The apparent capacity women have to do many things at once is often the subject of jokes, pop science, relationship therapy books and battle-of-the-sexes contests. Men, it is often argued, perform better when left to focus their attentions on a single task. In their defence, campaigners for the y chromosome argue that men provide better overall results, completing each task to a higher standard.
If we follow the metaphor, the latest multifunction peripherals (MFPs) to hit the market are somewhat androgynous. Not only do they do it all, they do it all well, and seem on the verge of taking the lion's share of the market from their single function counterparts.
Canon Australia's product manager for ink printing, KC Lu, said MFPs had expanded market share throughout 2004, and were expected to take 65 per cent of the company's printer sales in 2005.
"There are two reasons why MFPs have become so popular," Lu said. "The first is simply that they reduce the clutter on the desktop, and people have always been attracted to them for that reason.
"The second reason people are starting to pick them up now is that when MFPs were first released there was a significant trade off in terms of quality, whereas now each of the separate functions is better quality. The printing is faster, the scanners are better, and the results offer higher resolution."
Technical improvements made to the latest round of machines mean customers are no longer required to sacrifice quality for functionality.
The standard print speed has passed from under 14 pages per minute, to somewhere between 14 and 20 pages per minute, and 4800 dpi is increasingly the norm for printing output.
However, some vendors are concerned the message regarding such improvements in technology isn't getting through to potential customers.
"Resellers need to dispel some of the multifunction versus single-function myths by setting up a machine on the shop floor so that customers can see how much the quality of the MFPs has improved," Lu said.
The question confronting resellers, however, is not so much whether to put an MFP on display but which one to choose.
According to senior analyst in peripherals research for IDC Australia, Loretta Pein, vendors went multifunction mad in the second quarter of 2004, introducing almost 30 new models into the Australian market.
"They are all interested in converting single- functions into multifunction environments," Pein said.
"Across the 14 vendors we study, there are usually nine or 10 new machines launched per quarter. For example in the third quarter of 2003 there were only nine new multifunction machines launched. However, in the second quarter of 2004, 30 new multifunction models came onto the Australian market."
Having spoken with printer vendors from across the market, Pein suggested the spate of releases in 2004, and associated marketing, will continue to drive sales throughout 2005.
She said the sudden increase in multifunction products on offer will be a boon for resellers, enabling them to offer customers more choice and a greater range of quality.
"MFPs are a real growth opportunity for resellers," Pein said. "We have seen speeds increase and an improvement in the colour offerings. The selling price on MFPs is also much better than in the past."
Ups and downs
Account manager for industry research group GfK, Lisa Murphy, said MFP sales were already healthy, and had increased by 62 per cent over the past 12 months. She expected this healthy growth to continue throughout 2005.
The boom in MFPs is also being felt in other areas.
"The positive growth in the MFP market has had detrimental effects on the scanner market," said Murphy.
"The flatbed scanner is now a major feature within the MFP machines, and according to our figures scanner sales were down by 42 per cent year-on-year."
In recent months GfK statistics also reveal that the single-function inkjet (SFI) is also beginning to feel the pressure from MFPs. Year-on-year SFI volumes were down by 16 per cent compared to 2003.
However, Murphy pointed out that on a monthly basis there are still more SFIs sold than MFPs.
Nonetheless the overall trend is undeniable.
By October 2004, 51 per cent of all inkjets sold were single-function compared to 68 per cent in October 2003.
Moreover, according to Murphy, resellers are well placed to pick up on growth in MFPs as the main route to market for such devices is the retail channel. Although she said the bulk of the sales are focused on organised retail chains with strong advertising and promotional power.
Fade from black
When asked what sorts of trends he saw in the MFP market for 2005 product marketing manager for printer vendor Kyocera, Mark Vella, was unequivocal.
"Colour, colour, colour," he said.
"For the first time we are seeing colour taking over from monochrome sites. It's all due to the cost factor, the price has come down so now you don't need any special justification for switching to colour."
The good news for resellers is that the growth in sales of colour devices is expected to continue to drive sales of consumables, which are already growing at a rate of 4 per cent annually, according to IDC.
IDC's Pein referred to the shift as B2C - black and white to colour.
"Pricing on the colour MFPs has come down significantly, so a lot of vendors will spend the next 12 months trying to convert their black and white customers over to colour," Pein said.
At this stage, however, the colour conversion is largely limited to the inkjet market. While technology improvements and pricing certainly explains some of the growth, the boom in digital cameras has sparked an associated boom in colour home printing.
Hardware and systems analyst for Gartner Asia-Pacific, Jackie Yeung, said low-end A4 monochrome or colour MFPs were suitable for SMB, SOHO, consumer and small-sized workgroups, whereas monochrome and colour copier-based laser MFPs were suitable for departmental, mid-size or large workgroups and enterprise organisations.
It is this kind of market segmentation which is leading to a dramatic difference between the uptake of inkjet MFPs as opposed to their laser counterparts.
According to industry analyst groups, MFPs represent 40-50 per cent of the overall inkjet printer market.
IDC claims MFPs only capture about 25 per cent of overall sales in the laser printer market, while figures from GfK, whose research is focused on consumer-based resellers, suggest that only 10 per cent of MFPs sold in 2004 were laser.
Not only is it starting from a larger base, the rate of growth of inkjet sales is greater than that of laser MFPs.
"The inkjet MFP has experienced major growth over the past 12 months, increasing by 66 per cent, while the laser technology grew by 34 per cent," GfK's Murphy said.
Such figures suggest the technology case for colour and increased functionality is working in the home and consumer market, but still failing at the high-end.
Yeung claimed the printer industry had yet to fully make a case for MFPs in the business and enterprise space.
"Organisations need smarter document processes for cost-effective usage of printing resources," explained Yeung.
"Competitive pricing of inkjet MFPs against single-function inkjets has lead to growth in the SOHO and SMB space, but more needs to be done in the upper level."
For the same case to be made at the enterprise level, Yeung said vendors must offer similar cost savings to all sizes of organisations, especially midsize and large business. However, in the enterprise space, improvements in colour technology alone won't provide a cogent market stimulus.
In this sector Yeung is calling for a greater emphasis on an analysis of output and printing resources, so as to identify how they can be better utilised.
The MFP challenge
According to Kyocera's Vella, high-end markets will continue to be a challenge for MFPs because, unlike small businesses, large corporations are apprehensive about centralisation.
"We are talking about customers who do massive amounts of copying and printing and so forth," Vella said.
"It is understandable that a library, for example, that has massive copying volumes and is apprehensive about centralising everything on a single print device."
And while finding a business case for high-end customers is a challenge, so to is finding a business case for MFP resellers.
After all, selling a single item that does the work of four robs you of three sales... or does it?
Most commonly MFPs combine faxing, printing, scanning and copying services.
Of this set, computer resellers would traditionally only get the printer and scanner sales, as faxes and copiers were more commonly sourced from office supply retailers. To this extent, resellers are cutting back from two sales to one, and when it comes to calculating margins the single sale is still worth about the same at the other two combined.
Additionally, storing, displaying, selling and shipping a single product cuts back on overheads, and it could be argued provides greater levels of satisfaction to your customers.
"It might look like it will be one sale compared to four but resellers need to take other factors into account," IDC's Pein argued.
"Stock handling and management costs are reduced, you cut back on the need for warehouse space and ultimately you give your customers a model they want, something they can be happy with."
With vendors keen to ramp up MFP sales, resellers have become hot property and have more chance to pick brands. And while the latest in androgynous machines are fast and colourful, they don't require any particular skills, or any retraining.
As the market for MFPs at this stage is also focused on consumer-style inkjet machines, resellers don't need to stray from their traditional comfort zone to get a piece of the action.
The verdict: ditch scanners and single-function units, set up an MFP in the showroom and let the results do the work for you.