The all-in-one networked printer/copier/fax has overcome early teething problems to emerge as an attractive option in a world of increasing digital convergence.
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Convergence is not just happening with networks and mobile devices, it is making its presence felt in printer technology.
Printers have merged with scanners and communications technology to produce a hybrid known as the all-in-one printer, multifunction printer (MFP), or multifunction device (MFD). The MFP provides a range of services from straightforward printing and copying, to the e-mailing or faxing of scanned documents.
The MFP is starting to gain interest among corporate users, although it has faced obstacles. Early MFPs suffered from low scanning resolutions and slow print speeds. This was because they were seen as space-saving replacements for printers and fax machines, with a copying capacity competing with low-resolution fax technology.
These issues have been addressed and the latest high-end models not only boast speeds equivalent to dedicated copiers, but also advanced features for printing, collating and binding booklets.
But now with more interest in digital convergence, and the possibility of using MFPs as replacements for copier/printers - or photocopiers as they were called in the pre-digital age - MFPs are increasingly drawing attention.
Peter Grant, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, predicted that more companies would choose MFPs as a result of being able to use them on corporate networks as copiers and the additional options they offer.
Phil Sargeant, senior analyst specialising in the MFP market at research firm IDC, said suppliers with a history in analogue copiers, such as Xerox, Ricoh, Canon and Toshiba, have always got a foot ahead of the competition because of their existing installed base which they can quickly convert over to MFPs.
"We have also seen an inroad into this market from Hewlett-Packard since it launched the Laserjet 4345 model using the A4 paper format. This targeted traditional copier printers at a much lower cost and 99% of copies are A4 format.
"It makes you wonder why people are still going out and buying copier machines, and that is a worrying scenario for the copier makers."
The main consideration when buying an MFP as a copier is not the quoted page per minute (ppm) value, but the actual scanning speed, especially if the main throughput requirement is for single copies. Another issue stems from the converged nature of the device, which means that a technical failure may cripple a department's copying and printing capability.
More fundamental is that many companies place copiers in the domain of the services department while printers fall under the IT function. This problem is becoming more apparent as other new technologies, such as IP telephony, force a reappraisal of where responsibilities will lie in the future.
Manufacturers agree that networked printers create security concerns. The general worry is that documents may lie in the out tray for many hours and that this could lead to compromising situations. Most MFPs have keypads to allow documents to be securely retrieved only when a user arrives at the machine to enter their personal identification number. Remembering yet another Pin can be difficult, so some manufacturers go beyond this to allow company security cards to be used, or even use fingerprint recognition systems.
The additional abilities of MFPs to allow scans to be immediately faxed or e-mailed creates fresh concerns. A user with access to sensitive information could easily copy documents and send them out to competitors or newspapers with a degree of anonymity. The IP address or e-mail address of the system could be traced, but to nail the offence down to a single user would be difficult.
There are systems available that can be built-in to the printer or are available as an add-on, but this does potentially add to the cost. The increasingly popular method in these days of governance issues is to always send a copy of any e-mail or fax to the user's mailbox. In this way a trail can be followed to find out who did what and when. This can also be extended to record any copying activity so that a full audit of personal use can be logged and used to determine key users and principal times of use for every system.
Some printer manufacturers have outsourced the problem of securing the machines to third-parties. This can be particularly desirable for sites where many manufacturers' products are in use. One such third-party is eCopy which supplies bolt-on systems for a range of manufacturers, including Sharp, Ricoh, Toshiba and Canon, and is currently talking to HP about links with its security systems.
eCopy's main argument is that printers should not carry software because it can pose additional threats. As Sargeant explained, "The devices have an IP address and connections to the outside world which could make them traceable to a hacker. If software can be loaded on to a printer there is always the possibility that someone will find a way to do so illegally."
The advent of the MFP places the printer as an input point for converting paper documents into digital formats for document retrieval systems. Once again, governance regulations are popularising products such as Documentum, Hummingbird and Open Text. eCopy uses connectors to all of these products to integrate the MFP as part of the workflow, but also adds the necessary security checks to ensure the system is not secretly abused.
Renting has become an interesting development in the MFP market. Kyocera and Canon both have schemes that offer a flat charge for toner cartridges. Glenn Mason, Canon's marketing manager for office products, said, "When a user prints out there is a charge per sheet that covers the toner used. The contract covers toner and the maintenance of that device. This makes costs a lot more transparent."
Similarly, Kyocera makes a charge for monthly usage. Nigel Allen, senior product manager at Kyocera, said, "We have a total cost of ownership analyser that takes into account most of the major printer makers so that the total cost of ownership can be analysed over three years."
However, IDC takes the view that implementation concerns will result in MFPs having little impact on the traditional UK laser printer market, though both will grow.
Sargeant believes that monochrome devices will continue to outsell colour printers over the next few years, despite the pressure being placed on users to make the move.
"The monochrome printer is still the most cost-effective and user-friendly product out there. Because MFPs could be on the network, everyone will have access, and people will not have to use so many devices. Where Xerox could have shipped 10 printers in to a department, it will only supply one MFP," he said.
Sargeant added that the rise of the MFP could mean the colour option becomes more attractive, especially as users get used to using colour in the home environment.
The resistance to colour is based on a belief that this will increase running costs through higher toner costs. The manufacturers, keen to move users to colour to increase paper throughput, are trying to allay fears that everyone in the office will use colour.
Many MFPs are provided with on-board or third-party systems that can control who can use colour based on permissions in an LDap-compliant directory or Microsoft Active Directory. Apart from a personal or departmental basis, the settings can often be on an application basis for the cases where someone is only allowed to use colour occasionally.
Graham Davidson, product manager at printer manufacturer Epson, said, "Throughout the next year we will see colour MFDs become far more prominent in the market."
However, although some MFPs can channel users between colour and mono, this is not always the case. For some manufacturers the answer is to provide each user with a colour or a monochrome driver to determine what facility they have.
Management is another area of concern for users. Some companies already have management systems such as IBM Tivoli, HP Openview and CA Unicenter in use, and openness is becoming a key requirement.
Andrew Brown, MFP category manager at HP, said, "At HP we try to maintain open architectures so that we can embrace everyone else. Our Web Jetadmin management software is MIB2 [Management Information Base] com- pliant and any software that uses this standard can interrogate it. In this way we can address customer needs now and in the future."
Securing network printing
Alan Cornwell, European general manager at printer integration specialist eCopy, said, "The first challenge is security when attaching multifunction printers to networks.
"eCopy requires users to key in a name and password or use some other authentication method, and any document sent is also mirrored to their e-mail outbox. We have connectors for about 100 independent software suppliers' products. Using these, users can be restricted in how they interact with the software. Some may only need access to store documents, which may be encrypted first. Others will want to be able to retrieve and print or send documents."
Among printer makers there is an increasing move towards providing links to at least the major three or four document retrieval systems.
The debate comes back to where the software driving the connectors should be stored. Some, like Canon, prefer to use Java applets on the server, but others warn against this and advise using a server as the execution platform.
Canon said its Multifunction Embedded Application Platform environment is used by many financials firms without any reported breaches.
Glenn Mason, Canon's marketing manager for office products, said there were further advantages. "We have the ability to have web pages on the user interface. We can run third-party applications within the device. We can also customise the device itself because some financial firms have said they don't want certain functions to be available."