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Another Perspective


The printer business is disappearing. But a successor market is forming around a new kind of device, an image and media server that will absorb printers, scanners, copiers, faxes, and more. The process is actually well along already. But, surprisingly, the big names in the printer business are caught up but haven't caught on. They worry about the fiscal cliff when they should contemplate Jimmy Cliff. They are haunted by the ghost of Jacob Marley when they should be celebrating with the spirit of Bob Marley.

Jimmy (not Fiscal) Cliff
One of the leaders of a musical movement that developed reggae music,
Jamaica's iconic soundtrack

Give us a couple minutes and we will show you.

Like so many things in technology and in music, too, the disruptive change is coming from the grass roots, moving in from the very bottom of the market but rising rapidly. The process of change now underway is evolutionary but when the computing industry suddenly embraces the results, the consequences will be revolutionary. Home computing has already been captured. Departmental computing in business has been well infiltrated. It's almost a secret because hardly anyone is talking about it.

This is sort of what happened in the 1960s in Jamaica, when a flow of social, economic and political forces transformed popular music along with just about everything else. The musical developments that were threads in this cultural tapestry began when a kind of local pop music, called ska, became just about the only live entertainment among the young and progressive. Ska had a (usually) slower cousin, called rocksteady, also played by small bands featuring guitars, keyboards, and drums but often including other instruments.

But then a third variation arose. It had a slightly different rhythm, a bit more lilt in its melodies. And a new group of outstanding, irresistible entertainers, most notably Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. The new kind of song, which is to Jamaican pop music what the new group server will soon be to its predecessors, is called reggae.

printer market
The Printer Market
IDC says the printer market is about 125 million units a year,
each of them packing an SOC server

One day the musicians who dreamed up reggae were hot on their home turf, the next, it seems, their music became so well known the world over that even a few bars of it evokes Jamaica, or at least its iconic flavor of pop music. That is what is going on with the new kind group servers, which don't yet even have a special name to help users focus, even if they already have special roles.

To see what is going on you might only have to walk down the hall. If your company has recently installed a printer or an all-in-one printer/scanner, whoever did the installation was almost certainly offered a chance to hook the device into a service provided by the vendor. The service will let you send a document to the printer over the Internet, usually by attaching it to an email and then dispatching the message to the printer, which has its very own email address. The attachment can be just about any popular document file type, such as PDF or .doc, or it can be a common graphics format, such as .jpg. This is the case pretty much regardless of which vendor made the machine. You can not only do this document-to-printer movement using email, you can also do this with a phone app and very possibly by other means, too.

If you haven't got a new or recent departmental printer to check out, you might have one at home. Home printers, used for personal things such as printing digital photos, are actually at the forefront of the evolutionary change of printers (and particularly all-in-ones) into servers. The devices sold in the home market very often have built-in WiFi local networking, so they only need to be set up to use a home wireless LAN to make their presence on the Internet known to their vendors service servers. The same goes for departmental printers used in offices, although in commercial settings the network linkage might be hardwired rather than WiFi.

There's a lot more to this than just a gadget that receives email, finds its attachments, and prints the attachments. If you have access to one of these printers on your local network, you hook up to it using a web browser pointed at the printer's IP address. My oldest smart printer, dating back a couple years, has a web server with a home page full of information about the machine's current state. The data includes ink levels, which you would expect, and a list of facts you might want if you need to buy supplies, add an accessory or get a repair, such as the device's serial number. There might be a place to set the language of the little web server you are talking to (and the interactive display that's somewhere on the device, too). The web services offered by even a hundred dollar printer will include online ordering of supplies from the vendor and ways to arrange a service call if the device isn't working right (but still working well enough to talk over the local network). If you break one of the plastic paper guides on the printer, to pick a common example, the printer will help you get a replacement part and a technician to install it.

The Server Market
Gartner says servers are sold at the rate of 10 million units a year,
a number dwarfed by the count of servers hidden inside
printer, scanners, and all-in-ones

The little server in the printer looks like something between the system-on-a-chip kind of computer you find in smartphones or tablets and a real PC. Most likely it is different from both. Printers from Hewlett-Packard usually use MIPS chips not the ARM processors found in most phones or the X86 engines used in computers. MIPS chips can run lots of tiny operating systems and often used with a cut down implementation of Linux. Chips using the same MIPS architecture are also found in a lot of departmental routers and some (but not all) routers have a rich enough Linux setup to run one of the open source router applications if you don't like the way your router vendor set you up and you want to join other users who prefer a vendor-independent, standard-type of router software to the offering of any particular vendor.

Hardcore network support geeks have long since favored using industry standard router software, but they can't always sell the employers of clients (if they are independents, not employees) on the idea. We have used both kinds of routers and we am dismayed (but not surprised) that packages like dd-wrt have not caught on. We recognize the extra goodies most router makers have packed into their unique firmware, but also have found the huge variety of routers can complicate matters. Even sticking with the products of one router vendor isn't always a solution because the vendors are constantly changing the way their routers behave and not merely adding functions.

One advantage the MIPS architecture has over ARM is mature 64-bit implementations. While most printers, all-in-ones, and network machines use less costly 32-bit hardware, MIPS chips have a pretty good upgrade path. The connection has, in some cases, made it easy for vendors to offer (and support) similar functionality on inexpensive departmental routers and high end routers and firewalls that use 64-bit technology. This may become a factor in the local servers hidden inside printers, too. Those local servers cost next to nothing, adding very little to the manufacturing cost of a printer, scanner or all-in-one, but still have the computing potential to provide the kind of functionality that X86 departmental servers offer. One obvious example is the provision of local storage, which has become a common feature of high end departmental routers but which really ought to be moved to a different machine, one that provides a group of related services.

Frankly, we are surprised the printer companies haven't added sophisticated expansion options to their departmental (and home) products. Why doesn't the printer used to deliver hard copy reports (or photos) also have a user-friendly library to securely store the reports (or photo albums) on a hard drive or solid state disk? And why doesn't that local data repository offer Internet functionality in addition to the decoding and printing of, as we have mentioned, PDF documents?

There's a bit opportunity here, one the printer makers surely need in these challenging times, but it might turn out to be a lost last chance. If Apple reimagines the office printer as a server, if Google's product development team adds a local server to its growing collection of phones and tablets, if Amazon offered a printer with a library that played well with Kindle tablets and more, if Microsoft went beyond the two dimensions of its surface and thought in the three dimensions of a home or department server, HP, Canon, Epson, Samsung, Brother, Dell, Lexmark, and Xerox would be road kills on the highway to tomorrow.

Let's examine the size of the opportunity here. The printer industry cranks out something like 125 million machines a year, each with a system-on-a-chip inside. The server market that researchers like IDC and Gartner call a server market is struggling to peddle 10 million servers a year. Sure the servers in Gartner and IDC reports can be huge compared to the pea sized brains in all-in-ones. But the server makers, who are usually also PC makers (IBM is an exception, as is Oracle) have already been just about murdered by a market that has dropped PCs in favor of tablets and smartphones. Worse, the PC companies have finally noticed that users who need real PCs don't need the latest or snazziest models. The same former frequent PC buyers want new and fancy phones and tablets, though.

And now, whether they like it or not, whether they even recognize what's happening or not, the server in a printer is going to murder the old server business and, by providing enriched local and departmental services, accelerate the rate at which tablets and smartphones displace PCs.

Basically, the big name printer makers have long since been selling the very machines that threaten their legacy low-end server and X86 client markets.

Every printer has some kind of connectivity, and it's a safe guess that the universal socket is for an Ethernet LAN plug. Wireless transceivers and the code to merge them with SoC operating systems is already a half billion unit a year business, thanks to the smartphone market. So the wireless link is available for printers at just a few dollars a unit . . . and they can be sold to customers for five or ten times that amount. The same goes for technology to support memory cards, USB-attached storage, and so on. When that local server hidden in the printer or scanner gets a few bucks extra RAM it might be able to run Windows or Android or iOS or Linux.

The transition is underway. Just because it is happening without very good planning on the part of the companies making the current crop of machines with tiny servers baked inside doesn't mean world is going to hit the sleep button on this revolution.

And if the big name printer vendors have been missing the obvious, they are nevertheless well ahead of corporate IT types. Companies have already put in millions of these very smart printers, scanners, and all-in-ones without having developed policies and management rules that will govern the machines as they grow into serious local servers. The technology has already been deployed in a way that will, as Bob Marley sang, Stir It Up. It's time to segue over to the new reality and study the inevitable change. You probably don't want to be caught napping as the legacy server industry has. You probably would rather be able to say, as Jimmy Cliff did, I Can See Clearly Now.

— Hesh Wiener December 2012

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