Business is evolving into a world of mobility and, as technology develops, portable printing solutions are coming of age to provide businesses with a transportable office.
The emergence of palm pilots and laptop computers has created a need for an ever-widening range of portable printing options.
Salespeople, technicians, photographers and other road-based professions can now remotely monitor emails, accounts and schedules. These users can also print at their convenience using portable printers.
A few of the large printer vendors are creating various types of portable printers that are powered by batteries and have the ability to be controlled remotely.
While many vendors euphemistically tout some of their smaller printers as “portable”, Canon and HP are the main producers of the new breed of truly portable printers — the type that can fit in a briefcase. These printers can be as small as half an A4 page and weigh as little as 300 grams.
Arguably the quality of printing, paper-handling and speed is not on par with that of office printers, but the latest models offer greater print quality and increasingly user-friendly features, effectively closing the performance gap between portable and sturdy desktop printers.
Portable inkjet printers are a niche market and the products are specifically designed for laptop, digital camera and PDA use. Many PDAs connect wirelessly to portable or mobile printers.
Inform print and imaging analyst, Stuart James, said continuing growth in laptop, PDA and digital camera sales will increase growth in the portable printer market.
According to Inform, Canon holds the lion’s share of the portable printing market, with a 77 per cent share of all portable business inkjet units sold in Australia.
Gartner analyst, Roberto Atienza, said that in Australia, Canon and HP portable printers made up only 2 per cent of total inkjet shipments in the first quarter of 2003.
“We [Gartner] do not expect big growth for portable printers, but demand exists in the niche markets such as finance and mobile workplaces,” he said.
Canon senior product manager for printers and consumables, Glenn Stubbs, said the range of portable printers available would allow the market to move into more frequent use of wireless applications.
“Canon portable printers have been around for a number of years and the company is looking to upgrade the technology to aim the printers at laptop users and consumers on the road,” he said.
“The company has sold large batches into the banking and insurance sector for mobile preparation of documents and also into the military for mobility reasons.”
Canon has a large portable printer range, and Stubbs said the vendor is currently focusing on developing printing devices for the portable development of digital camera images.
He said the latest portable printer, the Canon i70, was launched in March and sales of the product had exceeded 500 units per month despite the market being “still in its early stages”.
Stubbs said apart from the obvious form factor benefits, the latest breed of portable printers feature increasingly sophisticated print technology previously confined to desktop printers, such as long-life print heads “that reduce the costs of running the printer because you aren’t replacing the head as often”.
Chief technical officer at distributor Microbits, Denis Kelly, said the SiPix range of digital cameras could also be connected via a USB port and cable to SiPix portable printers.
The SiPix A6 is a monochrome thermal printer featuring wireless infrared connectivity to notebooks, PDAs and desktop PCs. A serial cable for connection to non-infrared devices is also provided. “When using advanced thermal technology, there are no messy ribbons or ink cartridges to replace,” he said.
“Primary users of the printers would typically be true ‘road warriors’ such as mobile sales people that use various pocket PCs and are rarely in the office.”
Kelly said it was convenient for these consumers to be able to print lists of appointments when not connected to a normal network that usually would provide access to printing and other resources. He said one problem with the portable printers was the speed of printing.
“Speed is a concern but it is far outweighed by the fact that these users can print anything at all from their Pocket PCs and PDAs,” Kelly said. “The slowness of print is relative.”
He said that users who commonly printed 16 A4 pages per minute on a laser printer would definitely notice the difference.
The SiPix printer is aimed at users requiring a quick, simple method of doing small print jobs without the hassle of running out of ink or ribbons, Kelly said.
The general consensus from Microbits is that a variety of vertical markets can be penetrated successfully by portable printing solutions.
Plumbers, builders or any tradesmen requiring the ability to print lists of instructions, invoices and receipts may benefit from this kind of product, as would mobile doctors and anyone with access to a pocket PC or a PDA.
Portable printers are still predominantly inkjets, mainly due to the production of printing heads. It is easier and more cost effective to make a small ink printing head than a laser head.
Unlike Canon, HP is not specifically targeting the digital camera user market. HP market development manager, Danielle MacInnis, said the vendor was promoting the benefits of portable printing to the mobile taskforce.
“HP is focusing heavily on the portable sales market which includes banking, finance and areas which require after-hours printing,” she said.
“The focus is at the corporate level. HP is hoping to capitalise on businesses that need devices that can be used remotely to support the mobility.”
HP has only been marketing portable printers for the last few months, and has formed a partnership with Nokia to offers consumers a bundled package with a hardware, software and connectivity solution.
MacInnis said that portable printing was only in its infancy, and improvements and developments would be apparent in terms of connectivity.
“HP is currently selling 200-300 units per month, and as it targets niche businesses that need mobile functionality, growth and development in technology will escalate,” she said.
The future of portable printers, according to the Canon and HP, is the production of postcard-size printers with high resolution capabilities.
The latest generation of portable printers can now store its own paper source while earlier models had to be fed paper by hand. Now faster print speeds and better wireless communication systems are being developed by the larger vendors to further improve efficiency.
Although Canon and HP seem relatively happy with the way the mobile printer market is developing in Australia, traditional printer vendors like Lexmark and Brother are yet to enter the portable printer niche market.