History Repeating: Lessons from Color Adoption

by Charles Brewer, Actionable Intelligence

A couple of months ago, my friends at The Imaging Channel asked me to write "The Skeptic" blog for their website and this column for the magazine. The job required that, despite all the excitement, I remain skeptical of the over-the-top claims swirling around managed print services and try to cut through the hype.

Of course, I said yes without hesitation. Not only did it present a great opportunity to get paid for being the disagreeable old cuss that I am by nature; it also allowed me to be an industry contrarian at time when a little nay-saying is in order.

Let's be clear, MPS is a big deal. It has the attention of every printer and copier manufacturer in the world, along with most supplies vendors and those in the hardware and consumables channels. Moreover, MPS has already had a profound impact on the digital imaging industry, and its effects will be felt even more strongly in the years to come. Having said that, I remain skeptical of some of the claims that MPS will completely change the way we do business and do it in just a few short years.

I've been following the industry for almost 15 years, and in that time I've heard plenty of claims that the world as we know it was about to change. Changes have come to our industry but typically in small increments, not huge convulsions. The somewhat hackneyed expression, "evolutionary rather than revolution," is an apt way to describe most of the change I've witnessed.

Consider the adoption of color electrophotographic equipment by office users. When I started working at Lyra Research in 1996, analysts were in a tizzy over the exciting prospect of color printing applications for the office. Hype meisters declared that color equipment would revolutionize the office. Some predicted that just as color inkjets had eliminated monochrome inkjets, color lasers would inevitably supplant monochrome units in the office.

Widespread color adoption remained far off in the future, however, and we never really experienced the oft-heralded "Year of Color."

One big reason that the adoption of color was stymied was the difficulty the channel had overcoming the legacy of hype that surrounded color. Business users heard a lot about color for a long time without much substance, and they weren’t buying it—literally. The hardware was too expensive and the selection too limited. For years, the initial sticker shock of early color equipment left most companies thinking it was simply out of their reach. Regardless of what a company could afford, many of the first color devices couldn't support the most basic business application—cheap monochrome printing—and their performance in areas like speed and paper handling failed to meet the demands of an office workgroup.

After inexpensive, versatile color lasers were widely available, the channel had to work hard to undo the damage done by all the hype. Dealers had to educate consumers that color was within the budget of most businesses and it made sound business sense. The channel also had to demonstrate that the machines could accommodate the day-to-day requirements of an office device, as well as deliver the value color output provides.

Many of the factors inhibiting MPS adoption are distinct from my color example, but there are some valuable parallels worth considering. MPS technology was also hyped before it was really capable of delivering real value to a wide range of consumers. The early adopters of MPS took a huge risk, investing large amounts of financial resources to purchase technology that couldn’t perform to their expectations. Many of them felt like they were sold a bill of goods, and they had to figure out how to execute an MPS program on their own. An underwhelming feeling towards MPS started inside the dealerships, and filtered down to the consumers when the promises of MPS couldn't be fulfilled. As with color, it was then up to the channel to undo the damage done by all the hype.

I expect that just as businesses came to recognize the value of color, many will see the value of MPS and embrace some sort of managed print offering. But it won't be overnight, and it won’t be every company. I remain skeptical, therefore, that MPS will completely change the digital imaging industry.

But that should come as no surprise: after all, I'm The Skeptic.