Once the domain of graphics professionals and specific vertical markets, in-house colour printing is now a possibility for general business users.
Now the average Joe can produce draft documents and Internet pages on a colour laser machine - without fretting so much about value for money.
So what happened? Speaking about recent trends, HP's colour business printing manager, Irma Van Leeuwen, said growing sales indicate colour is becoming a business need, and a key differentiator for many companies.
The technology was now more of a main course than an entree, she said.
"There has been a growing number of people using colour," Van Leeuwen said. "In the old days, it was mainly marketing and sales departments using the technology, but now hardware costs have come down it has spread to other departments - even accountants are seeing the benefits."
And while the barriers to in-house printing are disappearing, business and government departments need to get past concerns about high upfront hardware costs, pricey consumables and of print-happy staff.
Despite these concerns, the colour laser printer market is holding its own in the overall printer space. With a rapid decline in prices, mightier speeds and sharper output, the market is seeing more uptake in the SMB segment as well as the traditional medium-to-large workgroup arena.
In particular, SMBs may know they need to print in colour but are unsure about the flexibility of the product and its uses, regional sales manager of Fuji Xerox Printers, Paul Harman. Indeed, the colour scenario was becoming increasingly attractive to small businesses, in particular, GfK analyst, Lisa Murphy, said. These organisations could now print in high-quality colour as well as high-speed black and white.
Murphy said the majority of colour lasers still printed in the lower speed range - 12ppm still accounted for 64 per cent of the market in 2004 compared with 71 per cent in 2003. "The need for faster print speeds is also apparent as machines with colour print speeds of 18ppm plus rose by 246 per cent in 2004, accounting for 20 per cent of the market compared to 10 per cent in 2003," she said.
Kyocera's product marketing manager, Mark Vella, said the company was seeing increased traction in two market segments: the 14 to 20ppm category (the midrange space), and the 21 to 30ppm segment.
And there is no shortage of gear catering to all segments with the usual suspects offering improved paper handling and finishing options, along with added memory and the ability to install a hard-disk drive.
Locally, the colour laser market grew by 70 per cent in 2004, while the value of the market increased by nine per cent, Murphy said.
"Colour lasers accounted for 17 per cent of the total laser market in 2004, compared to just 10 per cent in 2003, indicating that we're beginning to witness a switch from mono to colour," Murphy said.
In addition to a new influx of models in the lower price band, the growth of single-pass machines was shifting market dynamics, Murphy said.
"Volumes for machines with single pass technology have increased by 59 per cent," she said.
The big colour push
While hardware prices have plummeted, businesses are still worried that putting a colour device on the network could lead to indiscriminate use, thereby resulting in bloated consumable costs.
But Lexmark Australia's product marketing manager for enterprise, corporate and government, Stephen Bell, said there was a way to allay these fears.
To help customers control usage and reduce printing costs, the company's latest colour lasers use ColorCare technology to provide a variety of cost-saving colour management tools, Bell said.
The newest addition, he said, was Colour Print Permissions, a feature allowing administrators to centrally control colour printing costs by identifying authorised users. "Businesses need to be cognizant of the advantages of colour, but ensure it's being used appropriately," Bell said.
He said dealers pitch these and other software solutions to customers - which added ongoing value to the sale.
In the land of colour it's more than pushing the hardware, it's about focusing on the applications a company needs to improve its overall communications.
"There's a growing opportunity for resellers to take on a consultative approach, helping customers use and manage colour," he said.
And while cost was a major barrier to scooping up a colour laser printer, Epson Australia's director of marketing, Mike Pleasants, said times were changing. Now that the cost per page of a colour laser has matched that of a mono, and the total cost of ownership is shifting downward, he said there was no good reason not to purchase a colour laser.
For the average document, the cost per page was less than 10c, whereas it cost 20c per page 12 months ago, Bell said. Indeed, partners need to help customers factor in the cost of consumables and maintenance, as well as price per page.
And while selling colour was a bit trickier, Fuji's Harman said partners needed to avoid the cost comparison with inkjets, and instead focus on delivering solutions that matched a company's requirements.
Ease of use and out-of-the-box network capabilities were top features to pitch, he said.
"It's an embryonic time in selling colour," Harman said. "Customers need help with the purchasing because they still have low awareness."
For the first time, Fuji Xerox Printers is taking a stab at the entry-level colour laser market as part of its overall colour laser rollout.
This meant the company was now heavily pushing the colour option across all ranges, Harman said.
Kyocera's Vella said the most frequent objection resellers would hear when putting colour in the office was the worry over costly consumables.
As such, partners needed to explain the total cost of ownership over its lifetime, he said. They should prepare a cost projection based on the customer's actual print volumes and the cost of consumables. This would develop an ongoing relationship with the customer and offset concerns, he said.
While the purchase price of toner was steeper than an inkjet cartridge, the technology would deliver several thousand pages over time, a good investment in the long-run, Pleasants said.
GfK's Murphy said while cheaper prices were leading to growth in the low-end of the market there was a big opportunity for resellers to cater to the high-end. In some cases, this meant helping companies position colour lasers as departmental workhorses.
"At the high-end, partners can differentiate by pitching printing solutions and educating users on the total cost of ownership," Murphy said.
In this space, long-term profit comes via peddling toners/consumables and offering ongoing service and support.
Hybrid machines, which printed in colour and mono, were also good for organisations with limited space and on a tight budget, Pleasants said.
Essentially, resellers needed to train a customer on the benefits of colour since there was still confusion about its benefits and uses, he said.
And while the market is opening doors to the general business space, the bread and butter remains key verticals.
Health and retail featured high on the Lexmark list, along with the traditional finance/banking arena, Bell said.
On the health front, colour lasers are ideal for printing x-rays on medical imaging film, as well as printing patient identification cards.
"There's a value opportunity here for resellers," Bell said. "We're in the process of taking this message out to the channel partners."
Vendors square off in colour ring
HP's Van Leeuwen said the company was hoping its instant-on technology along with inline printing functionality would further entice customers towards purchasing a colour laser.
"The instant-on technology is vital for lasers in the smaller usage category," she said. "With this, the toner doesn't have to be heated up to start, which means the printer is always on. The first page output is much quicker."
Inline printing, meanwhile, gave the colour laser machine enhanced speed, making it comparable to a mono printer, she said.
Epson is pitching its wrap transfer technology as an incentive to make a purchase.
"We're hanging our hat on the technology," he said. "It offers more accurate toner placement in the way the paper and the drum are brought together."
For its part, Lexmark was pitching colour saver technology, which allowed users to adjust toner density on graphics, while still maintaining the integrity of the text, said Bell.
So as vendors posture to get on the colour laser wave, expect to see a host of special promotions and training sessions (particularly at the low-end) hit the market.
And this is just the beginning.