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What future for the ‘Printer’ – Office-Hub and Home-Hub??

The year was 2009!  And the month, November!  The first ‘web-connect’ or ‘smart’ printers arrived on the scene!  And we thought, “Oooh, that’s clever”!  Now, as we’re getting frightening close to the end of yet another decade, I’ve been pondering on whether the next development in the printer arena could be the introduction of a true multi-function, multi-tasking ‘Office Hub’ and ‘Home Hub’.

Lexmark Interact S605 - 2009Lexmark Interact S605 – 2009

In 2009, it was Lexmark with its range of SmartSolutions (see TCPglobal article: Lexmark web-enabled touch screen with SmartSolutions – why is it revolutionary?) that began that big move in the industry.  Over these past nine years, we’ve seen ‘the printer’ blossom into a sophisticated network multi-tasking device, with the downside that it now demands that it be fully protected and secured – because it has become a ‘vulnerable’ device on the network.  If a printer is not adequately secured, it can be accessed as a gateway to the network, especially if it is a wireless printer that can be seen from outside the premises.  And, yes, when I’m out and about, I frequently see printers showing up in the available wireless network list on my mobile phone.

HP claims to be at the head of the game on printer security, with an array of integrated solutions and functions for many of its business devices that are capable of providing protection against all kinds of external attacks on their integrity.

Which begs the questions: What of the future?  Where can the printer go from here?  Clearly security is one major issue – but that’s a topic for another article.  More to the point on the broad-brush canvas – what opportunities are there for networked print devices that have already become so much more than just print, or even multi-function, devices?  Networking capabilities and the need for sophisticated security features open up interesting possibilities.


Printer network connectivity

My belief is that it is commonly accepted that all general office & home printers (i.e. excluding fax, dot matrix and specialist devices such as mobile, label, graphics or dedicated photo printers) now need to be network connected, whether that includes cloud printing or not.  In this mobile, connected wonder world, I don’t believe there’s much of a future for a standalone printer any more (he says, knowing perfectly well that Lexmark predicted the death of the mono printer more than 20 years ago … and the paperless office was forecast much further back than that – Business Week 1975 – and look where we are with those predictions!!!).

I think I’m on pretty safe ground on this one though, because a search on unconnected print devices revealed only small selection (looking at the major printer manufacturers only):

    Unconnected devices
Manufacturer Comment Mono laser printer Mono laser AiO Inkjet AiO
Brother Addresses both corporate and home markets with particularly innovative and capable A4 and A3 inkjet offerings. 4 3
Canon Users complain that there is no USB cable in the box either (home inkjet)!!  How does Canon expect people to print?  Or is the assumption that every user has a stack of USB cables lying around from all the other wireless devices they’ve owned that supplied a USB cable as well as Wi-Fi capability? 2 1 3
Epson Strong presence in both home and business markets, particularly with proprietary inkjet technology, including fast and versatile A3 inkjet MFPs utilising fixed, page wide print heads. 1 1
HP Market leading presence in home / business markets with ink and laser technologies, including fast and versatile A3 inkjet MFPs utilising fixed, page wide print heads. 3 2
Kyocera Primarily business / enterprise oriented with innovative long-life proprietary ceramic drum components. 1 2
Lexmark Business-oriented laser offerings following the termination of inkjet development.  Multi-connectivity across the range, even at entry-level.
Oki Business-oriented LED offerings. Multi-connectivity across the range, even at entry-level.
Ricoh Business-oriented laser and inkjet printers and MFPs.  Multi-connectivity across the range, even at entry-level.
Samsung Business-oriented laser printers and MFPs.  Multi-connectivity across the range, even at entry-level.
Xerox Business-oriented laser and solid ink printers and MFPs.  Multi-connectivity across the range, even at entry-level.

What this means is that, of around 3,500 inkjet and laser printers and All-in-Ones available, we can easily identify only this handful of devices that are not network connected.  These few may survive for some time to come but this unconnected category represents only two-thirds of one percent of the products available.  If all manufacturers were considered, this figure might possibly rise to a little over one percent!  There are 23 products in total listed above: 11 are mono lasers; 8 are mono AiOs; 3 home inkjet AiOs; and one A3 inkjet printer.  Note the significance that almost all of these are mono laser devices – and very specifically, low end!

Network connectivity has been very much the norm where business printers are concerned for a very long time but for even the most basic of home printers the same should apply.  Just in the home we have mobile phones, tablets, phablets, laptops, detachable PCs – and multiple instances of these devices in every home, with even sub-10-year-olds either owning or using them on a regular basis, often for school homework that needs to be handed in to their teacher.

Mobile devicesMobile devices

Connectivity is what it’s all about these days.  We cannot do without connectivity and have not been able to for some years already.  Connectivity is what allows people to print what they want, where they want, from wherever they are. BUT, it’s also what makes the devices vulnerable to hacker attack while opening up a whole new range of potential for the printing devices – as we’ve seen over the last decade.


The printer as the ‘Office Hub’ or ‘Home Hub’

Now that we have the printing device performing such a central, multi-function role in both the office and home, it would seem logical for it to extend that functionality further.  Could it not become the ‘Office Hub’ or the ‘Home Hub’.  Once we have to build PC-like, server-like or internet router-like security into the printer devices anyway, then the device is perfectly capable of handling those functions as well.

All that would be required for the device to become a true communications hub for home or office is for:

  • the hard disk (which can be found in many devices already) to be upgraded into a server-based module or Network Attached Storage (NAS) for central storage and distribution of documents
  • the Wi-Fi/wired network interface to be upgraded to a router with multi-port network switching capability, so that all network and portable devices can connect directly into the local network, wireless network and also the internet through this single device. The device itself can be monitored, managed and administered in the way any router, printer or server currently is
  • the router to offer IP telephony functionality

This could focus administrative attention onto just one device, allowing it to be managed more easily and effectively for greater security than is typical over a range of separate and diverse devices.

In all likelihood, this type of multi-function-hub device would be most appropriate for homes and smaller businesses where centralising storage is useful but that do not suffer from the demands of a large business or enterprise.  Although, perhaps it could also be appropriate in certain enterprise workgroup settings.

Is it feasible?  Yes it certainly is!

Is it cost-effective?  Potentially yes but almost certainly dependent on the usual progressive rise to acceptance.  There should be no reason why this configuration should not be able to offer enhanced Total Cost of Ownership.

Is it desirable?  Absolutely!  Why not?  The argument against multi-function devices in the early days centred heavily around durability and reliability – if one function failed, the entire device, with all its functions, would become a logistical nightmare bottleneck.

Technology has advanced so far in the late 21st century teens that we don’t honestly tend to worry too much about reliability any more.  We assume the devices will work and, apart from a small minority of failures, hardware from the large and respected manufacturers does prove itself to be reliable.  So, we can dismiss this argument against a Home Hub / Office Hub.

Are there other, more significant and currently valid arguments?  If so, why not respond with a reply/comment – briefly outlining the upsides or downsides and let’s see what sort of a picture we build up?

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