by Robert Palmer
The continued transition to services is having a profound impact on the design and functionality of office printers and MFPs. In fact, the emphasis on products and the role they play in a managed print environment is changing steadily. Not that long ago, products drove the customer relationship. New features fueled hardware replacement cycles, and vendors constantly pushed technology to deliver “faster, better, and cheaper” products. Hardware vendors focused on specifications such as print speed, resolution, duty cycle, and paper capacity as a way to differentiate from the competition.
In a services engagement, the customer relationship is defined by the supplier’s ability to meet overall business objectives through the structure of a managed services contract. Products remain important, but MPS customers rarely choose their provider based solely on product capabilities. The customer is interested in results defined by cost targets, improved productivity, more efficient business processes, or some combination of all of these elements.
As the transition to MPS continues, there is a risk that office customers could become increasingly indifferent to printing hardware. This creates challenges and opportunities for equipment vendors developing printers and MFPs. The result is a bevy of new products that are designed to work well in a services-led market, while providing new levels of functionality to further exploit the services paradigm.
Identifying End User Needs
Interestingly, it is the transition to services that is enabling hardware vendors to gain a better understanding of customer needs. Once a printer or MFP is installed under MPS it becomes a managed asset, a device that is consistently and routinely monitored throughout the life of the contract. Part of what allows service providers to evaluate and optimize the print environment is the ability to capture and analyze usage data obtained from devices installed in the fleet. For many OEMs, this data has become a valuable source of end user feedback that can be factored into future product design.
As the number of devices under contract continues to grow, the overall installed base will diversify to provide an even clearer picture of device usage by application and vertical market. The data collected not only shows print volumes and usage rates, it can help vendors determine product needs in areas related to document management, workflow, and printed output. This becomes particularly important when you think about how customers use their MFP with integrated document solutions.
Serviceability is a key area of focus for hardware vendors these days. The last thing that any MPS provider wants is a fleet of unstable devices that require repetitive onsite service calls. Servicing hardware eats directly into MPS profits. Indeed, the perfect MPS product could install itself and then, once in place, never fail, never jam, and never run out of paper or supplies. It is unlikely that we will ever see that type of product, but vendors are clearly exploring options to help limit downtime and reduce the number of service calls for MPS hardware. New workgroup devices feature capabilities such as remote management, early system failure detection and warning systems, even self-healing device capabilities.
The MFP as a Platform
Improved serviceability is predictable, but we are starting to see more revolutionary changes to hardware design. The transition to services turns products into delivery vehicles. As a result, value is tied more closely to the solutions and applications that run on the device rather than the device itself. Sound familiar? Smartphones and tablets are actually fairly simple devices with limited hardware features and functionality. It is the applications that run on these devices that turn them into productivity tools.
Office-printing hardware appears to be marching down a similar path. Early on, this has manifested itself in the way that vendors are now pushing an entire ecosystem or platform, rather than individual products. There is a noticeable move to develop not just products but a “series of products” that all provide the same level of functionality, with a consistent user interface and end user experience. The “product as a platform” approach is basically essential to long-term success in a services model.
Another important element of this transition is the ongoing trend toward smart controllers. A crucial attribute of any services-enabled product is field-upgradability. As new features, software, applications, etc. are rolled out through the ecosystem, the hardware in the field needs to be upgradable to support these features. Constantly updating the brains in the machine helps to extend product life, allowing devices to stay in the fleet longer, which not only improves the service provider’s return on investment but also helps reduce the overall solution delivery cost.
Meanwhile, many MFPs are starting to look and behave less like output devices and more like tools for managing information, with embedded Web browsers, intelligent UIs, and the ability to run both server- and cloud-based applications. This could be very disruptive for OEMs and their channel partners in the effort to further monetize the delivery of various business solutions and services.
Mobility and the transition to mobile workflows is also playing a key role in the design of office hardware. Already, vendors are designing products to support access from mobile devices, not just for printing but also for an entire range of document-based business processes. The evolution of office imaging hardware will be fun to watch as the market continues to shift to a services model.
Robert Palmer is chief analyst and a managing partner for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. He is an independent market analyst and industry consultant with more than 25 years experience in the printing industry covering technology and business sectors for prominent market research firms such as Lyra Research and InfoTrends. In December 2012 he formed Palmer Consulting as an independent consultancy focused on transformation, mobility, MPS, and the entire imaging market. Palmer is a popular speaker and presents regularly at industry conferences and trade events in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. He is also active in a variety of imaging industry forums and currently serves on the board of directors for the Managed Print Services Association (MPSA). Contact him at email@example.com.