Multifunction Devices

As government agencies strive to do more with limited funds, a new class of computer peripherals is gaining visibility: the multifunction device. Because they combine the features of different office machines into one piece of equipment, multifunction devices offer inherent value. But buyers need to consider the performance trade-offs these machines make when compared with stand-alone units.

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A popular choice in the consumer market, multifunction devices are gaining ground in the government sector as agencies increase their support for telecommuting and seek low-cost networked peripherals.

Multifunction devices, also known as "hydras," combine several features of stand-alone office machines into an all-in-one box at a fraction of the cost of purchasing those machines individually. A typical hydra is a printer/fax machine/copier and sometimes scanner, with prices starting at $595—barely the cost of a plain-paper fax alone. Some multifunction devices offer a smaller array of functions, such as a printing/copying or faxing/copying.

Yet despite their inherent value, hydras have not yet made strides into government markets. This situation is poised for change, many government resellers and buyers say. Multifunction devices have matured, the demand for home offices and telecommuters in the government is growing, and some of these machines can now be hooked into departmental networks.

"GTSI has identified this market as an opportunity," said Tony Colangelo, director of vendor relations for Government Technology Services Inc., a reseller in Chantilly, Va. "These products are now entering their second and third generations. Everybody recognizes that they are the next wave of product category because of their price/performance. Often, success in the consumer channels means success in government markets."

Vendors say the time is ripe for government buyers to begin evaluating these offerings, which are now available on several contracts. Multifunction devices can be found on the General Services Administration's Schedule A (workstations and related products), thanks to their ability to network and their scanners; on Schedule B/C (PC products and peripherals), thanks to their printers; and on Schedule 58 (telecommunication products), thanks to their fax cards.

SOHO Market Still Soft

Hydras fall fairly neatly into two groups: those aimed at the small office/home office (SOHO) and those that can be put on a network for departmental use.

SOHO hydra machines top out at about $3,000 and can be had for as little as $595—the price of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OfficeJet, which is the best-selling hydra in the government market. On the low end, machines such as the OfficeJet typically print, fax and copy using ink-jet technology. The OfficeJet LX also scans via the 200-dots-per-inch (dpi) fax engine and the Eclipse FaxSE software that's included.

Midrange devices are those that print/fax/copy using laser technology, such as Brother International Corp.'s 4000ML for $879. Another is the Brother 5550ML, which includes a 200-by-400 dpi scanner and a 14.4 kilobit/sec modem and lists on Schedule B/C for $1,149.

High-end SOHO products include faster, color laser printers, along with faxing, coping and optional scanning and/or a modem, such as the MV715 by Ricoh Corp. with a proposed GSA price of $3,668.

A few SOHO products offer a subset of the basic print/scan/copy features. For instance, Lumina Office Products, Sunnyvale, Calif., offers the Lumina Series 2000. This device sits between a PC and a printer and empowers the printer with fax, scanner and copier abilities. The 2000 is available on the open market for $499, but GTSI will offer it on that reseller's newly awarded Schedule 58 when that contract is finalized.

Only a few SOHO products are available on government contracts. One reason is that many agencies, particularly the military, have not bought into the telecommuting/work-at-home trend. Additionally, when an agency does purchase a hydra for a small or home office, it is more likely to do so on the open market from a superstore, where prices are fiercely competitive.

"I haven't seen in the Department of the Navy or [the Defense Department] a real push for home offices or telecommuting yet, but we are in the exploration of what that might be. We have begun pushing to supply the home," said Cmdr. Craig B. Luigart, the program manager for the Navy's Information Network Project Office.

INPO was created in February to bring the Navy's disparate information systems and local-area networks into a single, cohesive, enterprisewide system. As part of the effort, Luigart purchased a number of multifunction devices for the home offices of members of his team. He bought these devices off the open market.

"Typically, those prices at the superstores are better than what we see under contract," Luigart said.

One drawback with SOHO devices is that the performance of the individual components is less than that of stand-alone machines. For instance, many devices use ink-jet printers rather than laser printers. They can make copies but can rarely collate them, and they do not provide other sophisticated features of stand-alone copiers. If they scan, it's at the fax engine's 200-dpi image quality rather than at 300 dpi to 400 dpi. The speed of these printers is also limited, with a relatively slow six pages per minute (ppm) for monochrome documents being a common specification.

"They aren't as fast as the bigger HP printers. The HP LaserJet 5Si is 24 pages per minute. They also can't send faxes that fast—not as fast as a large [departmental] fax machine. You're not going to use an OfficeJet if you already have a big scanner or printer," said Earl Frawley, the government manager of Westwood Computer Corp., a federal reseller in Springfield, N.J.

Departmental Uses Soar

In general, agencies are interested in higher performance than the SOHO multifunction devices provide. That's why a wider selection of midrange and high-end devices are available on federal contracts. At $6,000 to $27,000, these products are intended to be networked.

Departmental hydras are based on a single-function engine that has been supplemented with add-on cards and/or software to perform other tasks. For instance, the hydra may be a fax machine that also prints or a copier that can fax.

Choosing the right device depends on which function you plan to use most often.

Several departmental multifunction products are listed on government contracts. For instance, Cannon U.S.A. Inc.'s GP30F for $7,632 is a 30 ppm copier/printer/fax machine/scanner built on a copier engine. The functions of printing, faxing and scanning are added to the networked copier via optional add-on boards. Because it's a copier at its core, the GP30F offers most of the functions of a stand-alone copier, such as sorting, reduction and enlargement.

"The GP30F can be sold as a stand-alone copier, but we don't recommend that. It can be bought with the idea of adding other functions later," said Sheppard Lake, product marketing specialist for the Cannon U.S.A.'s Government Marketing Division, Arlington, Va. "The idea with the GP30F is that you don't have to sacrifice. The only thing it can't do is print and copy at the same time."

Another product in this category is the Tektronix Inc. Phaser family of 5 ppm color/14 ppm monochrome laser printers that can also perform color copying. These devices offer top-quality color printing and simple color copying.

"The printer is designed as a stand-alone device, but you can buy an optional copy station to make it work like a color copier. It is for supplementing regular printers on the network and adding color. The printers are [among] the fastest color printers on the marketplace. When you add copier features, it does not give up any printing speed at all. But if they need a lot of color copying, they'll need to go to a high-speed copier," said Joe Murray, federal sales manager of Tektronix's Color Printing and Imaging Division, Gaithersburg, Md.

Still, these devices are at an attractive price/performance point for functions that users want but don't necessarily need, users say.

The Navy, for example, is introducing LAN users to color printing via Tektronix devices which combine color printing and color copying. "We see a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 for a color copier alone. We're giving that [function] to them for about $6,000," Luigart said. "We're hitting eight to 10 times the number of people with the level of sophistication they need."

As value continues to be the government buyer's top priority, multifunction devices will unquestionably be looked at more closely. They give workers the basic capabilities they need at an affordable price.

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Bort is a free-lance writer based in Westminster, Colo.

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