Today, printers. Tomorrow, 'integrated peripherals'?

With less office printing going on, printers are struggling to redefine themselves.

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Mike Morper, vice president at Notable Solutions Inc., an integrator in Rockville, MD, describes a typical MFP-based transaction capture solution: A user logs on and selects an application from a list on the MFP's control panel, such as "Submit For Remittance" when processing an invoice.

The screen will then ask for basic information, such as the invoice number, amount and the vendor name. For the last, the software will access a database server through the office network and present the user with a list of vendors with open purchase orders. The user picks the correct vendor, presses a button and the invoice is scanned. The image will then be sent to a separate application processor, which can extract further information from the invoice via optical character recognition, Morper explains.

"We are seeing adoption by the same users who jumped on the capture concept 15 years ago," Morper says. "But instead of sending all your documents to a central mailbox you can have the subject matter expert put one or two documents at a time in an MFP and deliver them to the [correct] business process."

The down side is that an integrator must support about 500 different MFPs, he adds. "Devices from the same vendor may not be that much different, but devices from different vendors can be as different as Windows and Macintosh. Starting from scratch, it can take four to six months to build just the client to run inside a device," Morper says. The software underlying MFPs' control panels are about evenly divided between proprietary systems, Java and browsers, he adds.

Meanwhile, data output by the MFP needs to be in any of about 30 software formats, such as IBM Content Manager or Microsoft SharePoint, many of which are subject to periodic revision, he adds, so the MFP software will also need periodic updates.

Certain printers have built-in or downloadable apps, including ones on HP MFPs that let customers print out current weather maps or news summaries from the web. But compared to the hundreds of thousands of apps that have arisen for the iPhone and Android smartphone environments, pundits are not impressed.

"These are convenience features for users who want some quick information off the Internet," says Keith Kmetz, vice president at IDC. This setup "may not be an ah-ha thing that drives technology." HP will be shipping a software development kit later this year that should encourage MFP app proliferation, Laing says.

Remote printing

The vendors have also been rushing to support remote printing for their networked printers, to support the growing throng of mobile device users. There are various ways to do this and none has become standard.

For instance, the HP approach includes giving each printer an e-mail address to which the user can send files. But since the application doing the printing does not reside on the printer, the printer can only print files in certain standard formats.

Another example is Konica Minolta, some of whose printers can connect via Wi-Fi and print in PDF, Microsoft Office and most image formats, says Dino Pagliarello, head of product marketing at Konica Minolta.

Xerox's approach involves the user e-mailing a document from a smartphone to a print server inside the organization's firewall, where the user can get it printed after inputting a code that the server sent to the smartphone, says Shell Haffner, manager of desktop product marketing at Xerox. The document is printed by the application that produced it, he adds.

Security issues

With printers relying on networking, in theory they are exposed to hacking. But sources dismiss that danger, saying there are too many safeguards.

"I think it's a tempest in a teapot," says analyst Jamieson.

But there are other serious security issues, as spotlighted in a CBS News special report that ran in April 2010. Reporters went to a warehouse stocked with copiers that had been returned from lease, bought four and examined the contents of their hard drives for images of documents that the machines had copied or scanned. They found lists of sex offenders in Buffalo, NY; 95 pages of a construction company's pay stubs with Social Security numbers; plans for a building in Manhattan near Ground Zero and 300 pages of medical records.

"Before the report, none of the vendors were encrypting the data on the hard drives," says data-capture expert Spencer. "Now, they all do."

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