Remember in the eighties when desks were suddenly cleared off as a type of psychological preparation for the paperless office? The workspace graced only with a PC became the mark of a forward thinking, up-and-coming executive, while piles of documents seemed passe.
The trend appeared to spell doom and gloom for the printer industry as they attempted to come to terms with what appeared to be their imminent demise. The paperless promise didn't last long however, as many soon tired of squinting at e-mails and began to revert to the printed version when a document required particular focus and attention.
Then everyone went LAN mad. The installation of centralised networked printers was happening everywhere, until exhausted employees complained that it wasn't central to them and they had to run up and down the stairs several times a day to retrieve hard copies of their documents.
The networked printer teams shrunk and brought the printers closer to individual workgroups. However, mobile computing and hot desking may again force a rethink of the printer choices integrated into the average corporate rollout.
Highly mobile staff and hot-desked offices currently hold the same kudos as the paperless office did late last decade. Given past experience mobile computing will lead to a shift in work practices, but this shift will eventually subside into stable work patterns.
One of the questions which has yet to be resolved is how this highly mobile environment will affect the need for and use of printing.
While there are a number of mobile printing offerings on the market, a quick review of the sums reveals they haven't really taken off, except in some small yet lucrative niche markets.
Carving out a niche
Despite a run of good business stretching years, Russel Martin, national marketing manager of task-specific printer importer Sieko, remains nervous.
"We have been sitting here for years quivering," Martin says, "waiting for more of the big vendors to get involved in the mobile printer or label printer markets, but it simply hasn't happened yet."
While the mobile printer market's detractors poke fun at the notion of a portable printer, Martin points out the vendors have created products which are flexible and easily integrated into specific tasks depending on the corporate requirement. The Sieko product line is focused around small spec thermal printers that can be integrated into a range of tasks, from labelling to receipt, memo or invoice printing.
"The average small printer doesn't have a specific use, so the integrators can adapt it to their client's requirements," Martin said.
Martin admits the market is fairly specific, but he does not see that as a negative, especially where the channel is concerned.
"We are not a big player. It is a niche market so we have been able to maintain a small, cost-effective operation," Martin said. "We can still give our dealers a 20 25 per cent margin, which is a lot more attractive than most."
Glen Kunkel, channels manager for portable printer distributor Peacock Bros, believes the portable printer market is full of opportunities.
"The market is huge, and it is always evolving because there are so many different types of businesses which mobile printers can be applied to," Kunkel said. "Transport, logistics, warehousing, supply chain, retail, on-the-road invoicing and receipts" to name a few.
Similarly Dea Arnott, product manager for label printer distributor Kemtek, points out the potential market for task-specific printers remains large despite the apparently limited nature of the offering.
"The attraction is right across the board; corporations, government departments, small businesses, you name it there is always an application for them," Arnott said.
"It is just a matter of the reseller coming up with an appropriate task."
Kunkel points out the key to selling small mobile printers lies in being able to understand the customers' business and looking for areas where such printers can save time or improve a process.
"There is no need to have X qualifications or Y experience, the trick to selling these printers is knowing the offerings and knowing your client's requirements," Kunkel said.
While Sieko's Martin agrees, he also believes many resellers face difficulties when it comes to selling mobile printers because of the price differential compared to the more common desktop models.
"People automatically compare our printers to the commodity bubble jet range, and think: 'How can I pay more for something that is smaller'?" Martin said.
Peacock Bros' Kunkel thinks resellers need to emphasise the "you get what you pay for" line when it comes to mobile printer offerings.
"You have to orient the client towards a quality product, a lot of people come to you wanting champagne when they are only paying beer prices," Kunkel said.
However, not all portable printers are specially designed niche products. George Nawa, marketing manager at Brother Australia, says the company has had a reasonable success with their slim-line portable offering, although he admits the market remains quite small.
"It is mainly going out to corporates for their on-the-road sales staff," Nawa said. "Some integrators are working them into an overall company-wide package, but the market is still quite small."
Back at the ranch
Although the niche distributors are happy with the way the mobile printer market is developing in Australia, some of the more traditional printer vendors and distributors have yet to see any movement in the market.
Tech Pacific's category manager for printers, supplies and imaging, Lorraine Cowan, has yet to see the mobile printer market emerge in Australia, pointing out the market appears preoccupied with desktop offerings.
"It is not a strong market segment at all," Cowan said. "Just as the number of units of desktop printers keep growing, the manufacturers seem to be fairly comfortable with the size of some of the smaller desk jets."
Others in the industry are more dismissive of the mobile printer market. Kyocera Mita's managing director, David Finn, scoffs at the notion of mobile printing.
"Some vendors have had devices they call portable printers, however the market is just not big enough to sustain many products," Finn said. "Vendors have to ask themselves why anyone would need a hard copy while they are on the road. A more sensible option is for them to transmit the data they require via a wireless connection to the Internet and have it waiting for them on arrival."
Finn believes the mobile computing/ mobile printing dilemma is easily solved through Internet connectivity, rather than requiring end users to cart a printing device and media accessories wherever they go.
"The future is more likely to be associated with Bluetooth and wireless connections available in business kiosks," Finn said.
Tech Pacific's Cowan agrees, saying integrators should keep an eye out for opportunities in airport clubs and hotel business suites.
"Most travelling business people can get the work done on the plane and then batch any printing when they get home, or come into land," Cowan said. "Qantas is already starting to offer that kind of service in their Qantas clubs, there are a few problems with drivers and so forth, but it is a better option than carrying more luggage for most travellers."
Martin also believes mobile printers will become more pervasive as the software offerings available on mobile platforms improve.
"Now we have MYOB and Quicken coming out with PDA versions of their software. It won't be long before people are looking to use them more and more on the road - as the functionalities change so will the peripherals associated with the product," Martin said.