by Raegen Pietrucha

Try to imagine, for a moment, when the first piece of paper — that means of written transmission that has enabled us to imagine other modes of information communication well beyond — was made.

Think about the first time someone held a piece of it, what that experience might’ve been like — the splotchy, mottled look of it; the rough, pulpy fibers between fingers; the rootlike, perhaps leafy scent. There’d never been anything quite like it before.

It must’ve been simply extraordinary.

But what’s sometimes even more extraordinary than experiencing something completely new is seeing what people will do with that thing next, what it can become, what happens when you combine that invention with another. Paper eventually became these white piles of stuff we’d shove into this contraption called a printer that puts words onto those pages for us.

And when that first printer came out, no one imagined it would become a computer. And a computer back then was only starting to shrink down to a manageable size instead of looming in the background, taking up the space of an entire wall (something that would’ve horrified those early paper-makers for sure).

But now computers are turning our paper into images and our printers into portals. They’re also turning our phones into remotes (and too many other things to list, quite frankly). They’re turning several businesses — even the way we look at the world — upside down, both driving and responding to changes we’ve had to make in the workplace.

And now our printers are starting to resemble phones. Buttons are disappearing in favor of touch screens with little icons to press; software is being replaced with apps. And perhaps strangest of all, these apps are actually becoming essential in the office environment. 

“Apps are what our customers are asking for,” said Karl Dueland, vice president, Solutions Delivery Unit, Office Solutions Business Group at Xerox. “Customers are looking for simple ways to get their work done. They’re looking for ways to differentiate themselves. And they’re asking for more efficiency and a higher level of productivity. What’s our best way to provide that? In many cases, through applications.”

Since mobility has become a way of life and cloud usage has become commonplace, information simply must be accessible and easily distributed in a variety of forms on the fly on a case-by-case basis. The ability for a salesperson on the road to print from an application like Salesforce, for example — or at least access and transfer information from it — is essential.

“Apps are about ease of use and anytime, anywhere access — that ubiquity,” said Aaron Weiss, director of marketing with HP LaserJet Enterprise Solutions. “You want to remove barriers and obstacles. A lot of people feel like it’s too difficult or they don’t know how to connect. Our app strategy is about removing those barriers — just making it as brain-dead simple as possible.”

So what will this ultimately mean for our good friend, paper? And how about the face-lift that apps have given our old pal, the printer? As consumers and providers, what are we to make of all of it? 

What apps meeting print looks like … for now

When apps meet a smartphone, it usually means game time. But when apps meet a printer, something different happens. It’s all about business, bringing something more than entertainment value to end users. “Not all of our solution initiatives are designed to generate big revenue, as our primary focus is on the customer experience with our product line,” said Sam Errigo, senior vice president of Business Intelligence Services at Konica Minolta. “We’re delivering solutions that leverage the investment that customers have already made related to MFP devices and aim to create efficiencies in the work environment though software integration.”

Much as a smartphone is essentially a “dumb” (or basic) platform each user makes smarter through his or her choice of applications to download, printers are very much following suit, being tailored by and to specific users in ways that, again, before apps, weren’t possible — at least not easily or affordably. “It’s like custom-ordering your office device,” Dueland said. “I’m going to take a base device with some across-the-board common features that are offered, and I am going to truly make it mine based on my business need.”

Think of all the documents an average employee handles in some form, sometimes daily: emails, letters, memos, expense reports, insurance documents, bills, claims, etc. Apps like Konica Minolta’s Connect to Microsoft Sharepoint, HP’s Flow CM and Xerox’s Scan to Email that digitize content and make it easy to distribute information digitally are huge in the face of all those “pages.” Image-capture apps such as HP’s PageLift and Xerox’s Safe Courier that make documents instantly available — and sometimes even “readable” — to users also help optimize employee efficiencies.

But lest we forget about that core function of a printer — to print — mobile printing apps like Xerox’s Mobile Print, Konica Minolta’s PageScope Mobile and HP’s ePrint allow end users to print what, when, where and how they want to securely, even on the go — and most importantly, to do so easily, which was not the case before mobile printing apps. “We’re concerned about simplicity here,” said John Tomesco, vice president, Enterprise Business Development, Managed Services, Printing & Personal Systems at HP. “What we’re hearing is that simplicity is what drives adoption and what people really want. In fact, what we tout is a three-step process for getting something to print: select a document, select a printer location and print.”

So what will apps mean for print in the future?

Although the changes contained within the four walls of a client’s office environment are enough to make any MPS provider’s head spin, the reality is that there’s much more than that for dealers to address today. Technologies outside the office — namely, mobile platforms and their associated apps — have already changed the face of the MFP and will continue to disrupt the workplace as well, shaping how managed print programs and print itself will evolve in the future.

“Mobile devices are a critical part of the day-to-day workflow now,” Weiss said. “As a result, apps are the dominant paradigm in terms of delivering function-specific solutions to end users. So to that extent, apps are going to continue to play an increasingly important role in printing solutions, in document management solutions and other solutions that are critical not just to commercial customers, but also consumers.”

So let’s talk about our friend, the printed page. Will MPS providers be seeing more of him in the future because of apps, or not?

“In the early years of managed print, customers were most concerned about cost consolidation and reducing assets,” Errigo said. “The expectations from customers are much greater now. They expect their strategic partner to develop or integrate workflow technologies that will further reduce print, digitize content for mass distribution and … create a less-print environment. Applications are playing a much larger role in the overall managed print services strategy — whether it’s using an app for document management, enterprise content management or something else.”

But while apps appear to be closing the door on more printed pages, there are still plenty of opportunities MPS dealers can seize to move forward profitably. Paper might be disappearing, but the “pages” are not, technically speaking. “In general, the net effect of apps is going to be a lower print volume,” Dueland said. “But that means that we as vendors have to make sure we present material in multiple ways so it matches what users are looking for. Our point is more about good print versus bad print. Is there a need for a print, or are there spaces where we’re better off providing a service that actually doesn’t turn into a piece of paper but still gets the job done and provides value?” By focusing on optimizing clients’ business processes through automation, simplification and digitization, MPS dealers can become more integral than ever to their clients’ operations.

 And, circling back to that good print/bad print issue, it is important to re-emphasize the fact that printed pages aren’t going away entirely. In fact, in some cases, apps will actually foster the printing of more pages. “To the extent that you can tie a device directly to a challenge a business is facing in its core business processes, yes, that app is going to increase adoption of the print function,” Dueland said. “Apps extend the value and the use of the device itself, so you end up printing things that you could not have printed before and, conversely, more easily digitizing things that were hard copy and integrating with various cloud-based processes and other workflows.”

Also, as mobile technology improves, there is more than a chance that additional pages will be printed. “The limitations of print right now on a mobile device have to do with the type of work that people can do on those devices,” Tomesco said. “As more capabilities are brought to those devices, the more we’re going to need to print.” He indicated that the number of prints from smartphones has been doubling every six months — a stat that should ease the minds of MPS dealers.

Without a doubt, the role of print, print devices and the people who sell MPS are all changing, but this would actually be the case with or without apps; it’s the nature of all business to change. But apps are certainly playing their part in the evolution of the workplace. “From a managed print standpoint, the role I believe we’re playing is, we’re helping customers manage that transition from paper format to electronic format and vice versa in the office,” Dueland said. “And that’s pretty important.”

Clients will likely always need paper; we’ve used it for thousands of years, after all. But there’s no turning back from what the remarkable confluence of technologies relating to paper is allowing that “page” to become. And there’s only one thing an MPS provider can do about it: adapt accordingly.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Imaging Channel.