SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - Long before the emergence of e-business, industry pundits were saying that technology would bring about the paperless office.
Despite these predictions, printers are still a vital part of many enterprise networks, and the growth of e-business has created new markets for them as essential output devices when hard copies of electronic transactions are needed.
The continued use of printers has brought its own problems, however, leading vendors to incorporate features that reduce the traditional strain a printer places on a network, or in many cases allowing for a separate network dedicated to moving printer traffic.
But these printing networks give IT personnel the added headache of having to manage them, which is why an upcoming product from Texas-based Hewlett-Packard Co. subsidiary Dazel Software called the Document Router, as well as recent offerings such as IBM Corp.'s InfoPrint Manager and Minolta's Crown Technology, can assist IT in better managing their printing networks so that vital documents arrive on time, with fail-over protection and print traffic routing.
Joe Corso, the CEO of Dazel, used the example of a local company to illustrate that even pure Internet companies have a strong need for print management.
"A dot-com here in Austin has their front end moving very smoothly, but their problems occur at the back end," Corso said. "If a six-item order comes in, and they have to go get those items, what they have done typically is send out a PO (purchase order), then they would get on the phone and follow up. Well over 30 percent [of those orders] don't get filled because of a problem with getting the PO there."
A key component of Hewlett-Packard's recently launched print Eco-system, the Dazel Document Router can send print commands to multiple recipients and to practically any device -- including fax machines, pagers, Web pages, or server files -- according to officials at the company.
And as management tools, the Dazel, IBM, and Minolta solutions offer intelligent software that can send cell phone, e-mail, or pager messages alerting managers of printer error, system performance, and even confirm whether print commands are being received.
According to Corso, the Dazel Document Router can automate the checks and balances routine required in the hand-off of paper documents, providing a Web page reproduction of the PO as a fail-safe.
"[The Document Router] will send an e-mail telling the vendor where to find a copy of the PO on the Web. The buyer also knows when the supplier looks at the PO, and the buyer can set up rules. For instance, you can program the device to list the vendors who haven't looked at the POs by 3 p.m.," Corso said.
Paul Mason, vice president of infrastructure software research at IDC, in Framingham, Mass., said he has seen the focus of printing shift from stand-alone performance to management and accountability within e-business networks.
"The focus on printers has nothing to do with speeds or feeds anymore, the business is more important. What good is a potentially fast printer that's out of paper and it takes a hour before someone notices?"
For this reason, Minolta's QMS line of printers is focused on reducing the impact of printer traffic over the network.
"What we hear is [IT personnel] can spend over half their time on printer problems," said Ann Priede, director of monochrome print systems at Minolta QMS, adding that "[Crown Technology] lets you see every printer on the network, and even if you're not sitting at a workstation, status reports can be e-mailed or paged, telling the operator where the job is and which printer it got sent to."
Minolta's Crown Technology also performs load balancing across the printing network, and identifies disruption of the printing process at any point along the network, according to company officials.
"If you look across the board at system management functions on recent printers, it's clear that management is a huge issue and system management is only going to become a lot more important," agreed Fred Joy, an analyst at Meta Group, in Stamford, Conn.
The technology found in the Dazel Document Router, Minolta's Crown Technology, and IBM's InfoPrint Manager has been engineered down from proven, high-end commercial print management solutions already deployed by the three companies.
The bottom line is that far from becoming redundant, printing efficiency is becoming more crucial.
"Printing has become mission critical," commented Rich Ptak, an analyst at Hurwitz Group, in Framingham, Mass. "It's now about multiple delivery of content and routing, intelligent use of resources, and more sophistication in terms of overall management."
Dazel Software Corp., based in Austin, Texas, is at www.dazel.com. Minolta QMS Inc., based in Mobile, Alabama, is at www.qms.com. IBM Corp., based in Armonk, New York, is at www.ibm.com.