The concept of communicating with a printer over the Internet is not new. Most network printers that can be assigned an IP address technically can be accessed via the Net. However, most system administrators will not allow this for security reasons.
Nevertheless, there are big changes afoot as major printer manufacturers introduce new Internet printing technology allowing printers to pull information from the Internet without having to be connected to a PC - and even host their own Web pages.
The new technology is still very much in its formative stages. There is no agreement on uniform standards yet, security remains a concern, and some of the technology is complex and takes time to integrate into a normal network environment. But it does have the potential to revolutionise printing and it could possibly offer big savings for medium to large enterprises. Additionally it presents some major servicing and revenue stream benefits for the channel.
Push and pull
Internet printing has often been considered in terms of a push technology (information is sent over the Net to a PC, and then to a printer). For example, Hewlett-Packard offers a service on its Web site called HP Instant Delivery, consisting of a small application which can be downloaded to a PC, and allowing the user to enter several Web sites that contain desired information. Overnight the service will pull down information from the sites and send (push) them to the printer; the user has a print out of the latest news or required information the following morning.
However, push technologies are generally out of favour, and the take up has been slow because of the systems' inherent inefficiencies involving control over paper supplies and increasing costs created by the volume of printing.
In reply, Lexmark, HP, Minolta-QMS and others are now developing pull technologies in which the printer itself accesses the Net, or an intranet Web page, and pulls down the data it requires. At the same time, the printer maintains its own Web site on which its current paper and toner supply status are listed, along with other diagnostic information.
While big business has been the first to take advantage of the new technology, Web-enabled printers are available for all sizes of enterprise from SOHO and up.
HP Australia market development manager for laser printers, Chris Brown, says the company's new Web-enabled printers include a "smart supplies" system so that when supplies reach a certain level, an e-mail or SMS message can be sent to a purchasing officer, or direct to a supplier. "We are using the Web to improve mundane processes such as monitoring a printer for supplies," he says. "This is cutting edge and the uptake is coming from medium to large customers.
"It is something that is evolving - it is very new technology but it is a platform for us to build upon. We also have a technology in these machines that allows for software development to be resident on the printer. So rather than have an application executed on your PC, it is actually executed in the printer."
However, the embedded server technology used in HP's new 4100 range is complex.
"It is going to take a good 12 months before we see companies adopting this en masse and getting the most out of the printer capabilities that we are building in," says Brown. "The technology needs both explanation and additional configuration within a network environment, plus a number of testing processes to ensure it is running properly.
"It is a big challenge to communicate these new benefits and help the channel sell the printers. So we are developing CDs that will have a range of information to help resellers position some of these new technologies and solutions for their customers.
"There is a lot of excitement about the fact that the channel can service its customers' supply needs more efficiently by getting orders over the Net from the embedded Web server," he says. "It provides the ongoing revenue stream for a lot of our channel partners and gives them the opportunity to go into a customer with a really strong value-add."
Today, says Lexmark's Frank Daugelat, any printer that can be given an IP address can be managed over the Net and receive information directly. But the technology is used very little. "Concerns about security are regularly raised, and Lexmark will release a product later in the year that will allow for a higher level of encryption and decryption. However, I see a bigger market for the pull applications. You can place templates of all of your office forms on the Net so you can print them on demand wherever you need them."
This allows an office to print its stationery, brochures, specialist forms or any other regularly used document from wherever there is a Web-connected printer, rather than placing an order with the company stationery store and waiting for delivery.
Tim Champion, product and applications marketing manager, business products division, Lexmark South Asia, says his company estimates that the largest 100 businesses in Australia spend about $9.5 billion in printing every year. "The bottom line is that hardcopy output is a significant expenditure and industry analysts believe this trend is only going to get worse," he says. "Lexmark's research indicates that the hard dollar costs alone of distributed printing, copying and faxing, centralised printing and printing by outside vendors will cost about 1 to 3 per cent of corporate revenue. At these rates, a $1 billion company is spending $10 to $30 million on a critical business function - printing - without even knowing it.
"Today, most enterprise printer fleets are unmanaged. Many enterprise IT departments are unclear how many printers they have, how much they're printing or what the utilisation rates are for each device. It's creating unnecessary costs."
Champion estimates that by using Web-based management software that notifies the appropriate person when something is required, costs can be reduced by up to 20 per cent.
Kurt Reiter, managing director of Melbourne-based consulting and project management firm Red Source Technology, says Internet-enabled printing can also provide benefits for the SME and SOHO markets.
Increasingly, small offices can afford permanent Internet connections and there are now many ways users can access their small networks from the road. Internet printing enables a sales person to print quotes or correspondence while out of the office, then collect, batch, collate and post them all at the end of the day.
"The new breed of SOHO printers that are to be Web-ready' out of the box will provide Internet connectivity without the need to have the printer connected to the PC," says Reiter. "If you are a one man band or in a small business, the cost savings could be considerable. For example, instead of needing a laptop, a desktop and a printer, you may be able to get away with the laptop and a Web-ready printer."
He says Red Source has worked closely with PrintDirect, a small printing company based in South Melbourne, to develop business strategies that take advantage of readily available but rarely used Internet technologies. One strategy, referred to as "Web-filment", allows personalised print-based marketing to be integrated with a Web site.
"Imagine the user of a car company's Web site, filling out an online form registering their interest in a particular model and colour with particular extras," says Reiter. "Two days later they receive a brochure (printed from the Net) in the mail that has their name on it, a picture of the model car they are interested in, details of the extras they would like fitted, and a discounted price if they visit their local dealer within 20 days and purchase.
"The programming required to make this a reality is remarkably simple."
Reiter says it is the integration of print-based Web sites, ASPs and emerging Web technologies with Web-ready printers that provides an interesting platform for the development of business models in the near future.