Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March Observations - OKI Releases Wireless Upgrade for B700 Series of Mono Printers and Sends My Mind A Wandering

also published in The Hard Copy Observer, March, 2012

Observations: OKI Releases Wireless Upgrade for B700 Series of Mono Printers and Sends My Mind A Wandering

[March 27, 2012] Among the news earlier in March (March 8 to be exact) was the announcement from OKI Data Americas (OKI) that the company was introducing a “user-installable wireless option” for OKI’s line of B700 series of monochrome printers, available March 15 for the list price of $311. At first, the news seemed fairly routine, with built-in wireless usually available on many competitive printers in the B700’s class. OKI offering an upgrade to its range of 42-52 ppm printers made sense, even if the oddly-priced $311 upgrade represented a seemingly big chunk of the printers’ $625 to $1,249 base list prices.

Despite the OKI release giving nods to observations of the day, such as director of marketing Carl Taylor’s quotes about “mobile devices and wireless connectivity becoming increasingly commonplace” and the new upgrade “allowing users to print anytime and virtually any place, thereby helping to improve productivity,” I wondered if there was more to the story. I have come to respect the OKI marketing group as very customer-savvy, and I was eager to get beyond the release language into the next level of understanding. But before that conversation could take place, I let my mind and curiosity wander a little more.

In thinking through the announcement and doing a little competitive research, my reflection on the whole business of wireless-enabled printers took my mind into some rather dusty corners. For example, I blogged on this subject four-and-a-half years ago (see “Wi-Fi Printing—Look Ma No Cables” and my November 2007 Observations column in The Hard Copy Observer) about my hands-on experience with a Lexmark Wireless All-in-One, a Wi-Fi-equipped ink jet machine. I noted at the time that the company’s strong commitment to wireless printing was reflected by including the capability prominently in the official name of the product. In addition to reporting on the progress I had in using that machine, I also went back to the mid-1990s, when I had a personal hand in developing and launching an Infrared-equipped “wireless” LaserJet and that mixed bag of tremendous visionary implementation and poor commercial acceptance (though the printer itself was a huge success, the number of users printing via Infrared was miniscule).

But things have changed, steadily and dramatically. In the intervening years, industry leader HP bragged about how many of its printers were Wi-Fi-equipped (seeming to catch up and pass Lexmark), but now HP has changed to boasting about the millions of ePrint printers the firm has shipped (even if most of those printers remain Wi-Fi-ready). And the whole mobile work/life craze continues unfettered, with Apple’s latest iPad model announced earlier this month, with shipment numbers quickly racing past comparable PC shipment levels. And of course, smartphones continue their march towards pervasiveness.

Going back to that earlier column, wireless upgrade kits were also available in that timeframe, from a number of network-savvy companies. But what has really changed? The whole idea of “unplugging” the printer really does not seem so important as long as the machine is tethered to a power cord—the device would seem to generally remain as the “base station” with mobile users (defined as mobile users by their wireless laptops or increasingly, tablets and smartphones), whether nearby or far-flung.

So OKI had some explaining to do, and I was sure they would. I had a recent conversation with Keith Fenton, Product Planning Manager, MFP Software and Solutions, and Roman Orzol, Product Planning Manager, Mono and Mono MFP, and they provided strong customer rationalization along with an update on the evolution of Wi-Fi.

First, according to Fenton, OKI provided the B700 printer upgrades with a more general wireless-printing need in mind (as noted in the release quotes above), but more specifically, focused on customers in facilities like “production lines, warehouses and manufacturing sites” where flexibility in locating printers could be enhanced by not having to worry about a wired network connection. Fenton continued, “The match between these workgroup printers and wireless capabilities is really for the specific needs of these customers who want to reduce their IT headaches when moving around their printers in industrial environments.”
OKI's B730 and its ilk now have WiFi upgrades with specific customer needs in mind

Coming from the company who still sells a fair share of dot matrix printers into harsh environments like auto mechanics and paint shops, the “location flexibility” benefit has risen to the surface. And would OKI consider building the wireless feature standard into the B700, considering the firm’s only other Wi-Fi standard device is an MFP? “No,” says Fenton, “but in the case of a specific vertical asking for it, we would certainly consider building it in for them.”

Second, Orzol educated me a little bit about the progress of the Wi-Fi world. “We offer this in a, b, g, and n Wi-Fi formats, at both the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz speeds. OKI is part of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the products include the Wi-Fi Protected Setup standard.”

While admittedly not new to the printing industry, these updates show the progress being made in the wireless printing world, especially to my previous 1995 example and its third-party drivers and three-foot distance limitations.

In conclusion, I have to chuckle at the confluence of OKI’s thinking, especially on the benefits of Wi-Fi printing, the “conspicuous by its absence” nature of Wi-Fi in consumer printers today, and some of my thinking from the past, as I read through the final words of that November 2007 column about my hands-on experiences with that Wi-Fi-equipped Lexmark machine. I quote the final paragraph of that column here, with some relief that I am certain at least some of the humor was intentional.

“All in all, I think Lexmark (and by inference the rest of the industry) is on the right track in supplying easy-to-use wireless printing. There are certainly other ways to share a printer, but the placement flexibility offered by wireless is nice, and even saving a USB slot is worth something. As more home LANs spring up, the utility of wireless seems positive enough to make its presence in consumer printers a future standard, and only ‘conspicuous by its absence.’ The test on my home LAN will really come with the holidays, as our house fills up with laptop-toting late-teens and early-twenties family members. We will see what they think about the wireless machine. But oops, that’s right, they are in the age group that does not print…”

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