Although bandied about often, the concept of distributed printing remains remarkably nebulous, even among the vendor fraternity. However, one thing seems clear. In its broadest form, distributed printing already pervades the very way the IT industry views document output - even if much of the industry isn't aware of it.
Simply put, distributed printing is being able to print what you want, when you want. It seems an obvious definition in days driven by the Internet and networks spanning the globe. But the evolution of the printer has mirrored the move away from giant mainframes to the PC and onto networks. Gone are the days of the "tree cutters" sitting in air-conditioned rooms on the third floor. Today the idea of distributed printing is as broad as e-mailing a PDF file to be printed from a PC, formatting electronic forms or having the ability to download and print any newspaper around the world.
A concept for now
"Ten years ago, printing was predominantly connected to some form of office environment and that was it," explains Martin Ryan, general manager for Lexmark's corporate printing division. "There was no external electronic printing being done for office use. Outside of that, people were producing brochures and graphics and sending them off to big Web printers, printing it in bulk and distributing it around by hand."
Ryan admits the distributed printing tag is "a little light", and that the printing structure of many organisations today is still fundamentally centralised. But the notion of being able to print anything anywhere remains the driving force behind much of Lexmark's technology.
"We are starting to move to a whole range of network-attached devices, including the Internet, that still have some identity in the networking environment and can allow you to print anywhere around the world."
Generally the ideal world of distributed printing prevails as simply a concept. But Hewlett-Packard, which has been rattling the distributed printing cage for nearly half a decade, is beginning to implement printing solutions that make theories a reality. Its print-on-demand solution, with newspaper delivery company NewspaperDirect, allows guests at Sydney's Sheraton on the Park hotel a choice of more than 35 up-to-date daily newspapers from around the world. Implemented by HP reseller Metropolitan Business Machines, the system combines customised software with HP LaserJet printers, network hubs and desktop PCs. Each paper provides NewspaperDirect with a digital version of its publication, formatted for printing using Adobe Acrobat's PDF files. When a guest requests a newspaper, the relevant file is sent over the Internet and printed on A3 paper, folded and stapled by the printer.
The system went live a week before the Olympic Games in September. Previously, the Sheraton received newspapers for guests through traditional newspaper distributors and had to cope with time zone differences and shipping costs. The new system has proven extremely cost effective, allowing the hotel to halve the cost of its newspaper service, a benefit passed on to its clientele.
"I really believe in partnering because of the complex nature of the solutions," says market development manager for HP's printing solutions and e-print business Annemarie Riga. But she points out it is not a solution which can be taken out through mass distribution channels. "It is not a straightforward sell, so resellers really need to understand the products and solutions. It's a whole combination of HP products and they need to link back to NewspaperDirect. Only certain resellers are willing to spend time and money to go into what, at the moment, is regarded as a niche market."
Partners in progress
Distributed printing gives people the ability to be a lot more flexible and cost-effective, according to Hewlett-Packard.
And central to that is the Internet. Through its JetCAPS (Corporate Accounts Printing Solutions) program, the vendor has assembled software developers from around the world to combine HP's printing technology with software and Internet services. One of these companies is Indigo Pacific, which distributes electronic form software allowing users to easily customise and merge data into their standard company forms for printing on HP printers.
"E-forms have been around for a number of years," explains Indigo Pacific's HP business manager Mike Yokom. "We are going to the next level - looking at business requirements so organisations can, for example, take a single data packet, produce a packet slip, and invoice and duplicate that invoice for the accountant. It requires a knowledge of the company's business procedures, definitions and workflow."
Of particular interest is the ability to feed dot matrix or line print data for legacy platforms into a state-of-the-art HP LaserJet.
"Many companies have a lot of investment tied up in legacy systems but they often don't have the knowledge base to reengineer the application, or it is extremely expensive and they don't want to make that investment," Yokom says. "Our value add is we can prepare that data for a LaserJet, which gives the customer more control and great presentation. It is a highly specialised field."
These sorts of applications will ultimately help drive printer sales, especially in the colour laserjet market, and many vendors are leading the charge by example - installing solutions in their own offices. Perhaps the most interesting example is that of Minolta-QMS, which has partnered with Web-based marketing company elateral to give resellers customisable marketing material over the Internet. This material, which includes the vendor's range, can then be printed locally.
The solutions seem simple, but they combine a unique set of software and hardware functionality which is quite complex. And the market is still in its infancy, as Epson's Australian business manager Andrew Glenn points out.
"It is quite a niche market," he says. "While there are significant benefits for large companies with networks that span the globe, a very small number of those companies have yet to take advantage of the technology."
Glenn says that wireless technology would add another chapter to the distributed printing story. Indeed, there are grand plans for the distributed printing market. As Lexmark's Ryan points out, the industry needs to move away from the mindframe of printing as marks on bits of paper. "Who's to say it is not marks in space," he argues.
Grandiose visions aside, it remains a growing market with channel opportunities in services and maintenance.
"Today we have many business partners who are in fact managing their customers' distributed print environment with a range of hardware, consumables and various services," Ryan says. "We think it is a big opportunity for our business partners with reasonable returns. It gives two real benefits - firstly, it gives them some annuity revenue streams that they can lock up, and two, it gives them some value-add capability that they can take to their customer set."Photograph: Georgina Swan