Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Do Not Mail

In a move that may radically change both the direct mail and the printing industries, bills to create “Do Not Mail” laws have been filed in fifteen states. The movement is an extension of the Federal “Do Not Call” concept that pretty much put an end to consumer telemarketing.

One of the key motivators is concern for the environment. We’ve all received a truckload of catalogs and mail solicitations over the past two months, 90% has gone directly into the trash, or at least the recycle bin. According to one source, the U.S. Postal Service last year delivered some 213 billion pieces of mail, and well over half were unsolicited advertisements and bulk mail. Another source notes that every mail carrier in America has carried nearly 18 tons of junk mail this year.

Direct mail, which already has a low response rate, risks alienating customers who actually might want to buy the products the senders promote. As a recent BrandWeek opinion piece (“Really Pushing The Envelope”, 12/10/07) notes: “The fact is, today's green-conscious consumers expect the companies they patronize (and even ones they don't) to engage in some semblance of environmental stewardship. When the marketers of those companies mercilessly clog mailboxes with irrelevant and duplicate solicitations, what kind of message are consumers getting?

It would be ironic if just as the technology for printing mass mailings becomes more affordable and available, key states start making it more difficult than ever to deliver those solicitations. The result has been that even the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the trade group for junk mail, has been calling for significantly smaller but more finely targeted mailing campaigns to keep the backlash movement that threatens to wipe out all unsolicited mailings.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2008 Color Laser Printer Guide Available

The Better Buys for Business Color Laser & Business Ink Jet Printer Guide for 2008 has been published. The guide contains information about over 180 models from 21 vendors, including reviews, specifications, and cost-per-page breakdowns. It also includes a glossary of relevant terms and a briefing on the printer industry, as well as our award picks for the best buys in each category.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lawsuit claims HP, Staples colluded on cartridges

A suit has been filed in US federal courts claiming that Hewlett-Packard and office superstore Staples broke antitrust law. The suit claims that HP paid Staples more than $100 million to carry only HP ink cartridges in its stores, and to avoid stocking lower-cost third-party refills. The plaintiff is asking that it be made a class-action suit on behalf of all printer owners.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, it does put a focus on ink prices, a major part of the income of HP and rivals like Epson and Lexmark. It has been estimated that the real cost of ink refills can be as high as $8,000 a gallon. At those prices, there’s lots of room for third-party underselling. The result has been an all-out war, where the major printer developers have tried to limit the sales of unauthorized sellers. This lawsuit, whatever happens to it, is just another skirmish in the long war.

Monday, December 17, 2007

New GelSprinters

Ricoh continues to release new models in its GelSprinter line, based on its unique “viscous ink” technology. That approach, while similar to conventional ink jet printing, is far faster (thanks to print head technology) than conventional ink jets. It also gives users the ability to print on both glossy paper and recycled paper.

The GelSprinter line doesn’t get a lot of press next to the standard color laser and Xerox’s solid ink lines, but it is finding a niche in the office market due to its low sticker price and moderate cost of operation (especially when compared to standard ink jet printers). Clearly, Ricoh has enough confidence in the line to keep issuing new models.

The new Ricoh GX2500 ($169) is aimed at desktop and small workgroup use. It prints at a real 28ppm in both black and color. Ethernet is optional.

The GX7000 ($749) is a ledger-size model that features duplex printing. Ethernet is an option.

Both models are relatively straightforward ones with few bells and whistles. It will be interesting to see how far Ricoh can take the technology and how well it can establish awareness of the brands and the technology in a crowded field of color business printers.

Friday, December 14, 2007

3D “printers” go mainstream

A recent Wall Street Journal article (“How 3-D Printing Figures To Turn Web Worlds Real”, 12/12/07) reported on the changing world of 3D printing. The “printers” are in fact automatic model makers that take 3D designs generated on a computer and sculpt models based on the digital information. There are various technologies, including ink jet-like versions, but the result is a three-dimensional model in plaster or composite materials, including starch, paper, metals, or sand.

Until recently, these devices were used almost exclusively for high-end product modeling and prototyping for companies like automakers and aircraft manufacturers. They are also used in medical labs, engineering firms, and the industrial design departments of high-tech firms.

But the cost of these devices is coming down. While such machines used to cost $300,000 or more, they now run for around $20,000, and there are newer machines in the pipeline for $5,000 or less. This is spurring a new set of companies that target 3-D models at specific niche markets, such as architects, role-playing game enthusiasts, custom toy makers, and designers of keepsakes and souvenirs (custom doll-house furniture).

At $5,000, 3D printers start looking like Easy-Bake ovens for tech geeks. And the latest models will be almost desktop-size in dimensions. One application that is starting to appear is food sculpture, using chocolate, Cheez-Whiz, sugar, or dough. Think of favors for a birthday party or 3D bride and groom statuettes on a wedding cake. A brave new world of “printing” is just beginning.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Xerox opens solid ink factory

Xerox sales of its solid ink office printers is doing so well that they’ve opened a new $24 million plant to make the crayon-like solid ink sticks. The new Oregon-based facility, according to Xerox, increases the company’s solid ink manufacturing capacity tenfold.

This seems to be a sign that Xerox’s campaign to push its color printers, especially its Phaser 8860 line, is doing well. The 8860 offers remarkably low costs per page for both color and black-and-white. Xerox also promotes the fact that the solid ink produces far less waste than toner-solutions, and that its lower heat requirements cut power use.

We’ve long thought that Xerox would extend the solid ink technology, one of the company’s biggest advantages, both up and down the product line, perhaps even into the copier market. The new plant may be an indication that’s what is in the cards, and the modern, high-capacity factory may allow Xerox to get decent margins, even with the lower cost per page.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

HP expanding its wide-format lineup

Hewlett-Packard announced the purchase of Israel-based wide-format printing company NUR Macroprinters in a $117 million deal. This follows the recent purchase of MacDermid ColorSpan, another maker of wide format printers, used especially in signage, backdrops, and billboards.

NUR makes continuous-feed color ink jet machines that can output images up to 17 feet wide, based on digital input. It can print on such media as canvas and vinyl, in addition to paper.

HP already had a strong position in the wide format area, and the two purchases only expanded that. HP has an announced intention of moving upward in the printing market from its strong base in home and office machines toward professional printing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Used toner cartridge? Sit on it

Here’s a creative new use for those spent toner and ink jet cartridges. It’s true that some vendors have a cartridge return program where they can re-use or recycle them, but many do not. It’s especially bad on the off-brand toner and ink market. What’s an eco-conscientious user to do?

Now a UK recycling company called Waycam has a new idea – they use a process that transforms cartridges into a plastic called TRI Wood, and then turn it into fence posts and garden furniture.

While the furniture aspect is a great stunt, the serious issue, as they acknowledge, is recycling the (highly toxic) used toner. It’s another step in the effort to keep more toxins out of landfills. This kind of thing is becoming increasingly a legal necessity in Europe, and it is something that should spread in the near future to the US.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Friday fun: Office Space

The classic scene of printer "deconstruction" from everybody's favorite office movie. Of course, that was from the days when printers jammed all the time.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Avoiding unwanted e-mail

A recent survey by market research firm Ipsos for e-mail consultant Habeas points out that end users are finding new ways to avoid spam and unwanted e-commerce e-mails. According to the study, over 50% of users maintain three different e-mail addresses. In addition, 81% do not forward e-mails from one address to another, keeping the mailboxes distinct. Half of the respondents with multiple e-mails said that they maintained multiple accounts to avoid unwanted e-mails.

As reported in an article in Network World “Consumers deal with ‘e-mail insecurity factor’”, 12/4/07) , the survey found that users “create one for work, another for friends, family and trusted brands, and one for signing up for online offers and lists.”

As companies depend more and more on e-mail marketing, customers are increasingly finding ways to avoid their urgent communications. As the CEO of Habeas is quoted as saying “It’s easy for an enterprise to run afoul of consumer willingness to engage in a dialogue.”

Over the last ten years, one of the big stories has been the growth of e-mail as a marketing strategy. Over the next ten, the avoidance of e-mail will become as big.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

True Adobe PostScript

Back in the late eighties, PostScript clones entered the market with a bang. An attempt to avoid Adobe’s then stiff licensing fees, there were many flavors of them, and for a while they all had various oddities, shortcomings, and downright bugs. Over the years, Adobe moved to Level 2 (1991) and finally PostScript 3 (1997). The clone makers hustled to catch up. But the stability of PostScript 3 since 1997 has meant that they’ve had a long time to fix bugs.

Generally speaking now, we don’t see any real difference between real PostScript clones and genuine Adobe PostScript, especially when we are talking about normal office printing. It’s been years since we’ve head of any office users complaining about problems caused by using, say, Brother's, Lexmark's, or Konica Minolta’s clones.

One area where it may make a difference is in high-end printing, and there is comes up in two issues. One is in color calibration, where vendors like EFI, say that the Adobe version it has better built-in tools for color control. This isn’t a particular issue for most office printing, where color need only be good enough. The second area in which some problems come up with users of Adobe’s In Design software, which makes use of some Postscript features that other programs hadn’t, and thus test a feature which may not be implemented in some printers. There are also reported problems with an Adobe product called Multiple Master fonts that sometimes don’t work correctly with some clones.

These are issues likely to be found by high-level designers, usually proofing files to be sent to the printing press. Our view: don’t worry about PostScript for everyday office use; do get true Adobe PostScript for printers used by professional designers.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Just released: Better Buys High-Volume Copier Guide

Hot off the press is our High-Volume Copier & Multifunctional Guide, which covers black-and-white copier/multifunctionals with speeds from 50 to 150 pages per minute. The guide presents our Editor’s Choice selections of the best buys at various speed ranges, along with specifications and a discussion of industry trends and terms.

The big trend: the number of high-end copiers is increasing, with more vendors selling more models than ever. One key differentiator is workflow software, important for these machines that are often called on to output complex jobs. To order, here is the link.

Monday, December 3, 2007

“No Vista, please!”

Microsoft’s Vista version of its Windows operating systems is having a hard time getting traction, as many corporate users are waiting to find out a reason why they should replace their PCs running Windows XP. According to one survey, only 13 percent of businesses have adopted Vista.

Microsoft has released its first service pack update for the Vista version of its Windows operating system, but according to neutral lab testing, Vista is still twice as slow as the most up-to-date version of Windows XP. Vista retail sales are over 50 percent lower than sales of XP.

Microsoft is also having a hard time convincing IT departments that the hassle of training users on a whole new interface and supported a new set of problems (including file incompatibility) is worth the effort. As a result, many companies are still buying replacement computers that still feature XP, and Microsoft has been forced to set back the eventual phase-out of XP until next summer.

In the printer world, that slowdown affects the urgency to support Microsoft’s new XPS printing protocol. So far, only Xerox and Konica Minolta, as far as we can tell, have announced XPS-capable printers. Sharp has announced that it is working with a third party to support it.

Even more pressing is the problem of drivers on existing printers. Most printers and copiers need installation of a new driver to work with Vista. But for older models, most vendors aren’t bothering with an upgrade. So a perfectly good printer from two years ago that worked fine with all your XP machines might not be able to function in a Vista environment.

One article quotes a Microsoft vice president as saying “Frankly, the world wasn't 100 percent ready for Windows Vista.” Instead it’s clear that Vista is still not 100 percent ready for the world, even after a long-awaited service pack update.