The Battle is Joined: The Shifting Battlefield for Color By Noel Ward, Managing Editor, Trade Shows April 23, 2007 -- Just before the On Demand Show, my colleague Andy Tribute noted that there is a battle brewing for color supremacy. He's quite right, and in my opinion the battle is likely to be a lengthy one. Market share may indicate who wins, but this battle could also foment changes in how vendors price and market their equipment and software, how machines are selected and used, and how owners of the various machines market their businesses. The battle will also further define what levels of quality are acceptable for various applications. And in my opinion, this battle may well redefine the existing segments of the digital color printer market. Right now, "light production" is defined not only by speed but (usually) whether the device has a scanner on top and can be used as a copier, an outgrowth of the copier-based origins of many machines in this class. But what happens when those machines produce excellent quality images and do so at speeds placing them the mid-range "production" printers and presses? And what about price? Not everyone buying digital color printing needs "critical color" in which large swaths of the Pantone library can be reliably printed by a given device. As Andy noted, there has been an explosion in sales in the 41-60 page per minute class, even as sales of mid-market machines (41-80 ppm) have declined. Much of this has to do with the lower price of these machines and the excellent print quality they provide for a great many applications. The Quality Issue We already know that not everyone buying digital color printing needs "critical color" in which large swaths of the Pantone library can be reliably printed by a given device. While that is a requirement for design professionals, many end users are quite happy with what most term "pleasing color." Some may claim this is a dumbing down of print quality, but as we've all learned, the digital world changes everything. It goes to what I've long called "application appropriate quality." By this I mean that if the company paying for the document considers the output of a machine acceptable for a given application, then it's probably good enough. Getting that quality used to require the services of a pretty expensive device, but no longer. Moderately priced digital printers are producing excellent full color images that are acceptable for a wide range of applications in many different environments. Moderately priced digital printers are producing excellent full color images that are acceptable for a wide range of applications A Disruptive Influence? A case in point is the Konica Minolta bizhub Pro C6500, introduced last fall, which produces 65 pages a minute. The machine does not slow down for heavier substrates, has reasonable inline finishing options, can be configured with a Creo RIP, and has a monthly duty cycle of 300,000. Amazingly, pricing starts under $60,000. It can also be operated in clusters and be connected to KM's new Printgroove workflow, which as near as I can tell, provides a good architecture for job submission, tracking and production. I don't have TCO numbers yet, but will report back once I gather them. What makes it more interesting is that this same box is being OEM'ed by Océ, which sells it as the CS 620 and CS 650 (depending on configuration). This gives Océ a solid performing mid-range machine--a category where the company had no offerings--and it is being sold through both the Commercial Printing division in Boca Raton, Florida and the Digital Print Centers division in Trumbull, Connecticut which primarily targets in-plants, CRDs and office accounts. Sources inside Océ told me that as part of the due diligence process of the OEM arrangement, the Konica Minolta machines were put under a microscope by Océ engineers in Venlo, The Netherlands and Poing, Germany. Those guys found the KM boxes had design and build characteristics much like those developed in Europe, raising their comfort level with the new machines. Whether customers opt for the Konica Minolta or Océ flavors, I can see this machine winning a lot of friends in CRDs, in-plants, school systems, quick and franchise print shops, and small commercial shops. Ricoh and HP have machines that are a just a slight step back in speed and Xerox has just rolled out the latest iterations of its DocuColor 240 and 250 models, now named the 242 and 260. The earlier models have been very successful and I have little doubt the new ones will also do well. The print quality is certainly there, enough so that some DocuColor 250s are being used for photobook applications. This line of printers features multiple RIP options, including a DocuSP version, and they integrate well into Xerox's expansive FreeFlow collection of workflow tools. With their small footprints, these printers will continue to show up in standalone settings and in shops inhabited by other Xerox devices where they fit nicely into existing workflows. The new models have an improved user interface that are more like those of copiers, making them even easier to use. They offer a lot of value for the money. In The Middle The next step up in the mid-range is inhabited by the higher end machines whose claim to fame has always been image quality, speed and overall functionality. The Xerox DocuColor 7000 and 8000 have done very well here, delivering top-notch print quality, a wide range of finishing options, and numerous workflow tools. We also hear that some significant updates are coming soon on one of these machines, so watch the news here at WTT for some important announcements. But while these two machines have done well, the game is about to change. Canon is finally releasing its new ImagePRESS C7000VP, a 70-ppm machine that runs at full-rated speed regardless of substrate, has a number of inline finishing options, and a choice of EFI front ends with an array of workflow features and capabilities. Canon says the new machine has a monthly duty cycle of up to 500,000 impressions and expects an average monthly print volume of up to 300,000. Just as Canon dubs their model an "imagePRESS," Kodak's is branded as a NexPress, lest anyone confuse them with a mere copier. Canon equipment has traditionally been easy to use --an important trait for the company's customary office, CRD, and franchise print markets--and that is continued with this machine. The output I've seen so far is certainly on a par with any of its competitors and no one with one of these in their shop should have any trouble satisfying customers with print quality. Expect to see the C7000 retaining ground in Canon's traditional spaces while encroaching on some Xerox territory. Also making an incursion into the upper end of the mid-range is Kodak, which launched the NexPress M700 Digital Color Press, an OEM version of the Canon C7000VP, at On Demand. It will be available in June. Note the use of the word 'press' in the name of both flavors of this box. Just as Canon dubs their model an "imagePRESS," Kodak's is branded as a NexPress, lest anyone confuse them with a mere copier. Interestingly though, Kodak quotes a monthly duty cycle of 450,000 and a target monthly volume of up to 150,000, less than that quoted by Canon. Go figure. The more substantial difference between the two is in the RIP. The M700 comes with the latest version of the NexStation front-end and its numerous hooks to the rest of Kodak's Unified Workflow Solutions, including Prinergy to help streamline both digital and offset workflows. This is a notable advantage for an offset shop familiar with Prinergy that picks a M700 for their initial foray into digital printing. The NexStation front-end is the same scalable system used on other NexPress devices, making it easier for new Kodak customers to move upstream when their business grows and they acquire a higher volume device. Furthermore, the M700's print engine has been reworked to incorporate more Operator Replaceable Components (ORCs). One of the trademark features of the NexPress line, ORCs have proven attractive to the commercial printers who have bought many of the NexPress systems currently installed. In addition, customers gain access to Kodak's suite of MarketMover business development tools and services. For customers wishing to take advantage of such offerings, this places the M700--more so than the Canon box-- in direct competition with the Xerox 7000 and 8000 models and the comprehensive support available through Xerox's ProfitAccelerator program. (Canon does not presently have a substantial customer-oriented business development program.) While Canon and Kodak will certainly compete in some instances, each is more likely to encounter Xerox as a prime competitor in the various markets they target. That will be a battle to watch. The battle is going to be an interesting one, with all three companies sure to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach. There is no doubt it will be an interesting one, with all three companies sure to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach. But the market in this speed-performance band is clearly changing. In the kinds of businesses and print operations these vendors target, some owners are certain to look at the $225,000+ price tags of the Canon, Kodak, and Xerox offerings and compare them to machines like Konica Minolta's C6500. The applications involved and the related print resolution, paper handling, maximum sheet size, finishing, and other factors are all important parts of the purchase decision, but in a time when demand for color printing is growing--and color is being commoditized-- equipment costs have a big influence on purchase decisions. For many customers and prospects, the initial investment--and the resulting monthly nut--are going to play an increasingly important part in the purchase decision, assuming the equipment is reliable, can handle the applications required, and color quality is acceptable to whomever is paying for the documents being produced. Market demand and service issues will also influence this, but I predict we'll see some surprising shifts in equipment offerings, pricing, market share, and go-to-market strategies on the part of equipment vendors in this production space over the next two years. Look for some of these changes this year, maybe by GraphExpo, and certainly going into 2008 and at Drupa next May. Of course there are other issues further upstream in the color space. And that's for next time. Please offer your feedback to Noel. He can be reached at [email protected]