Printers have remained defiantly proprietary in a world where hardware designers increasingly favour standard components. But many of the technology advances can be found in the components of the printer - the ink, the printhead, and even the paper.
And, unlike the PC business, which makes use of common suppliers and standard technologies, each company has a slightly different way of getting the image or document from the screen onto paper. PCs, handhelds, and low-end servers tend to be sold on price and features, while printer companies still try to convince customers that their technology is better than the other companies.
The printer itself is not that complicated, but the device which moves back and forth across the paper is. "The printhead is where 99%of the technology takes place, at a consumer printer level," said Chris Barnes, director of research for ARS.
Hewlett-Packard has led the way for the past decade in developing printhead technology. Millions of dollars have been invested in the development of inks, printer nozzle technology and marketing ideas.
That research has translated into a dominant market share position. HP controlled 41% of the worldwide market in the first quarter of 2003 for what market researcher IDC calls "hardcopy peripherals". This includes devices such as printers and "all-in-ones", which combine printers, scanners, and copiers.
HP also has 41% of the market for printers alone, and has increased its share in both categories since the first quarter of 2002.
On Monday, HP sought to reinforce that position with the release of dozens of new printing and imaging products designed for consumers.
With the rise of digital cameras, consumers have demanded technology that will allow them to print their digital photos with the same quality, or better, than traditional film. Around 90% of digital camera owners print out their images, and of that group, 90% print images at home, according to research from NPD Techworld.
Businesses and consumers care about image quality first and foremost, and scientists and executives from HP's printing and imaging group claim their company has the best technology to deliver that image quality.
HP developed the first pigmented ink, said Nils Miller, ink and media research and development senior scientist for HP. This allowed the company to make printed text sharper and clearer because of how that pigment adheres to the paper.
But as printers became capable of printing at faster speeds, the delivery method for that ink required an upgrade. Ink is delivered to the paper through thousands of tiny nozzles controlled by microchips. Higher printing speeds required more nozzles with wider openings to accurately and cleanly apply the ink to the paper.
The cartridges that do this job are really self-contained systems of their own that need to apply the right amount of ink at the right speed and density, letting the printer concentrate on performance. At the same time, the cartridge needs to make sure that the ink does not dry out when not in use.
All of these technology advances have helped reduce the price of high-quality printers to a point where most home users can afford an excellent printer, said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis for NPD Techworld.
While HP once held a commanding technology lead, that gap is closing, according to Dell. Modern printers are remarkably similar in terms of the quality of the images they produce, as far as mainstream consumers are concerned, said Phil Ventimiglia, senior manager for product marketing in Dell's imaging and printing group.
"If you ask the customer what is the most important thing, they'll say print quality. But to all intents and purposes, most customers can't tell print quality differences," said Ventimiglia. "Real photo enthusiasts will know what the differences are, but the average mainstream user will have difficulty telling the difference."
The hallmark of an inkjet printer is its ability to print a high-quality image on substandard paper, Barnes said. With lesser quality paper, users will be able to see more of a difference in images, but with high-quality paper, the differences fade, he said.
Much of Dell's success over the past three years has been attributed to delivering technology at a low price, without developing anything remarkably new. It is bringing that strategy to printers as well, taking technology developed by partner Lexmark International and adding small touches such as colour-coded buttons for switching between black-and-white and colour printing.
"Our partners know better than us. We're not going to try and redesign the wheel," he said.
HP believes that consumers and businesses will buy products that offer the most compelling results, said Keith Barrett, vice president of technology platforms for HP's imaging and printing group.
"The thing that would stand out is the extremely high desire on the part of customers for high image quality and high print quality. This has required breakthroughs on ink and on photo media," he said.
As more companies have taken aim at HP's lead among printers and consumables, HP has emphasised its history of printer technology advances, seeking to differentiate itself from Dell, Epson and Canon.
There are several different approaches to the printer business, depending on the marketing strategy of a particular company. Lexmark tends to emphasise advanced feature sets at aggressive prices, while Epson and Canon sell their products on output quality and ease of use with imaging products.
Epson tries to offer a product for multiple segments of the market, ranging from consumers who only print word processing documents to professional photographers, said Pam Barnett, an Epson spokeswoman.
"We want the customer to identify what is important to them, and then in each of those categories, give them the best combination of quality, performance, and value," she added.
This is shown in the multiple types of ink that the company offers, Barnett said. Some customers require pigments that resist light and water for as long as possible, others need the highest-quality pigments they can find, while other customers prefer to spend the least amount possible.
Canon did not respond to interview requests.
HP tries to convince customers that they can solve "the different pieces of the puzzle," making their printers work more efficiently with PCs, digital cameras, and other products, NPD's Baker said.
The excitement and strategy has been drained out of the PC market by a focus on the "speeds and feeds race" that has also reduced profit margins. HP and its rivals are keen on preventing this from happening to printers, which already are low-margin products that generate most of their revenue from consumables.
The business side of the equation is a little bit different. Business customers look at printers as one more addition to their networks, and want to purchase a product that works well in their environments with the lowest costs possible, Baker said.
Business customers are also intrigued by the rise of document printing services from the big printer companies. The likes of Lexmark and HP are, increasingly, pitching document outsourcing strategies to enterprises, where the company takes care of all the equipment, output management, and supplies, and charges the customers a fee per printed page, Barnes said.
For some companies, this approach will work wonders in taking the frustrating parts of the printing process, and making them someone else's problem. And, with printer shipments worldwide expected to grow 2.4% in 2003 and just 1.6% in 2004, according to IDC, the rise in document outsourcing services will allow companies to expand their businesses faster than the market for their printers would permit.
Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service
This was first published in August 2003