by John Gandley, Gandlake Software Ltd.
There have been some interesting developments in the printing landscape during the last few months, all centred on software. Output and Document Management software has long been identified as a key growth area for production class print hardware vendors and increasingly, customers are attracted to the software offerings.
The ability to increase printing productivity, more efficiently manage print, drive down printing costs and output to data centre, local and network printers as well as a wide range of non hardcopy print devices for example email, fax, print and PDF has become a key requirement for many customers.
UK Local Authorities like Preston City Council, Bury Metro Council and Liverpool City Council find themselves under increasing pressure to increase printing efficiencies and in addition, as a result of e-Government deadlines, deliver council documents in electronic and paper formats.
However, there are some potential issues that customers should be aware of.
Whatever the hardware sales people might tell you, there is not much difference between one printer and another. Get the specification sheet to see the speed, print quality and price and you have most of what you need to know. Many machines are supplied through dealers, with good service operations and clear contracts; the market is mature and buyers are rightly very demanding of suppliers.
So hardware manufacturers are looking at the print software, workflow and document management markets and see bigger deals, more margin and stronger growth. Software is the battleground.
And here I say buyer beware. Not all print management software from the hardware manufacturers runs on competitor's machines. Most customers are not running single vendor printer fleets. They have a range of machines across the organisation, each meeting the individual needs of the department and all at different stages of depreciation. Manufacturers often tempt customers to migrate to a single vendor environment, but for many, this is a time consuming and risky project without clear benefits. Software that manages only half your printer fleet may not be any use at all, or you may end up getting locked into a single vendor environment.
Buyers should ask tough questions about software support. Is the guy who last week mended your copier this week going to be responsible for managing your workflow software? Also be careful about the scope of the service contract. Those experienced in software support know that it is sometimes difficult to identify if fault lies in the hardware, print management software or at the operating system or application level. Support teams need to know the fundamentals of system architectures and the common topologies in order to identify the root of a problem. Software fault diagnostics is a very different methodology to that employed in hardware environments. It requires a very different attitude - technicians need to recognise that there are often not defined lines where a problem occurs. The last thing a customer needs is to act as arbitrator between two suppliers who are both saying the fault lies in the other company's domain.
The point here is not that issues won't arise, but that software companies have been dealing with them for years and often approach the problems with a wider knowledge of the software operating environment, so know how to work through these issues. Perhaps the best option is to look to independent suppliers who specialise in best of breed hardware and software and have experience in integrating these successfully.
Do not get caught with software that was thrown into the deal to push up the margin but is not going to have an upgrade for Windows next iteration or made Linux compatible, for example. Unlike hardware, software is not static. It needs to be upgraded to keep track of application and operating system developments. Buyers should know that their print and document management software supplier is committed to developing and improving the product over time. The general rule is never to buy any software with the suffix "v1.0". Ask software suppliers for product development roadmaps and ways in which they issue upgrades and at what cost. And be suspicious if they don't have an established system in place already.
Another fundamental difference between hardware and software is reference selling. In the software industry, it is common for buyers to speak to previous customers and to talk to them about the cost saving or productivity the software has provided. This is where to check how long it takes for implementation, upgrades to be issued and for faults to be resolved. They are the people to ask if the software is easy to use, not the manufacturer.
Finally, look at the purchase agreements. Ask about hidden costs such as premium rate phone numbers to helpdesks and high annual support subscription rates.
I have witnessed customers receive poor service from hardware vendors offering additional software. All too often customers have been attracted by the software offerings hardware manufacturers have to offer, only later to find they are proprietary, not supported and never get upgraded to work with new operating environments.
Customers should be looking for agreements where the software can drive any printer that can accept PCL 5, PCL 6 and PDF files. It should also connect to a host of vendor machines from Xerox, HP and Ricoh to Oc,
As an independent print software vendor that has specifically built partnerships with vendor independent suppliers of production class machines such as Danwood IT, I would like to ensure questions are asked. Customers must take better precautions when purchasing print hardware and software.