station for secure document sending is a smart direction for prolonging the life of the past-its-prime fax machine market.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Money of Color

This summer, a survey by print-industry experts Lyra Research and by Recharger Magazine confirms what we

have long thought — typical office users do not have the slightest idea what it costs to print or copy color pages, whether laser or ink jet.

Users were asked what it cost per page to print in color compared to black-and-white. 15% of those surveyed thought that it cost the same, while 39% thought it cost twice as much. Only 9% knew that the actual cost is usually around four times as high for color as for black-and-white.

That’s a pretty costly knowledge gap. It surely comes from an environment in which no user is accountable for costs and where there has been no education about the consequences of color printing. Before installing more color in your office, you may want to tackle the problem of ignorance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Talk about hi-res!

IBM, along with ETH Zurich (a Swiss research lab), recently announced the development of a technology called nano printing. (The original of the much-enlarged image on the left was created by putting down 20,000 gold particles, each about 60 nanometers in diameter.) The researchers came up with a technology that can lay down dots at a resolution of 100,000dpi, using dots of about 60 nanometers in width, a little higher solution than your standard 600dpi or 1,200dpi office printers. Now, this not something that is going into your office. It is clearly intended for creating tiny impressions on optical; chips or wires on tiny devices like biosensors. It could be the way in which semiconductors designers can put even more information on silicon. I like to imagine spies encoding vast databases on a Post-It note. This isn’t going to affect how you print your next memo, but advances in technology have a tendency to migrate both uphill and downhill. Office printers have improved over recent years due to increased accuracy in placing toner and ink, and the IBM breakthrough shows that accuracy can be taken to the ultimate degree.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Green faxing

Here’s another good reason for managing fax traffic—the ecology. According to business consultant Heather Clancy, the best thing would be for everyone to convert to scan-to-email. But many small businesses, in particular, still have customers and business partners that are still very much wedded to the fax age. But traditional fax machines, as Clancy points out,“are notorious paper wasters and energy drainers to boot.” U.S. government stats show that “paper production is second only to petroleum in terms of energy used by U.S. industries.” And if your fax machines are like ours, sometimes they print almost as many ads for replacement toner, software bargains, and deli menus as they do real faxes. Even more wasteful is the cost of just sitting there waiting, according to Clancy: “Energy Star rates fax machines among the most energy-intensive types of business machines out there because most of the time they sit around turned on, basically doing nothing.” She points to an Energy Star Web page with a linked calculator that can help you determine the hidden costs of faxing here. The solutions are more scan-to-email and high-end network fax software that can intercept faxes, digitize them, store them in a secure environment, and perhaps reroute them by email. Being green may not be a priority of your business, but when being green means saving money and increasing security, it makes sense. Network fax software is available, for example, from MyFax, Equisys (Zetafax), and Captaris (RightFax) among others.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Print 2.0 — Part Two

Hewlett-Packard’s Print 2.0 initiative, once you get past the marketing hype, is about a series of packages that extend the usefulness of printing for different classes of users. We’ll give a few examples below of new applications where we think HP has made a step forward, and may well help in its goal to have people print even more pages on desktop printers.

Consumers and Small Businesses
One trend that HP has discovered is that while a few years ago, the large majority of pages were printed from standard PC applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Photoshop, etc.), now a growing number of pages come directly from an Internet page (48 percent according to their figures and growing). Web pages have several characteristics for the print market, not least being that (if printed in color) they use up a lot of ink or toner, thanks to colored backgrounds. But as we all know, Web pages often don’t fit on printed pages.

So HP has come up with a program called Smart Web Printing that allows you to combine selections from several Web pages on one printed page. It will automatically resize the content to fit on one or more pages. You can also edit text and delete or resize graphics. This software will be packaged with new HP printers due out in September.

Small and Medium Business
One of the new applications that HP recently purchase is one called Logoworks, a package that allows businesses to put together a whole suit of branding materials (stationery, business cards, etc.), without having to go outside to purchase design services or commercial printing services. The software includes a number of templates that users can simply plug in logo and text.

The big announcement its new Open Extensibility Platform, which provides an application programming interface (API) so that users and third parties can develop interfaces and workflows for high-end printers and especially multifunctionals. With this HP joins copier companies like Canon, Ricoh, and Xerox, which offer this capability for their copier/multifunctionals. It is clear that HP is aiming at that market as one of its key strategies, with both high-speed ink jet and laser multifunctionals that increasingly look like office copiers.

Printer Management
HP’s Web Jetadmin has been the standard for IT department management of printers on the network, and has been a major selling point for HP. HP has upgraded its Office Server software, which adds several impressive layers of administrative controls. It has an impressive list of features, including on-the-fly format conversion, group and individual privilege management, job authentication, accounting, and performance reporting. While this product and the suite of products that extend it has been on the market for a while, HP released a number of enhancements.

There were lots more new announcements (including hardware upgrades and new software alliances. If Print 2.0 is not as quite a big revolution as HP would like to have us believe, it is still an impressive campaign on every front. The HP juggernaut has shifted up a gear and its rivals in the printer market will have to catch up.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Print 2.0 — Part One

Hewlett-Packard recently rolled out its $300 million Print 2.0 marketing campaign. The term Print 2.0 is based on the growing concept of Web 2.0, generally seen as the second generation of Web use and services.

Basic idea behind Web 2.0 is an increased emphasis on user-to-user communication. Examples of Web 2.0 include YouTube (self-produced film clips), podcasting (shared audio information), FaceBook (social networking), and Wikipedia (an encyclopedia based on shared expertise). Some see the term as marketing hype, but there is no doubt that these programs and others have made it easier for end users to move from becoming simple consumers of the Web to producers and consumers.

So what is Print 2.0? It’s a little confusing at this point. HP sees it as an attempt to move “from selling printers to selling printing.” What that means is something like a move from selling boxes to selling solutions. And it makes sense. HP makes little if any profit on the sales of printing devices, especially in the competitive home and small-office markets. Where it does make money, and lots of it, is in selling consumables: toner and ink, which are high markup items. Hence HP’s emphasis not on selling more printers (they dominate the market for both lasers and ink jets), but on have customers print more pages on those printers (and buying more supplies).

HP, then, is in the midst of figuring out how to entrench and extend its domination. It’s pushing strongly in three areas:
* On the home consumer level, it is providing new software that encourages end users to get creative without necessarily having to buy or master Illustrator or Photoshop
* On the office level, it is putting a strong emphasis on multifunctionals as replacements for office copiers and on the workflow tools related to them
* On the high-end production level, it has been pushing it new Edgeline high-speed ink jet printer-multifunctionals along with a new generation wide-format printers and HP’s jaw-dropping Halo video-conferencing.

We’ll look at some of the specific new products in another post.