ICT Solutions Part I: Writing off the paperless office

11 Jan 2005

While there has been a marked move in business over the past few years towards the digitisation of paper documents, the reality is that the paperless office is still as elusive as when the term was first mooted back in the Seventies. Businesspeople still want a hard copy on paper for the simple facts of convenience and portability.

Talk to anyone in the printer hardware business at the moment and you’ll hear one mantra — colour laser printing is where all the action is. The use of lower-cost inkjet printers by businesses is becoming a thing of the past, largely due to their high running costs, which in all but a few cases don’t justify the photo quality results.

“Inkjet is becoming more aligned to the home market, while the business-to-business sector is laser or digital technology,” says Bob Horastead, general manager of Xerox Ireland. “There is a change in price points for laser, which means it is getting closer to the home market and will be able to challenge at the small office home office level. The cost of the hardware and the size of the equipment are the challenges that have to be faced in that market.”

Colour laser may not yet be able to produce the photo realistic prints offered by inkjet, but it is still the fastest-growing segment of the market and now accounts for one third of the overall page printer market, according to provisional 2004 market analysis from IDC. Page printers are defined as any printer that prints a page at a time but in reality the bulk of the market is laser, LED and other toner-based technologies.

According to sources in the industry, IDC’s research will show that Hewlett-Packard leads the colour page printer market with 35pc of the market, followed by Oki with 25pc, Konica Minolta with 10pc and the rest of the manufacturers with single-digit market share.

In unit terms, these figures suggest that there was about 6,000 colour laser printers shipped in Ireland in 2004 and about 26,000 of the traditional mono laser models.

While the mono market has only contracted slightly the price cuts of colour laser models means that the only growth is at the low end, according to Phyllis Fox, major accounts channel manager with Brother. “The trend in mono is towards the low end because the hardware has so many features at a low price,” says Fox. “We are hoping to launch a mono model with a suggested retail price of €99 in the first quarter of this year but it will still be able to print at 20ppm. Colour will cannibalise the mono market but the decline is gradual and I don’t think colour will take over totally ever.”

The attraction of colour laser printing is easy to see. Colour can be easily added to business documents and printed at high speed. Even entry-level lasers can produce pages at speeds of 12ppm, and unlike inkjet where colour images can be smudged if handled before dry, the toner process used in laser printing products dry prints. Laser technology is also more reliable than inkjet and is designed for the demanding duty cycles of a busy office environment.

As Martin Deignan, director of sales and marketing with Oki, points out moving to colour laser allows businesses to consolidate around a smaller number of printing devices. “Rather than maintaining a colour inkjet and a mono laser you can consolidate on to a single colour page printer,” says Deignan. “You can now purchase a model that will print at 12ppm in colour and 20ppm in mono for about €400 excluding Vat. The question is why aren’t more people switching?”

Stephen McDonald, commercial manager with HP’s image and printing group, agrees that the economics stack up in favour of switching to colour laser. He points out that HP’s colour laser model costs about €475, just €80 more than a comparable black-only model. “It’s a no-brainer if you are going to use some element of colour in your business,” says McDonald.

No doubt one of the main inhibitors to adoption is that owners and managers are concerned that if staff members are given colour printing capability that printing costs could spiral out of control.

McDonald says that for a traditional laser printer, businesses can expect to spend three times the capital costs on toner, consumables and service over the life of the printer, but with colour businesses should budget for at least double the running costs. “If you are regularly printing PowerPoint presentations or pages from the internet you could even quadruple that figure,” cautions McDonald.

All the manufacturers recommend that a company policy on printing needs to be introduced in order to get a fix on costs. This would state what users are entitled to use colour, what kind of documents should be printed in colour, mono and so on. Network management tools, generally provided by the manufacturers, can then be used to enforce these policies.

“Our competitors might sell you a product at an attractive price but if there is no way of tracking or managing the colour usage, that’s a very dangerous game to get into,” says McDonald. “The copier companies are our main competitors and their machines are designed for incidental colour. If you are buying a mono machine that can do colour it’s a false economy. If you introduce colour users won’t go back to mono, but the copier companies make their revenues on the colour pages.”

To compound matters there is no accepted industry standard for comparing the running costs of different colour laser printers. For mono laser models manufacturers generally give a cost per page based on 5pc ink coverage, which makes comparisons easier.

“5pc is becoming the benchmark for colour page printers but it is unrealistic,” says Deignan. “That’s also the case with mono where our research shows the average page printed in business has a 10-12pc page density not 5pc, which is the old benchmark. When you introduce colour 15-20pc is the average. The reality is that if you are thinking about buying you should get the costs per page for 5, 10 and 20pc coverage.”

Pictured is Brother’s new low-cost laser printer, the HL-2030, which is expected to be launched shortly

Next week: Network printing and multifunction devices

By John Collins