Printers and the Paperless Office

A 50-state roundup of information technology news and events.

by / November 30, 1996
"By the year 2005, 70 percent of all documents will be created and maintained electronically compared to only 10 percent today," said Xplor International, an association dedicated to advancing the art and science of electronic documents. If that's true, what future is there for computer printers and all the people that work for the more than 100 companies that make them?

Well, don't sell your printer stocks just yet, because by 2005, printers will pump out twice as many documents as they do today. Why? Because the amount of information in our wonderfully creative society is doubling every three to four years. By 2005, there will be more than eight times as much information produced annually as today. As executive director of Xplor, Keith Davidson, put it, "the paperless office is about as realistic as the paperless toilet."

Other than the sheer volume of information to be printed, there are other trends that will ensure printers have a long life. For one, printers are replacing copy machines. We're now "mopying" instead of "copying." Mopy means "multiple original prints." Instead of printing one page and walking to the copy machine, we're making multiple originals on the printer. Why not when you can simply type in the number of copies you want while you're sending the job to the printer? Analysts expect that in 10 years the stand-alone analog copy machine will no longer be made. They will all be digital with printers and copy machines having merged into one. You've already seen it at the low end in every office supply store with multifunction printers (MFPs) offering printing, copying, scanning and faxing in one unit.

At the higher end, printers now come with huge hard disks that can hold the formatted output and print pages one, two, three, etc. in order, then offset the stacker one half inch and print the next set and so on. Even stapling and three-hole punching, heretofore only available on copy machines, are wending their way to the network printer. Options abound. For example, Xerox's 4517 laser printer offers a 10-bin lockable collator. The bins are used to collate output or separate it by department, but they are also lockable to keep sensitive documents from unauthorized eyes. Only the right password opens each bin.

Printers are also replacing the traditional printing house. For years, high-speed digital printers have generated those wonderful "Dear Mr. Freedman, Congratulations, You qualify for the ... yak, yak" letters. Screamingly fast page printers from companies such as IBM, Xerox and Oce Printing Systems (formerly Siemens Nixdorf) have been pumping out this kind of material at speeds up to 744 pages per minute. Every document coming off a machine such as this has bypassed the traditional offset printing process. We're now in the "have it how, when and where you want it" world of POD, or "print on demand." No more creating films, proofs and all that manual stripping on the light table. After all, if the documents are created digitally in the first place, why not just print them and be done with it? Last year, POD was a $42 billion market. POD jobs are considered short-run jobs with less than 5,000 total pages. For example, 2,500 two-page flyers, 500 10-page booklets, or 10 500-page books.

IBM's 3170 digital printer is POD in full color. Handling paper up to 12.5 inches wide in rolls that are cut to any length after they're printed, the 3170 can print 70 pages per minute with outstanding color quality. You'd love all your reading material printed with full-color graphics as good as this. At two tons and $365,000, this is not your average network printer. However, any organization with major color POD requirements will save money in the long haul and get their jobs out a helluvalot sooner. Nothing competes today with huge offset presses spitting out millions of pages, but, in time, they too will succumb to all-digital printers.

Printer technologies are moving in all directions, and costs keep coming down. At the low end, earlier this year, Okidata introduced its four pages per minute (ppm) entry-level, laser-class printer at a breakthrough price of $299. It yields crisp 600 dpi black and white copies with a footprint the size of a sheet of stationery. We call it "laser class," because, technically it's an LED printer, not a laser printer. In fact, that's a term you're going to hear more often. Laser class means laser printer quality, but it can use an array of LEDs internally to shine light on the drum rather than a single laser, or as in the case of Tektronix's Phaser 350, it doesn't use light at all, but it's still laser class.

There's plenty of action in the desktop and network laser printer market. This year you pay the same price for 17 ppm that you did for 12 ppm just a year ago. Almost all lasers have reached 600 dpi, which is more than acceptable for text reproduction. Increasingly, 1200 dpi models are available that make graphics print better, and you may not pay any extra for it. But numbers are not the whole story. If you print shaded drawings and photographs, there's no substitute for testing the machines with samples of your data. Most printers have some kind of proprietary resolution enhancement built in, so don't rely on the numbers entirely. Look at it.

Hewlett-Packard has the lion's share of this market, but faces serious competition. Although HP quality is legendary and well-deserved, there are other excellent companies determined to make inroads. For example, Lexmark offers very competitive models that can save you 25 percent or more vs. an equivalent HP. Last year, Lexmark sold $2 billion worth. You may remember that IBM spun off Lexmark in '91, thinking desktop laser printers weren't all that lucrative. In the transaction, IBM was restricted from competing in this market for five years. Well, time's up, and much to Lexmark's chagrin, IBM is baaaaaaack with a new line of 12 to 24 ppm network laser printers that compete directly. Kinda like having your good-looking, brilliant brother back home from college. It was real nice when he was away. IBM's network lasers look good, and its color laser, although somewhat pricey (list $8,999), produces extraordinary continuous tone color.

Xerox is making a serious push for the digital printer market too. Perhaps it should, considering the future of copy machines. Nevertheless, this $18 billion giant, that invented the electrophotographic process in the first place -- not to mention mice, GUIs and Ethernet -- is making major moves at every end of the document market from multifunction printer-copier-scanner-faxes to network printers with loads of paper-handling features. The company is already selling $4 billion worth of digital printers annually, and after all, who knows paper handling better than Xerox?

If all the reasons we've discussed aren't enough to keep printer companies profitable, we're about to enter a new ballgame, where not just resolution and speed count, but color quality becomes a major criterion. Color laser printers have been slow to take off because they've been pricey, but costs have come down dramatically. If you think color is just for fun and games, try reading a complicated chart or graph in black and white vs. that same chart with two or three colors in it. When color is used intelligently, it can make reading a complex financial graph a pleasure rather than a chore. By the turn of the century, you'll start to think about a monochrome printer with the same relish as your old amber or green mono monitor.

In 1989, QMS introduced the first desktop laser printer. At $25,000, it was as popular as Apple's Lisa, which came out with a $10,000 pricetag back in 1983. But QMS brought the price down to $12,000 in 1994, then in 1995 to $4999, and finally this summer, it pushed the envelope to $3999. At three to six ppm in color and 12 ppm in mono, QMS' MagiColor WX provides an affordable 600 dpi printer that runs under Windows 95 and hooks to a single PC.

But QMS is a $300 million company, and all the big boys want to play in this field too, so it's no wonder HP introduced its desktop color laser afterwards and took the lead. QMS holds the number two spot, but everybody's muscling in.

For laser-class color output at $3,495 today, check out Tektronix's Phaser 350 printer. Using a combination of solid ink and offset methods, it offers a very low cost for consumables, about 5