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When it comes to industry dogfights there is no nastier, scrappier battle than what takes place between solution providers selling competing brands of printers. And of course to add insult to injury the margins on printers are typically awful. So unless you get the business for the downstream consumables, you have pretty much wasted your time.

But as we get ready to move into 2008, a ray of hope for printer solution providers is starting to shine through because the customer conversations around printers are starting to move beyond basic price/performance issues.

For example, many IT organizations are now struggling with how to implement data loss prevention strategies. And of course one of the primary ways companies lose data is when somebody prints something they are not supposed to. As a result, printer manufacturers are being increasingly asked about the security capabilities surrounding their printers, which by the way, these days come mostly with a hard drive that is storing sensitive corporate documents.

Fortunately, security is only one area where the conversation and resulting margin opportunities around printers is starting to expand. Workflow is now also on the printer agenda because there is more interest in productivity of workers and awareness of the cost of printing, especially as color increasingly becomes part of the mainstream printing experience. This means that the document management software that comes packaged with the printer is now seen as a significant differentiator among vendors. In fact, you could also expect to see things such as intelligent routing of print jobs applied to printers, so different types of jobs will automatically be optimized to run on different types of printers based on the availability of that printer and the relative cost of the job being printed.

The third area driving more conversation about printers is energy consumption. While the whole green computing movement has yet to take hold across the board, the awareness of the issue is definitely on the rise. The fact of the matter is that most printers in use today are not energy efficient and the money that customers would save on energy costs would easily pay for the new printers. Unfortunately, the guy who pays the electricity bills in the facilities department isn’t typically in charge of buying the printers, so it will be a bit longer before IT people start seeing the printer as a major source of wasted money on electricity, but it will happen.

Finally, the complexity and cost of managing a fleet of printers and multifunction peripherals is making customers more interested in managed services. At the moment most IT people think managing printers is beneath them, so any plausible pitch about why they shouldn’t have to manage the printers will usually get their attention. And on a practical level, they are all pretty short-handed these days, so the truth of the matter is that they actually do have better things to spend their time on.

All told, security, workflow, energy and managed services add four new areas where printer solution providers can distinguish themselves alongside the usual three areas of color, performance and price. Taken together these seven areas also create the opportunity for additional margin, which from a solution provider’s perspective might actually make printing fun again for the channel. It will be interesting to see how HP, Xerox, Lexmark, Ricoh, OkiData, Konica-Minolta and all the rest of the vendors respond to these opportunities, but if history is any guide, it will probably be solution providers, rather than the vendors, leading the way.