Laser printers step into color, network roles

After years of acting behind the scenes in mostly black-and-white productions laser printers are beginning to take starring roles in federal agencies stepping into applications ranging from full-color printouts of presentations military maps and World Wide Web pages to "mopying" over distributed networks.

Although prices are pushing increasingly downward functionality is on the way up. Expanded capabilities are emerging in network enablement and color printing while printing speed paper handling capacity and ease of use are also getting a boost.

Typically equipped with Ethernet Fast Ethernet and intranet connectivity the new network laser printers are targeted at "mopying " which is the creation of multiple original prints or mopies. Mopies are produced on multiple distributed printers - a cost-effective alternative to the time-worn technique of using a copying machine to duplicate a single printout for hand distribution.

"1997 will be the year for networked color mainly because a lot more vendors are moving into these two market spaces " predicted Roman Ferrer group manager for product marketing at Government Technology Services Inc. a federal reseller active in the laser printer market.

"At least five or six manufacturers will introduce new laser printer lineups this year " Ferrer said. "Prices are becoming more competitive and printing costs are coming down. We're also starting to see the adoption of multifunctional printers - permitting printing scanning and faxing from the same device for example " Ferrer said.

Laser printers in general have become a staple of government computing. "Twenty years ago there were nothing but impact printers such as line serial or dot-matrix printers " said Julianne Mehegan an analyst at Lyra Research publisher of the "Hard Copy Report" industry newsletter. "But today the only people still using impact printers in federal government are those who need to produce multipart forms and those in environments like loading docks where ruggedness is required " Mehegan said.

For the most part laser printers are used for the same kinds of applications in the federal market as in business according to Larry Jamieson also an analyst at Lyra. Common threads between federal and business applications include presentations reports and business graphics. The government however employs laser printers in more specialized applications. IBM Corp.'s high-end laser printers are being used to print federal tax documents and federal paychecks from the Treasury Department according to an IBM spokeswoman.

New Feature Sets

Although laser printers are common in government many agencies are just getting their first tastes of new feature sets for color network and multifunction printing in the laser printer field. But color in particular is poised to make important inroads in the federal market as prices begin to drop.

For example Hewlett-Packard Co. earlier this year cut the list price for its Color LaserJet 5 to $4 999 from $7 495 while the company reduced the list price for its LaserJet 5M PostScript printer to $6 350 from $9 195.

Alan Lawrence manager of strategic programs at HP said the dropping price point has sparked interest in color laser technology. "That's where the market is going " he said. Lawrence believes color laser printers which he said currently represent less than 10 percent of the laser printer market worldwide will become the mainstream laser printers in two to three years.

Lawrence said the company's color laser products are available on federal contracts including the Army's Small Multiuser Computer II the Navy's Tactical Advanced Computer blanket purchase agreements and NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II pact.

Richard Groese programs manager for Lexmark International Inc.'s Federal Government Division also noted increased federal activity in the color laser market. "It's a segment...that is growing " he said. "The cost of color laser is coming dramatically down." In May Lexmark introduced a color laser printer the Optra SC 1275 priced at $4 000.

When it comes to laser printers little things can sometimes mean a lot. For the Navy a small footprint was as important as high-resolution color in a decision to deploy the new Xerox Corp. C55 printer throughout the service's Tactical Automated Mission Planning System (TAMPS) a computer-based system for coordinated strike and mission plans incorporating maps needed by fighter pilots.

"We tried other printers before " said Cmdr. Ron Christopher the Navy's fleet liaison officer for TAMPS. "We found though that black-and-white printers simply do not suffice for mapping. With color ink-jet printers the maps will run if you encounter any moisture. And bubble-jet printers give you a `waxy' kind of surface that prevents you from annotating on top of the maps."

After narrowing down the field of printers to color laser models only the Navy got hold of a C55 evaluation unit. The C55 emerged as the only color laser printer on the market to fit the program's small-footprint requirement and it was also the only laser entry to scale beyond 32-bit color into the 50-bit league.

Xerox works closely with Defense Department customers to meet special military requirements such as mounting brackets and spare parts kits said Bryan Lubel vice president for major accounts in Xerox's North American Office Channels Group. "We're also working with TAMPS to train authorized [military] repair technicians. And we're even looking at an air drop capability."

Meanwhile a series of implementations at the Patent and Trade Office points to trends occurring in areas such as color multifunction printers and printing off the Web.

In addition to hosting an Internet site PTO runs its own intranet with shared folders for internal agency information said Maureen Daley supervisor of production support services. The 5 000 employees often print out contents of the folders - such as instructions on how to access Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange messaging product for example - on HP LaserJet printers.

PTO has also deployed a Xerox Document 40 multifunction color printer and copier. Although the printer is network-capable the unit has been used thus far on a stand-alone basis only.

To keep down color printing costs the agency is monitoring the use of the Document 40. "They won't let you print out just anything on it " Daley said. Applications for the patent agency's Document 40 printer have included newsletters notices and internal documentation.

And in another printing development PTO is integrating mainframe-based high-end printers from Xerox into a three-tier architecture that will also incorporate Unix servers and PCs. The Xerox printers are connected to a Unisys Corp. mainframe for printing documents from original patent databases. The Xerox printers were previously accessible only through text terminals and PC-based terminal emulation.

But the shift to color technology in particular hasn't been an overnight sensation analysts said. When it comes to high-speed high-volume applications users have been slower to adopt color printing Lyra's Mehegan acknowledged. Due to the costs of high-volume color laser printing most very large jobs calling for full-color work continue to be sent outside for offset printing.

Most of the Federal Housing Finance Board's existing printers are older black-and-white machines from HP and Kyocera Corp. used primarily for printing e-mail and drafts of work said Dale Priemo who heads information technology operations for the board. But the agency is upgrading its printers and has added its first color printer.

The board has purchased black-and-white Optra R models from Lexmark along with a Lexmark Optra C color laser printer.

Priemo had high praise for the "speed price and easy-to-use consumables" of the Optra R. Priemo added that he is particularly pleased with the chance to order up to 32M of printer-resident memory finding this a welcome change from the limitations posed by the 2.5M to 4M of resident memory that came with earlier printers.

"An older printer might print 90 percent of the pages and then give the user an error message like `out of memory.' The user would then come to me saying `My printer doesn't work.' And there wasn't much I could do to help " Priemo said.

Vendors Address Concerns

Laser printer vendors have worked to boost memory and color printing features to address user concerns.Tektronix Inc. a company that produces color printers only has added ease-of-use features in its Phaser 560 laser color model that include a consumables gauge and what the company terms "smart tray selection."The consumables gauge acts somewhat like a gas gauge showing users how close to "empty" they are getting with toners fusers and imaging units. Smart tray selection eliminates the need for users to know what size paper is in the printer's four input trays. For example instead of selecting a specific tray a user can simply type in "legal" to get the correct media tray.

GTSI's Ferrer identified high-capacity on-board printer memory as a hot trend in the laser printer market this summer.

The addition of more printer memory is a boon for Web publishing. Until recently most laser printers were not well-equipped for Web publishing said Ken Wellerstein an analyst at Datapro Services. "The Web seems to be driving a number of the latest trends including color and more printer memory " Wellerstein said.

About one-third of the 120 users at the Federal Housing Finance Board now have Internet access and many members of this group are printing out financial information discovered on the Web according to Priemo.

Emigh is a free-lance writer based in Boston.

* * * * *

At A Glance

Status: Federal users are beginning to take advantage of advancements in laser printing technology in areas such as color and "mopying."

Issues: Vendors are promoting ease-of-use features increased on-board printer memory and other tactics to increase the appeal of their products.

Outlook: Good. Agencies are already tapping into advanced laser printer features for mapping and Web publishing among other applications.


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