I went to a briefing this past week with HP's printing and imaging folks and came away with one word: ecosystem. Unfortunately for HP, I also came away with more questions than answers and more troubled about where HP is going in these businesses.
There are two basic troubles. First is the laser printer ecosystem from HP is a real headache for corporate network administrators. There is no doubt that HP is the market leader in laser printers. But there are millions of different models, drivers, and toner piece parts to keep track of. Now, mind you, I have nothing against the HP product per se – I have been using one of their LaserJets for many years and it works like a top. But if I had several hundred or several thousand printers on my network, I wouldn't be a happy camper. The problem is that it is a real complex ecosystem. Administering all this gear isn't easy, especially when each printer is attached to a particular print server queue and you are migrating your users from one operating system to another, or from one network server to another. The problem isn't that the printers have network attachments -- they do. It is that their queues that collect their print jobs are so difficult to configure and maintain.
We heard from a network administrator at American Express at our briefing. Rather than try to administer his collective printer population with Novell's directory service or some other software tool, he plunked down nearly two million dollars to buy a bunch of HP's Print Server Appliances. This is a piece of hardware that can automatically push the right drivers to the right clients (provided they are Windows clients: our mostly Mac network here at CMP wouldn't benefit from this solution). It can also run the print queues without any need to setup the network file server for this purpose. I got to see the appliance at the event and walk through its paces with one of the HP product managers, and I would agree that it is a pretty slick device. It saved Amex all sorts of time in support calls and certainly made it easier for deploying their printers across their worldwide network.
(The HP site has horrendous URLs, but here is a link to the device:)
My problem is since when does a major manufacturer have to create a mess and then offer a nice way to clean it up? One could argue that this is Microsoft's business model in a nutshell. But I thought HP was more above this kind of behavior.
So much for the printer ecosystem needing to vote a few printers off the HP island. Let's move on to the imaging ecosystem that covers digital photography. This has its own complexity. Those of you who are heavily into digital photography should know what I mean instantly. Getting the pictures out of the camera and into your computer is the first challenge. Getting them printed is another challenge. Sending them via email is a third. Coming back to the "roll" of film that you took several years or months ago to find the picture with the file name DSC00051.JPG is another.
Should the PC be the center of this ecosystem? Or the camera? Some service bureau that stores all your photos? Or some other device? Hard to say. HP showed us gear that allows a user to view photographs directly on a TV, then print proof sheets and select individual photos without ever having to mess around with a PC. Of course, you have to mess around with a bunch of different cables to connect all this stuff to your camera. And you have to mess around with a bunch of nested menus that would make Alice glad to leave Wonderland with all of their complexity. This is an improvement? I am not so sure.
A friend of mine is trying to fix some of this complexity with software called Preclick Photo Organizer (it too only works with Windows -- luckily the Mac universe has a pretty solid solution with iPhoto). This solves the organization problem once the photos land on your hard drive, but the transportation issues for the photo ecosystem are still almost as vexing as trying to learn your way around the Tokyo subway system. There are plenty of ways to get from here to there, and the trains are prompt and plentiful, but if you don't understand the language, you may never figure it all out.
I give HP points for trying. In the meantime, if you have some other ecosystem story you want to tell me about, I am all ears.
Thanks to all of you who have sent in donations and made me the top Long Island fund raiser in my upcoming charity bike ride for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. For those of you who haven't yet sent in your check, there is still time. The ride is May 31 and the funds I collect now will ensure that I keep my top position, although what is important is that all of us are raising money for this terrific cause. If it will make things easier, think of the money you donate in lieu of a subscription payment for these fine essays. Or if you know someone with diabetes, think of it as an expression of support. Several companies have become sponsors, much to my delight. And those of you who will be in the Monterey area that day are welcome to stop by and cheer me on.
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