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Appliance of revolutionary science

Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) new web-connected printers offer a new way to print – shame the iPad doesn’t

HP debuted the next generation of its web-connected printers in June. The firm’s first web-connected printer was last summer’s Photosmart Premium with Touchsmart Web, but the firm’s latest devices, the Photosmart e-All-in-One, Photosmart Plus e-All-in-One, Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One, and Photosmart Premium Fax e-All-in-One, approach web printing in an entirely different way than that device.

For a start much lower price points may hit a major key with consumers, and a minor note to the web connectivity with a new naming scheme prefixed by ‘e-‘.

From a supplies perspective, none of the machines offers anything new. HP’s entry-level Photosmart e-All-in-One, uses the HP 60/60XL-series integrated black and tricolour cartridges that the firm introduced more than two years ago while the HP 564/564XL uses individual ink tanks that the firm also introduced two years ago. Still, HP’s printers are significant from a supplies perspective because they have the potential to increase page volumes – something that all printer vendors in all market segments have been striving to do.

The recession, electronic means of sharing information, increased environmental concerns, the increase in popularity of retail and online photo printing rather than home photo printing, and other trends have combined to lower print volumes in many segments of the printer and MFP market. Slowing or even reversing this trend is essential to maintaining the ‘razor and blades’ profit model under which printer vendors make most if not all of their profit on sales of consumables.

HP has dubbed the technology used in its web-connected printers and internet servers ePrint. Unlike the HP Photosmart Premium with Touchsmart Web, which could access HP’s App Studio Web site to download printing applications, the new ePrint technology enables anyone with an internet connection to print from either a PC or mobile device to one of the new e-All-in-Ones. Owners can still print web content directly from the new ink jet devices, but the print applications run on the web rather than being downloaded to the printer.

The key behind ePrint technology is assigning each all-in-one a unique, cryptic e-mail address. Any device that can send an e-mail can be used to send print jobs to a printer, as long as the sender knows the e-mail address. Rendering takes place on HP servers, or in the cloud, rather than on a connected PC.

Andy Lippman, Senior Analyst for Lyra Research’s CDS and Hard Copy Supplies Advisory Service, says, "HP’s ePrint application stands out in a consumer printer market that has moved closer and closer to commoditisation. The key is conveying the value of ePrint technology to consumers."

Lippman points out that a recent Lyra survey showed that about one-fifth of US consumers have an interest in printing from a mobile phone. More significantly, about one-half of smart phone users are interested in sending photos or documents to a printer. Lippman says: "HP’s ePrint-enabled printers, and 564-series and 60-series platforms, are well positioned to capitalise on mobile computing’s expansion."

The technology certainly seems to offer the possibility of forever changing printing for end users and making printing more relevant in a world focused on mobile technologies. Will being able to use any e-mail-capable device to send a print job be enough to counteract all the trends working to decrease print volumes? Time will tell whether the technology proves to be the revolution HP hopes.

iPad disappointment

Labelled revolutionary before it came out, sales of the iPad are now well underway. As the first half of 2010 ends, the rollout of Apple’s groundbreaking new toy has clearly been one of the biggest technology events so far this year.

With 3 million units sold in the first 80 days (as announced by Apple on 22 June), the category-creating iPad has set records and (mostly) wowed the pundits.

The iPad’s lack of native printing capabilities is one of the device’s few black marks. Lyra highlighted the existence of printing solutions based on third-party iPhone apps following the iPad’s 3 April release date, and more printing solutions have come to the fore since, perhaps most notably from printer industry leader HP and the firm’s ‘mobile printing’ announcement on 7 June. HP’s demonstrations at its launch event prominently included printing from Apple’s iPad.

However, customers seem to be rather vocal regarding the lack of ‘official’ native iPad printing, as seen in a recent survey of 6,000 existing iPad users that was fielded by technology blog Technologizer. In "The State of iPad Satisfaction", long-time tech journalist Harry McCracken summarises the results that find iPad users are overall very satisfied, with a stunning 98 percent positive rating.

Technologizer surveyed 6,000 iPad users and published the results in late-June.

Nonetheless, McCracken reports: "More than half also wish Apple had given the tablet printing capabilities, a memory-card slot, and a front-facing camera."

A more detailed look at the data shows that the lack of printing actually ranks as the most selected feature by far in the "major omission" category when respondents were asked to "rate the importance of the following features which are not present in the iPad".

A full 40 percent selected lack of printing, compared to slightly more than 20 percent for the next highest major omission – the front-facing camera. When combined with those responses that marked lack of printing capability as a "minor omission", this feature (or lack thereof) again dominates the field, with more than half of the respondents weighing in. A trifling 5 percent of respondents indicated that the iPad was "better off without it" with respect to printing capabilities.

The survey indicates that 30 percent of the 6,000 iPad users surveyed by Technologizer think that the lack of printing capabilities is a major omission by Apple in the firm’s first iPad

So, what does this mean for printing and imaging industry players? Is the perceived void in iPad printing prowess a case of the glass being half-full or half-empty? Optimistically, filling the customer need for better iPad printing is clearly a big opportunity. The kind of data and direction this survey yields is wonderful ammunition as a project- or company-launching business case.

From Apple’s perspective, the 6,000 respondents to the Technologizer’s survey weighed in heavily on the lack of native printing, although the 98 percent satisfaction rate would suggest this omission is not a sales inhibitor, at least among those iPad customers who already bought the product. Arguably the 6,000 users surveyed come from the ranks of early adopters, but as Apple grows the market, will mainstream buyers join the customer fold en masse only when a native printing solution is available?

Apple is taking notice. While CEO Steve Jobs responded via e-mail to a customer’s inquiry about iPad printing with a simple "it will come" in early June, the company has otherwise been mostly quiet, with cryptic recommendations such as first e-mailing content intended for printing to another platform – for instance use a conventional desktop or laptop and let the PC do the job.

However, the firm’s stealth approach seemingly cannot last forever, and Apple, no longer among the market’s printer suppliers, will need to field a robust solution that works with industry-leading models from a variety of vendors.

With respect to third-party solutions, including small app vendors and giant printer manufacturers attempting to solve the iPad printing problem, is the news here good or bad? Though the 6,000 respondents are not app-averse (the data indicate 91 percent have 10 or more apps installed on their iPads), their comments reflect a strong distinction between native printing and that available via an add-on solution, whether app- or hardware-based, which may lead to a different view of the opportunity given more than 50 percent of iPad owners having unmet printing needs.

Clearly as new categories and business trends develop, printing will have chances to prosper. Understanding customer needs and being the first to fill them (and communicate them as well) will be a key to success, just like always.