Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wi-Fi: a growing requirement

A recent study, conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for Lexmark, shows the growing demand for wireless accessibility for printers in the SOHO market.

The survey interviewed some 9,000 “tech-savvy” end-users across the globe, over 700 in the US. 40 percent of respondents had wireless network (Wi-Fi) in their home and over 80 percent of these had experienced productivity benefits. The benefits cited were enhanced flexibility and added mobility. More and more offices, the study says, are getting used to mobility, given the use of PDAs, laptops, and digital cameras.

Furthermore, the study notes that 94 percent of respondents “say they need a printer in order to be able to do their jobs effectively.” Also that “access to a printer is perceived to be as, if not slightly more, important as having access to the Internet (93 percent) and e-mail (92 percent).” In addition, 92 percent claim they want to be able to print without being hooked by cable to a printer. That’s true at home, at work, and while traveling (especially in a hotel or airport business center).

Given all that, relatively few printers are Wi-Fi ready. Lexmark has been introducing a growing number of wireless-preconfigured models, and it only makes sense that Wi-Fi will soon be as standard equipment on many printers and MFPs as Ethernet and USB ports are.

Let’s face it. The current crop of laser printers and MFPs are more than fast enough and they have appropriate printing features for the majority of users. The big challenge is to make them more usable and for an increasingly mobile workforce, the ability to piggyback onto different printers at different locations (with proper security of course) is becoming more and more of a basic requirement.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Authentication at your fingertips

One of the hottest new security features for the office product world is biometric authentication, especially in the form of finger-based identification. The use of analog fingerprint identification over 140 years has proven that no two people’s fingerprints are identical. Now that expertise has gone digital, with major breakthroughs over the past year.

The technique available for office use is finger vein authentication. This involves placing a finger on an authentication device which scans the blood vessel patterns, and cross-checks them with a database of previously stored scans. Manufacturers (Hitachi is the leader) claim that this is even more secure than regular fingerprint identification, since you are measuring internal, rather than external, patterns. According to claims, the method is highly accurate, with virtually no mistaken rejections of valid users.

Finger vein authentication devices are fast and compact, and it is getting better rapidly. Hitachi is the main manufacturer, and it is introducing the technology into door handles, automobile steering wheels, PCs, and ATMs. Hitachi has also released software development kits, and we expect that the applications will multiply.

Konica Minolta has been a leader in applying this technology as an option in its copiers (and now printers). It enables secure print, secure fax, and mailbox access. We expect that it will become an option on virtually all office equipment over the next year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


We’ve all done it. Clicked on “Send” and immediately had our heart miss a beat as we realized that the e-mail was on its way to someone it wasn’t intended for.

No surprise, but a recent study found that 50 percent of all workers admitted to sending e-mails to the wrong person. Of course, most of the other 50 percent are probably in denial.

The survey, conducted by IT security firm Sophos, found that misdirected e-mails happen all the time. It’s not just the spectacular blunders we hear about – intending to send to a fellow employee an e-mail that makes fun of the boss, but mistakenly addressing it to the boss himself. More likely, it’s the inadvertent misdirection of confidential material, related to personnel, finances, or business strategy.

It’s a real concern. 75 percent of surveyed companies worry about sensitive information being leaked by e-mails.

Sophos, naturally, is interested in selling its software product that scans e-mail for critical keywords to filter out some of the problem, but that’s unlikely to plug all holes. The natural thought is that employees have to be educated to double-check messages before clicking on “Send,” but that it is not a trivial task. Somewhere between technology and training lies the solution, and this is a problem that more and more companies will have to struggle with.

Monday, November 26, 2007

TCO Wars

Over the past few years, the prices on low-to mid-range color laser printers have fallen ever lower even as the cost of consumables has gone up. The price of equipment acts basically as a loss leader, whereas the real money is in toner.

Are buyers of color laser printers finally starting to think about more than the sticker price? Is the total cost of ownership or TCO (a formula that combines average cost per page along with machine price) becoming a factor in purchasing decisions?

That’s an assumption that OKI Printing Solutions is working under. The company just announced consumables price reductions on its C8800 and C6000 color laser printer lines. Cost per page on the ledger-size C8800 have been lowered by 11% to 9.1 cents a page, while those on the letter/legal-size C6000 were lowered by 25% to 19.0 cents for color and 1.6 cents for black. OKI is claiming that TCO has been reduced by 30%.

Changes in consumables prices is a rare event in the printer business, and these are pretty significant reductions. The compelling reason for lowering the TCO is allowing a vendor to gain traction in what is now an extremely competitive market of very solid office color printers. The big target of course is Hewlett-Packard, whose dominant market position allows it to maintain higher consumables costs in some of its models. But beyond HP, there is a confusing array of choices from over a dozen serious rivals.

After talking to key OKI product managers, it seems clear that the price shift is likely to have most impact on large corporate and governmental purchasers, where a realization has already taken hold that more goes into costs than the sticker price. And OKI will need well-tutored salesmen and resellers to push the kind of three-year cost timeframe that’s behind total cost estimates.

Of course, the TCO argument is nothing new. Kyocera, especially, has been making it for years, with mixed success in the marketplace. Clearly, OKI is betting on a shift in thinking in the market, which is starting to get the idea that the long-term costs of color are far higher than they expected. It will be interesting to see if others follow suit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Secure printing: getting hot

The hottest issue in the printer/MFP world is secure printing. And the reasons are well illustrated in a survey that tech consulting firm IDC did in the UK for Canon. The survey results, according to a CRN article (“VARs must switch on to secure printing”, 11/12/07:
▪ 72 percent of office workers have picked up personal emails belonging to their colleagues
▪ 18 percent have looked at personnel records including salary info ▪ 70 percent have found and looked over job applicants’ résumés

In another recent survey commissioned by Brother, it was found that three out of four small and medium-size firms were unaware of the issue of unsecured printing. And in the companies that were aware of it, only about 40 percent had policies in place.

These surveys were made in the UK, but the results would likely be similar in the US and the increasing push for document confidentiality is similar in both countries.

The CPN article, which is mostly aimed at telling dealers how push security as a selling point for new machines, stresses the increasing legal requirements many companies face in keeping data confidential. It also outlines the various techniques from PIN entry to encryption to biometrics that are being currently featured in more and more products. As the article puts it, “Secure printing is mainly used in government and in defence industries, but has filtered through to large enterprises, mainly in the legal and financial services industries.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Print assessment through Technesis

Any company that wants to improve its document workflow needs to start with the most basic of facts: how many printers, copiers, and MFPs do we have; who uses them and how much; and what is the balance between color versus black-and-white pages. For many workplaces, even well-managed ones, these numbers are unknown.

Even when companies use the accounting software on their copier-multifunctionals, they usually get limited information. Most companies have a wealth of smaller devices from a variety of vendors, including ones that are not attached to the network, but rather connected though a USB or parallel port to desktop computers.

Only when you have made a systematic analysis with hard numbers can you properly get a handle on printing costs and allocate office equipment. To do that, you need one of several software packages on the market.

US-based software company Technesis has recently updated its Print Control System. The software, originally developed for the large-format printer market, is scalable so both small and large companies can use it. It consists of centralized software which resides on a server on the network to gather stats and client applications on each computer on the network to capture the parameters of each print job.

The software, installed on both servers and workstations, can capture all printing that goes through networked print servers on the network, plus, for Windows machines, any locally attached models. It allows a variety of reports for identifying use by user and group. For PCL and PostScript jobs, it can also estimate the amount of color or black toner used on each job.

The result of the survey is an attempt to right-size the printer fleet. One manufacturing customer of the company with 3,500 users started with 600 machines. After using the software and making an analysis, they consolidated the fleet to 190 MFPs.

Much of Technesis’s sales come through third party consulting services, including groups from major equipment. The company also will lease the software direct, in 90-day increments and on a per-seat basis.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Xerox declares a dividend

It’s a mark of Xerox’s progress away from the brink that the company today announced that it would start paying dividends again, after a six-year hiatus. The dividend is small enough (4.25 cents per share as the stock is worth around $19 a share), but it is hopeful sign for the company.

In addition, Moody’s recently raised the company’s bonds up one notch. Xerox’s bonds made it out of the junk category to investment grade only this year.

The Bloomberg News report gives the details:
Chief Executive Officer Anne Mulcahy is raising revenue by adding color products that print, copy, scan and fax. Color pages are five times more profitable than black-and-white prints. The company has introduced 18 color devices this year. Xerox boosted operating cash flow to $1.5 billion this year, and said it will increase to $1.6 billion in 2008.

Congrats to Xerox for its amazing recovery.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Gigabit Ethernet and specmanship

An increasing number of office products are now boasting of a new advanced feature: compatibility with Gigabit Ethernet. This strikes me as a case of utter “specmanship,” a feature of no real use.

Gigabit Ethernet (also known in its usual setup as 1000BaseT) is a version of Ethernet that is (in theory) ten times faster than everyday 100BaseT Ethernet. It was made a standard in 1998 (IEEE 802.3 for international standards buffs), and it is slowly growing in importance. The original intention was to use the protocol for high-capacity backbone networks, where massive amounts of data were being transferred between servers and network switches. Soon, some desktop computers became Gigabit Ethernet-compatible. This setup is especially useful for streaming video across a network. Gigabit Ethernet requires special network routers, hubs, and cables, which can also work with lower Ethernet speeds.

The real issue, as we see it, is that printers and scanners work just fine with regular Ethernet. You can deliver data far faster as it is than any printer or scanner can handle it – the limiting factor is not network speed or processor power but the mechanical speed of the hardware. We can imagine that some very high-speed digital printers doing variable data printing might get an advantage from the boost in network speed, but as it stands, no regular office equipment will run one bit faster by adding a Gigabit Ethernet link.

We see Gigabit Ethernet as a classic “check-off” spec. Big government and some business buyers require that equipment be able to check off compliance with a number of requirements, some of them not really relevant to the functions of the machine. Sales staffs need such features just to get in the door. Gigabit Ethernet is harmless, but it adds nothing to productivity for most offices.

What's next? 10-Gigabit Ethernet? Or maybe you'd prefer 100-Gigabit Ethernet?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Konica Minolta’s new printer strategy

The printer product line at Konica Minolta has always seemed a little confused to me. In 1999 Minolta bought controlling interest in QMS, an Alabama-based pioneer in color laser printing. At that time, the printing operation seemed to be run as a separate organization with a different audience (often low end) than that for Minolta’s copier products. From the outside, at least, there seemed to be little shared technology.

In 2003, Minolta and Konica merged, and the situation didn’t change, as the new Konica Minolta had its hands full, combining both two sets of personnel and a confusing array of copier products with little in common. Starting in 2004 and moving forward, Konica Minolta started releasing the bizhub copiers and gradually built the newly unified technologies into to one of the most comprehensive and unified product lines in the business. Just last year, Konica Minolta had built a series of very successful color production MFPs (including the now top-of-the-line bizhub PRO C6500), which are giving Xerox’s DocuColor models a run for the money.

Now it is the turn of the (somewhat) neglected printer line. Konica Minolta just announced the release of two new PagePro black-and-white printers, two new families of magicolor color lasers, and an updated magicolor MFP. These new products are based on some of the technology developed for the bizhub copiers, including the same Emperon print controller. They use the same advanced Simitri toner and they share some of the same administration and security software from the bizhub line.

The most interesting product is the magicolor 8650DN, which looks like a 35ppm, printer-only version of the high-end color MFPs. It has a generous paper supply, solid finishing capability (including a booklet maker), and works with appropriate productivity software available with the higher-end bizhubs. We don’t have any prices yet, but this elegant and versatile printer looks like it will be leader in its market, somewhere between serious office use and light production.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is e-mail almost obsolete?

An insightful article on (Chad Lorenz, “The Death of E-Mail,” 11/14/07) analyzes the way in which under 20s are increasingly abandoning e-mail in favor of more instant means of communication.

And Lorenz is no old fogy whining about the young-uns: he's in his 20's. But he’s dismayed at the way in which teenagers are switching off from e-mail. As he writes: “According to a 2005 Pew study, almost half of Web-using teenagers prefer to chat with friends via instant messaging rather than e-mail. Last year, comScore reported that teen e-mail use was down 8 percent, compared with a 6 percent increase in e-mailing for users of all ages. As mobile phones and sites like Twitter and Facebook have become more popular, those old Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts increasingly lie dormant.”

Lorenx points out that among the teens he surveyed informally, most “signed in to IM or Facebook from the time they get home from classes until they turn out the lights.”

As he points out, just as even older users have become addicted to e-mail connectivity, a whole new generation has gone way past that. What will be interesting to watch is how all this works out when that generation hits a workplace now dependent on e-mails.

As Lorenz points out, it looks like the oldsters will have to follow in the wake of the kids, as more and more adults are being pulled into the Facebook world. And as cell phones get smarter and smarter, all of us are going to have to become expert at more modes of interaction. “You can now send and receive every kind of message—texts, IMs, e-mails, and Facebook posts—with most new mobile phones.”

For all of us who seem to spend too much of our workday sorting through e-mails and being pestered by colleagues we don’t respond fast enough to, the onslaught is just beginning.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Security certification

As security becomes an ever bigger deal, vendors are claiming different levels of security certification. This is a relatively new area, and you may not understand the buzzwords.

The security features in most copier/multifunctionals make use of a standardized model called the International Common Criteria for Information Technology Security Evaluation (ISO 15408). This is generally shortened to the term Common Criteria or even CC. For many corporations, CC certification is a requirement for all products added to the network.

Common Criteria is used to define the security levels for a wide variety of devices on the network, from servers to routers to PCs, as well as to the software that runs them. It is an international standard based on the security requirements from several sources, including those used buy the U.S. Department of Defense. Adherence to the standard is certified at a set of accredited neutral testing laboratories.

Most mid- to high-end copier/multifunctional released over the past year have some level of certification. Older models are less likely to be certified.

Among the features required for certification in copiers and multifunctionals are:
▪ Hard disk encryption
▪ Hard disk overwriting
▪ Hard disk removal protection
▪ Memory overwriting
▪ Digital watermarks
▪ Network job encryption
▪ User authentication
▪ Secure print and fax
▪ Job auditing and accounting

The report cards on CC testing is presented in term of EAL (Evaluation Assurance Level), ranging from EAL1 to EAL7, where the higher number indicates a higher level of security tested. Most office machines come in at EAL2 or EAL3. But don’t be too impressed by these terms. For general office use especially, EAL2 is quite sufficient. It’s sometimes just a matter of how much time and money a company is willing to spend on such testing.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Lexmark study: Med offices nix color

Amidst the mass rush to color laser printing in the office at least one major sector is sticking to monochrome: the healthcare industry. That’s according to a study by Lexmark, which commissioned a survey of doctor’s office and healthcare service locations in the US, UK, Italy and France.

The result: color printing was seen as incidental for industry, with very little color printing in day-to-day operations, some color used for marketing materials, newsletters, and mailers, and much of that outsourced. While the industry is a massive user of laser printers and multifunctionals for printing out everything from insurance forms to prescriptions, to referrals, the survey sees no demand for that printing to be converted into color.

The survey also found that, more than in other offices, speed was a critical consideration (after all, there is usually a patient and doctor standing around waiting for a form to be printed out.)

The breakout of printed documents in the office surveyed came to:
▪ 52% text documents
▪ 26% forms and record
▪ 26% short reports
▪ 21% invoices and purchase orders
(Clearly, some documents fell into several categories.)

Lexmark is earnestly targeting this vertical market with its Lexmark Clinical Assistant package, which includes an X646dte MFP (black-and-white, of course) plus a set of targeted workflow software for medical offices.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

RFID from ink jets

Here’s one use that inkjet printers are being put to that doesn’t involve printing pages or photos. It is generating RFID-enabled labels and smart tickets.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), if you haven’t yet come across it, is a technology for adding tags to any item, tags that emit low frequency radio waves that can be read without having to physically touch an item. Think of them as barcodes that can be read with a scanning device just by walking by them. RFID is used in such fields as warehousing, theft protection, and manufacturing.

Up until now, one of the big problems with RFID has been that it has been slow to make the tags and attach them. The older technique involved copper etching. But new technologies are allowing companies to print out RFID-enabled labels on special adhesive tags that can be automatically applied to any item. Typical systems cost as little as 25 to 50 cents per tag.

Because this method uses printing technology, it can be set up to print with variable data, if you need, for example, to add a unique serial number for each item. The printer uses special conductive inks. It’s a technique that’s gaining wide acceptance in consumer products, crates, or packages.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Samsung floods desktop printer market

Samsung, already the world’s #2 laser printer manufacturer (after HP) and the #1 maker of monochrome desktop laser MFPs, has upped its position in the US office market with the release of a cascade of new black-and-white and color printers and MFPs.

Recently released are three families of color laser printers, three families of monochrome laser printers, four families of color laser multifunctionals, and five families of monochrome laser multifunctionals. These include models ranging in speed from 16ppm to 55ppm.

One of Samsung’s big advantages is its ability to source many of its own hardware components, including processors, LCD panels, and memory chips, along with design and software. This means faster bring-to-market times, it claims, than its rivals. Already, it is OEMing its technology to widening number of companies, including Xerox, Ricoh, Lexmark, and Dell.

At an analyst meeting earlier this fall, Samsung shared the following predictions about the overall industry:
▪The total US market for printers and supplies (around $60 billion) is flatlining, with minimal growth expected over the next five years.
▪ As you might expect, the color MFP (desktop) market is expected to grow, while black-and-white printing and MFPs stay stable or decline. What’s surprising is that they see minimal growth in the color laser printer area.
▪ Samsung plans to compete mainly in the A4 (letter/legal-size) market.
▪ Samsung is trying to differentiate itself by adding memory, increasing processor speed, and beating the competition on consumables costs and street prices.

Clearly, Samsung sees itself grabbing a bigger market share in a basically static market, and that increase had to come at the expense of one or more competitors.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Paper Mountains

A recent survey in the UK indicates that office workers print out “a paper mountain more than eight miles high every year.” The survey, commissioned by Fujitsu and Siemens, concluded that half of the pages printed in a typical office went unread.

According to a story in London newspaper The Telegraph (“UK offices 'print paper mountains', 10/15/07), the average office worker has grown used to “carefree printing habits.” Half of the workers surveyed admitted that they had printed out the same pages more than once by mistake.

According to the Telegraph story “Two in five workers (43 per cent) said they had picked up someone else's print-out by mistake and 8 per cent admitted to printing emails before they had read them.”

In other interesting results from the survey:
▪ Three out of four workers says that they have fixed paper jams themselves.
▪ Two thirds say that they have changed toner.
▪ A quarter said that they had walked away from an out of order printer, letting someone else fix it. (I’m sure someone is lying here)
▪ 17 percent admitted they just threw printed pieces away with no thought of recycling.
▪ Two-thirds of UK firms provided paper recycling bins, and almost half had ways for recycling confidential materials.

These are figures for the UK, but the US results are probably no different and may even be worse. If the UK has paper mountains, the US has Himalayas. And since the survey was based on self-reporting, you can be sure that the numbers look better than they really are.

Not surprisingly, two-thirds of all companies had no policies setting guidelines for what should be printed. It’s not simply a matter of “saving trees,” though that is important. It’s the enormous expense that unneeded printing costs in both paper and toner, and wear and tear on equipment. As has often been pointed out, printing and copying costs are one of the least controlled areas of office expense, and few companies have even a clear idea of what they are paying for it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Lexmark study shows faxing still alive

A recent Lexmark-commissioned survey studying workflow requirements of small and medium manufacturing businesses revealed some surprising findings. The survey, conducted in the US, the UK, France, and Italy, showed that these businesses, while paper-intensive, put a high emphasis on functions other than printing.

The survey asked users to classify various functions as “very important”, allowing them to choose more than one function. The results were:
● Making copies, 76 percent
● Faxing, 73 percent
● Scanning to e-mail, 35 percent
● Printing photos, 32 percent

It’s strange that straight-up printing is not included in the survey, but perhaps it is assumed that all MFP users have printing as a prime requirement. In fact, the number who needed to print photos in a manufacturing environment is strangely high.

But the real takeaway for us is that faxing is still much in demand, and that while scanning-to-email has some importance, at least in the manufacturing sector, faxing is still the technology of choice.

In addition, and this is no surprise, manufacturing sites are very concerned with machine performance and durability, since most machines have to working in rugged conditions, with dirt and variable temperatures. For that reason, laser machines are favored over inkjets.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Unauthorized copier lease costs big

From Jacksonville, Florida comes the story of how an unauthorized city employee signed 48 copier leases and cost the city over $3 million to clean up the mess. According to a story in the Florida Times-Union (“Copier contracts will cost taxpayers”, 10/29/07), the CFO of Jacksonville’s library system signed a series of 48 contracts with IKON Office Solutions to lease copiers for the library system. That’s particularly troubling since Jacksonville only has 21 library branches.

City rules specify that only eh mayor can authorize such deals, and the whole arrangement was only discovered by the city four years after it started. The employee has been dismissed, but the city had to settle with IKON for $3 million to clean up the mess.

According to the article, the problem was compounded due to lazy oversight in the accounts payable stage: “The city didn't detect the problem with IKON in part because it had other contracts with the Ohio-based company. The library was authorized to make some purchases from IKON off a state contract and a city contract. So when McDowell [the employee in question] did turn invoices over to the city's finance officials for payments, the checks were authorized under the existing contracts.”

The take-away for every institution is to set up clear rules for purchasing and leasing office equipment, enforcing those rules, centralizing all decisions in excess of a preset limit. In addition, a frequent audit of all office equipment assets is a must, for, in addition to the unauthorized decisions, there clearly was a problem of bringing in far too much copier capacity.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Scan it or Quipit?

You know the scene in the spy movie. The hero finally gets into the room and opens the safe with the documents, whether the plans for the new weapon or the proof of the villain’s crimes. So he (or she) takes out his concealed mini-camera and snaps the photos while the villain’s henchmen are about to burst into the room. The critical thing is to get the film to the authorities (usually accomplished after a long martial arts scene and desperate chase through the night.)

Well, now that spy can use Quipit. This product from an Austrian company turns your cell phone camera into a document scanner. The scans are transmitted to the company’s servers, where they are cleaned up, translated using OCR software, and tagged, ready for reading.

It’s an interesting twist on digital document scanning, and, aside from the spy uses, may be just what’s needed for someone on the road or in an archive where you can’t remove the material. It could also be used to confirm a contract on the spot, save a whiteboard, save handwritten notes, or to quickly backup information passing over your desk. This is a great supplement to standard desk-bound document scanning.