With the rapid growth of the PC market for home, school and SOHO, the market for printers has also expanded. ARN interviewed several manufacturers to find out where both the end-user and the reseller stand at the moment. We also sought the needs of both groups, and the opportunities open to them.
Statistics from both IDC and Dataquest confirm that inkjet printers dominate the Australian printer market.
According to Dataquest, 320,000 inkjet printers were sold in Australia in the first half of 1996, compared to 180,000 laser and LED printers. Oki's Jeremy De Silva attributes this dominance to the growth in the SOHO market. Maria Thoma of Lexmark agrees that the most popular type of home printer is the inkjet. She quotes IDC's figures of greater than 40 per cent growth in the Australian colour inkjet market in 1996.
Colour dominates the market to the point where it is now considered standard. In addition, prices of colour printers have dropped significantly during the year.
Paul Fisher of Hewlett-Packard says that "it is no longer sufficient for an inkjet printer to be black only. It must be capable of colour too."
According to Fisher, the HP DJ690 series was the first to market with an optional second colour cartridge, the HP Photo Pen. "This effectively makes the DJ690 series printer a six colour printer versus previous products which are three or four pen colour printers. The benefit is obviously great colour output for the customer."
BMS Technology has noticed a distinct trend towards colour inkjets. "We distribute Epson, Canon and HP, and they sell in that order, with Epson the highest," explained Reid.
Thoma talked about aggressive marketing and development of new products over the last 12 months, and manufacturers agree that the emphasis in the next 12 months will be on print quality, especially on plain paper. Competition in the next 12 months will continue to be fierce and according to Thoma will be based on the escalating range of "value-adds" to inkjet colour printers. "These include improved papers for high quality output, interfacing with digital cameras, bundling with special design and graphics application software," she explained.
On top of the competition between inkjet manufacturers, De Silva predicts that before the end of 1997 there will be low cost laser printers designed for use with digital cameras.
With so much development in the inkjet market are buyers, or even resellers, being left behind in confusion? Lexmark has tackled this problem by providing extensive buyer information such as "how to pick the right printer at the right price". The information in the newsletter is available on the Internet and is a step-by-step guide including such topics as technologies and features of both inkjet and laser printers, advice on price ranges of both types, guidelines for comparing inkjet printers and guidelines for comparing laser printers. Finally, the brochure includes an explanation, with diagrams, of how inkjet and laser technologies differ.
Also available from Lexmark is a booklet on troubleshooting printing problems. Thoma explains that Lexmark buyers only need limited technical understanding of the printer they purchase because "they are so well designed that they are simply pulled out of the box and ready to operate".
Fisher believes that the key areas to concentrate on to help make buyer selection easier are: "plain-paper quality, print speed under windows, purchase cost and running costs".
Epson's Gordon Groundwater believes that buyers of inkjets today, even first-time buyers, have already obtained a lot of information from other users so "they tend to be choosy and aware of what they want". In spite of this he cites an "intriguing twist" with people buying colour inkjet printers now. "Quite often they buy them but don't realise that they're not automatically getting a black cartridge, so of course it costs them a lot more to print black because they're using the colour cartridge to do it."
Reid believes that buyers tend to be well educated by advertising, magazine articles and resellers. He added, "the problems we encounter relate to the style of colour printing. Many people don't understand the difference between three- and four-colour printing, or between systems that have the print-head as part of the cartridge versus those that have it separate."
Turning to resellers, do they have a full understanding of the range of printers available to their customers and do manufacturers provide any assistance to the reseller in the form of training or resource material?
Groundwater believes that resellers are generally well educated about the products they sell, "but when it comes down to it, with the sort of profit margins they work on, they're not going to spend an extra twenty minutes trying to convince a buyer that they've chosen the wrong printer. They'll usually let them buy what they want." Fisher adds that very short product life cycles make it even more difficult for the reseller to keep current.
Lexmark, Epson and Oki educate their resellers. Lexmark's aim is to help resellers understand the differences between Lexmark printers and "competitive offerings". Thoma comments that "vendor education and training is the key to ensuring that products are properly understood and represented by resellers and retailers".
Epson provides extensive sales materials, such as comparison print folders. The company also provides training material on both its BBS and Web page.
BMS' Reid said that it was a fact of life that the reseller who goes to the trouble of printing a customer's file on several printers so they can see the difference won't always get the business as they probably won't be able to match the price cutters. His advice was that it's sometimes best to let a sale go rather than forgo any profit.
The real cost
Total cost of ownership is emerging as a critical factor in the choice of printers, however most manufacturers agreed that many buyers still don't consider this in their initial purchase decision.
De Silva of Oki, which only has one inkjet printer in its range, doesn't believe that buyers consider the total cost of ownership at all when purchasing a printer. He says that while the initial cost of an inkjet is less than a laser, the price per copy on a laser printer is around half that of an inkjet printer. He takes this information from company costing statistics which compare Okipage 4W with the Canon 4ppm Inkjet.
Fisher agrees that most people consider initial purchase price to be the most critical cost and that even though HP makes cost-per-page comparisons available to resellers, it is often an "apples and oranges" comparison, as it is very dependent on the exact document used.
According to Reid, end-users are constantly enquiring about cost-per-page of printing and how many pages each cartridge will produce. He says all manufacturers make this information available and believes resellers should be prepared to answer the questions.
Groundwater distinguishes first and second-time printer buyers and points out that "second-time buyers have learned the importance of knowing how much it costs to produce each page".
Contradicting other manufacturers we talked to, Lexmark's Thoma argues that cost of ownership is an important consideration for all printer buyers. "Lexmark does make cost of ownership calculations available to resellers, retailers and end-users. Features which reduce cost of ownership - such as power-saving mode, extended life cartridges and printers which use black cartridges to create black, rather than a mix of more expensive colour cartridges - are important considerations to end-users." Thoma points out, however, that "buyers also understand that they may need to purchase higher quality media to achieve their desired quality outputs".
Also acknowledging that buyers are concerned about total cost of ownership, Dataproducts has introduced the "Click Charge Program", where its laser printer buyers only pay per print with no up-front purchase price. (See Click Charge Program 5 February 1997).
We have already alluded to the difficulty of comparing different manufacturers' products on the basis of real cost of ownership. There are many factors which confuse comparisons between different manufacturers' products.
Groundwater said that "this whole subject of how to compare printers is a problem for buyers and resellers". He suggested that some computer magazines could set up standard tests to compare brands and models. The tests need to be carried out and reported on almost immediately before the machines are superseded.
Fisher provided the following statement on printer comparisons: "Hewlett-Packard communicates clearly under what conditions its print speeds are reached and of course as Windows is the most popular operating system we believe that it is essential to not confuse this with DOS printing speeds. Similarly we believe that it does not make sense to compare speeds on inappropriate special media."
With regard to resolution, HP believes that it is very easy to confuse resolution (dots per inch) with print quality. "It can be misleading to just look at DPI. It's an important factor but only one out of many others including: size and shape of dot, ink composition, placement accuracy, interaction between ink and media, and so on. We recommend you use your eye, not dpi, especially on plain paper as this is the most widely used medium."
Thoma said there is no controversy and explains the situation as one arising from end-users seeking high quality and extremely affordable printing, that is, greater value and premium product.
Are lasers dead?
When asked about the place of a laser printer compared to that of an inkjet and their suitability for different types of users, some manufacturers again raised the subject of the SOHO market.
Groundwater argued that the laser printer is of little use to the home and SOHO buyer. "They still cost more, they only print in black and they usually only work under Windows." De Silva on the other hand, a company which concentrates on laser-class printers, says that in the SOHO market laser is better as long as the user is not using colour and is printing regularly. He claims that in the US the trend is for SOHO users to move back to laser printers. He predicts that the same trend will appear here.
Fisher of HP agrees that if the user doesn't want colour, then a laser printer is the best choice. He adds that if colour is required, or if the user is very cost constrained, then an inkjet printer is the best solution. "Which one, is dependent on their need for speed, special media versus plain paper and, of course, price."
Thoma suggests that inkjets suit users requiring lots of colour in their documents. "Inkjets are also great printers for use by the whole family, for printing cards, t-shirts or banners and for doing charts. Initial outlay is also considerably less than for a laser printer."
Lasers, she suggests, are suited to users who "consistently print 50 pages or more per day; require higher speed output; prepare newsletters or produce multiple copies of documents; require a lower cost per page and require ultra-crisp mono output for business purposes."
The paper is the medium
We asked manufacturers how important it is to explain alternative media to consumers. Thoma pointed out that special media are important if buyers are to get the highest quality output from their inkjets. She says that to avoid buyer disappointment or confusion, these special options should be explained at the time of purchase. "This helps buyers understand how to obtain the highest quality, but also that these higher cost options are not always essential, but a useful add-on for special requirements."
To demonstrate to users that higher quality paper can produce excellent results, Epson has tried putting sample packs in with the new models.
But Groundwater says that "it's really up to the reseller to make sure that buyers know to come back for high-quality paper".
Fisher believes that for a customer to be satisfied, they should be aware of plain paper print quality, but they should also be aware of the cost and performance impact of special papers.
With the high cost of special papers and inks, Australian Reseller News inquired about manufacturers' attitudes towards the use of third party consumables. Not surprisingly, none of the manufacturers we talked to recommended the use of third party products.
Problems cited included a possible reduction in output quality and product performance; the possibility of ruining the print head; the likelihood of refilling processes and the use of incompatible inks disrupting the printing system, potentially resulting in printer damage; reduced print quality and customer dissatisfaction. Thoma suggested that the use of third party consumables may void warranties.
Finally, we explored the possibilities of modern printers fitting in with modern technologies such as digital cameras, scanners and the Internet.
Lexmark has tackled the photographic printing challenge by combining Live Pix with its own Colour Jetprinter family (printing in six colours) and Polaroid photographic papers to "offer its customers a complete photographic printing solution". In addition to this, photographic images can be turned into t-shirts, calendars, greeting cards and certificates etc by using the Lexmark Workshop CD, patented inks and specialty papers.
Lexmark has also arranged with Live Picture to distribute the Imaging for Internet client software, a personal computer application designed to make it easier for Internet users to view and print high-resolution images from the World Wide Web.
HP sees new technologies such as the Internet as essential to printing. "We have strategic alliances with Microsoft and Netscape on Internet printing." Fisher went on to say that HP was able to offer outstanding print quality when printing from digital cameras and scanners. He concluded that "as HP invests over two billion US dollars annually in R&D we obviously see new technologies as the key to the future".
For this article we interviewed the following companies:
Epson - Gordon Groundwater,
Hewlett-Packard - Paul Fisher,
market development manager for Peripherals
Lexmark - Maria Thoma,
Oki (IPL Group) - Jeremy De Silva,
BMS Technology (SA) - John Reid,
Canon declined this time, saying it was in the middle of rethinking its marketing strategy. ARN intends to revisit the subject of inkjet printers in the near future, focusing on the way the industry compares products and brands.