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October 2017:  “Go Fourth and prosper? … I Hope Not”


As the old saying goes, “Once is an incident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern.” So what do you call it when the same stupid scenario plays out in the hardcopy industry for the fourth time in 15 years? Well, I call it a fiasco.


I’m talking here about the massive financial fraud that’s engulfed Ricoh India and Fuji Xerox New Zealand (and Australia) in recent months. But lest we forget, these twin disasters were preceded by the original “Blame It on Brazil” debacle Xerox revealed in 2002 — which actually entailed problems across Europe, Latin America and Canada — and the “Pain in Spain” mess OKI confessed to in 2012. These four events clearly evidence a pattern of inattention at best and malfeasance at worst when it comes to basic financial controls and fundamental management oversight among multiple vendors in governing various overseas sales subsidiaries.


Just to recap, although none of these disasters alone was life-threatening to the company involved, each was a major mishap with serious repercussions for the respective vendor. And the implications extended beyond just one territory.


Even after fifteen years, the Xerox situation remains the mother of all messes. Issues in Brazil and other overseas sales subsidiaries were at the heart of Xerox being forced in 2002 to restate its revenue for 1997 through 2001 downward by $1.9 billion, with a corresponding $368 million reduction in pretax earnings. Meanwhile, Xerox was dealing with its “unsustainable business model” and was nearly on the brink of collapse.


Five years later in 2012 — and at the other end of the printer industry — OKI had to restate its results for the prior six years because of irregularities in Spain. OKI took a hit of nearly $400 million on net income and $100 million on sales.


In contrast, the messes at Ricoh India and Fuji Xerox New Zealand remain “works in progress.” Both vendors would like to think all the bad news is out and accounted for, but no one really knows. What we do know is that between last fall and next spring, Ricoh could end up taking a hit well in excess of a half-billion dollars to address years of fraud in India. And Fuji Xerox has already taken a $340 million charge to net income for six years of fraud in Oceania.


That’s a combined total of more than $1.6 billion in reduced earnings just for these four incidents! And that doesn’t include the consequences of reductions in stock prices, market cap, headcount and sales. What’s so striking is the common themes I see across these four situations. Despite different eras, vendors and locales, so much of what happened, why it happened, and how it was handled is strikingly similar.


Consider that in each case, the underlying malfeasance was widespread, long-standing, and significant in scope. The overstatements to sales and income were so egregious as to very clearly be “too good to be true.” Yet even when employees raised questions — as they did invariably in each instance — their concerns were easily and quickly ignored. In effect, the key constituencies in both the local sales companies and the corporate headquarters were so vested in assuring that the subterfuge continued, it was nearly impossible to recognize the underlying fraud and address it.


Of course, one could argue that for each of these vendors, the particular problems were geographically isolated and have not been repeated ... at least as far as one knows. Indeed, it’s tempting to believe that hardcopy vendors both individually and collectively have learned the requisite lessons from these past blunders. But one wonders why the first one or two instances would not already have been sufficiently didactic. So I’m left to ponder. Who’s next? Where? And when?


Putting that worry aside for now, there remain far more pressing questions that the hardcopy industry as a whole must consider. From my perspective, the egregious lapses that transpired at Xerox, then at OKI, next at Ricoh, and then at Fuji Xerox reveal three disturbing tendencies.


First, we’ve witnessed excessive readiness by management to accept unreasonably positive outcomes as evidence of superior operational performance. Second, we’ve seen a willingness by executives to brush aside uncomfortable information when it’s conveyed by outsiders, from those in the field, or from those who are lower down in the organization. And third, we’ve observed how an underlying current of desperation during difficult times can cause leaders in effect to say “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”


We’ve also seen the same tendencies play out in situations that didn’t involve fraud but still proved to be very detrimental. Look no further than Xerox’s unwillingness to confront the big problems in its former BPO business; Lexmark’s failure to realize it was overspending to buy underwhelming software firms; or the refusal by Dell or Panasonic or other vendors to admit their total irrelevance to the hardcopy industry.


At a time when the industry and every hardcopy vendor must truly question old assumptions, diversify in uncomfortable new ways, and pursue change sooner rather than later, it’s time now to consider the lessons from this sordid history.


 


September 2017:  “Buy, Buy EFI”


Let’s face it. We’re well into the “everybody needs somebody” stage in the printing industry. Acquisitions and diversification are the name of the game. But consolidation is proceeding at a glacial pace. Vendors are more interested in businesses that are further afield. That can be good news (Canon and medical) or bad news (Xerox and BPO). But there’s a much closer-in company that hardcopy vendors are ignoring at their own peril as possible prey. And that company is EFI.


I’m not putting on my financial advisor hat. I don’t even own one. But what I am saying is that from a strategic, tactical and competitive point of view, EFI could be a very logical acquisition for almost any print vendor around today.


Folks who think of EFI mostly as that pricey Fiery supplier for color office and production MFPs might be surprised to know those RIPs are rapidly declining in importance at EFI. Fiery generated just 27% of EFI’s revenue in the most recent quarter, and Fiery revenue was flat in the first half of the year versus three years ago. It’s just that the rest of EFI has been growing so much faster, both organically and from acquisitions.


As a result, 2017 is expected to be the year EFI finally surpasses a billion dollars in revenue. The company now gets twice as much revenue from its diversified industrial inkjet hardware and supplies business as compared to the Fiery business. The rest of EFI’s sales are from its vast collection of software used by all sorts of print providers to run their day-to-day operations.


All three of EFI’s businesses present interesting opportunities for hardcopy companies in the context of a would-be acquisition. Let’s start with the Fiery business, since it’s the most familiar to MFP vendors. EFI is on track to do around $250 million in Fiery sales this year. And with a 70% gross margin, the Fiery unit performs more like a software operation than a hardware business. Not only are Fiery RIPs used by nearly every maker of A3 color MFPs, EFI has gradually expanded its Fiery sales into the world of digital presses and inkjet devices, not to mention supporting its own diverse industrial printer lineup.


The benefits of a printer vendor taking control of the Fiery business would be twofold. It would cut out the middleman and some markup, and it would put all competitors at a worrisome disadvantage. And those other vendors couldn’t simply stop buying Fiery controllers. They have no ready alternatives in the short term, and perhaps not even in the longer run. Over time, a new owner could even create differentiation between the features in its own Fiery RIPs and those available to competitors. And a new owner would be ideally positioned to leverage all that Fiery technology for its own industrial printers.


Then there’s EFI vast and growing array of industrial inkjet and LED printers and supplies. It’s everything from signage and labels, to textiles and tiles. And it should produce $600 million in sales this year. That’s a lot more than small industrial digital print competitors like Xeikon, and it’s arguably more than any of the big diversified hardcopy companies are doing in the industrial market. Adding EFI’s industrial printing revenue would catapult Xerox, Canon, HP or Konica Minolta to the very top of the industrial print world.


And then there’s EFI’s easier-to-overlook “Productivity Software” business, which will do around $150 million in sales this year. While this is EFI’s smallest business by far, it does have the highest margins. More importantly, these tools put EFI in the enviable position of enabling industrial print providers to go digital, and wedding them to an EFI print ecosystem.


There are also very important but less quantifiable pluses for EFI as a potential acquisition. Both the company and its management are exceedingly well-known to hardcopy vendors. Moreover, EFI has demonstrated an effective and reassuringly conservative ability to make one acquisition after another ... and leverage them. The deals have mostly been small, and all of them were paid in cash. Yet EFI still had $431 million in cash on June 30. There have been no big failures on the list, and all these deals have helped EFI grow 2.5x in size since the Great Recession. Talk about reducing the risk in a deal.


Still, EFI remains barely a mid-cap company in a stock market in which investors like large-cap firms. Moreover, one has to ask how truly disruptive or dominant a company with $1 billion in sales across three businesses can be in a truly massive industrial printing market transition.


Of course, timing can be everything, especially since EFI has an awkward history of pretty big swings in its stock price and valuation. For the past five years, the stock has mostly bounced between $40 and $50. But this year, the stock has careened from a high of $51, to a low of $26. A day after EFI scared the bejeezus out of investors on August 3, when it warned of revenue recognition issues that turned out to be nothing, the stock plummeted 45%. That gave EFI a market cap of just $1.2 billion. By the end of September, the share price was back up, pushing EFI’s valuation to $2 billion. But that’s still below a recent peak of $2.3 billion back in April.


So who’s gonna open up the checkbook? You?


 


August 2017:  “Healthy Choices”


For very good reasons, there’s been more than a little handwringing amongst hardcopy vendors, investors, analysts and others when it comes to figuring out if, when and how these companies will proactively plan for their “next act.” The context is a printing industry that on an overall basis is slowly declining. Understandably, the concerns are greatest for the largest vendors and for those vendors who are most dependent on printing for their current revenue and profit.


I, too, have worried that I don’t see enough of these vendors taking sufficient actions to create new businesses with adequate scale and financial attributes to offset the decline in printing. Eventually, they’ll have to replace the bulk of what they get from printing. I see three plausible explanations for these vendors’ slow response.


First, there’s the addictive nature of the supplies-and-service annuity business model. It’s like asking why a drug addict doesn’t stash away some money for a rainy day. The second issue is the self-soothing way vendors tend to believe all they need to do is gradually move into comfortably adjacent markets, whether that’s production and industrial printing, or document management and IT services. They tell themselves the transition will be natural, comfortable, uneventful. And the third and perhaps biggest roadblock is a combination of plain old fear and denial, plus a belief there’s still plenty of time to plan.


But the past year has somewhat surprisingly provided evidence vendors are waking up to the dangers and recognizing new possibilities. And some of them have decided their “next big thing” will be healthcare. I’m not talking about healthcare as an interesting vertical in the world of printing, document management or IT. No, I’m talking about horizontal healthcare as in medical equipment, allied software and services. You know, the kind of healthcare that’s designed to help make people healthy ... or at least healthier.


In less than a year, we’ve seen two top printing vendors make pretty important acquisitions that are likely to set them on paths that will make healthcare an increasingly larger and transformative part of their respective businesses.


First, we saw Canon complete its $5.6 billion acquisition of Toshiba Medical Systems Corporation (TMSC) late last year. I’d like to think this reflected a strategic awakening at Canon, but the deal was probably justified as much or more to help a fellow Japanese corporation in dire financial straits, than to bolster Canon’s long nascent efforts in diagnostic medical devices. After all, Canon had been talking about expanding further into healthcare for years, while giving no indication it planned to do anything that was either tangible or timely. However, owning TMSC for just six months has worked wonders for Canon’s financial results. It can’t be lost on management that TMSC is by far the best thing that’s happened to Canon’s financial health in quite some time. So look out for even more deals.


Then a few weeks ago, we saw Konica Minolta announce its billion-dollar purchase of US-based Ambry Genetics. It’s the biggest acquisition since Konica and Minolta came together in 2003, and the most diversifying as well. Like Canon, Konica Minolta had been talking about expanding its tiny healthcare business for some time without doing anything much to make that happen. Now, there’s a good chance Ambry will have the same kind of fortuitous financial impact on Konica Minolta, and prove to be a strategic catalyst for additional healthcare investments.


And it’s not just these two hardcopy vendors who are making “healthy choices.” Consider that the company which had been bidding most aggressively against Canon to buy TMSC was none other than Fujifilm, which owns three-quarters of Fuji Xerox. Like Canon and Konica Minolta, Fujifilm already has a smallish medical business that it’s looking now to nurture and grow.


Other hardcopy vendors’ plans are more aspirational. Sharp wants to use its display technologies in the medical field. Kyocera already has a medical and dental division. Xerox PARC is partnering “to tackle healthcare challenges through collaboration in medical technology, engineering and robotics.” And both HP and Funai have spoken of leveraging their inkjet technologies for biomedical and pharmaceutical purposes.


There aren’t lots of technological or even business synergies between printing and healthcare beyond some underlying commonality in optics and digital imaging. The true impetus has much more to do with growth. Healthcare and allied medical fields will be among the most dynamic and fast-growing sectors in the global economy in coming decades due to technological momentum and demographic determinism.


And I also see a healthy difference in the mindset hardcopy vendors are bringing to this field. In businesses closer to office and production printing, hardcopy vendors display a distinct sense of unearned entitlement. It’s sort of “Don’t you know who I am?” But with healthcare and medical technology being so much further afield and also exceptionally dynamic, these vendors seem to sense they’ll actually have to earn everything they want. And that’s a healthy choice. 


 


July 2017:  “Sure, We Can Do That”


Sometimes we Southern Californians take for granted the inherent differences that come with living on the Left Coast, like year-round sunshine, great ethnic food, and day laborers. That last one refers to the couple dozen immigrant workers in any Home Depot parking lot every day of the year. They’re new to the country or down on their luck, and are willing to help with almost any task for a reasonable cash payment. It’s sort of like the work I used to do as a kid for my dad ... except there was no cash payment.


I’m starting to see the makings of an analogous trend in the US office MFP business. It’s too soon to say if this development has legs, but it’s worth a look ... and some cautionary advice. What I’m talking about are a couple of recent announcements from Ricoh and Konica Minolta. They’re about how both companies want to leverage their MFP service people and infrastructure to pursue opportunities in new, not necessarily adjacent markets. My concern is that these initiatives are very simplistic and not terribly sound.


In May, Ricoh announced Service Advantage, which it described as a “substantial addition to its services suite.” The mission is “to help businesses accelerate their core strengths” and “enable a significant competitive advantage.” To do this, Ricoh is offering a wide range of businesses access to its global network of 25,000 skilled and certified service employees. Ricoh says they possess “extensive market knowledge and distribution networks” and “understand the business conduct and laws” in 200 countries and regions.


Ricoh boasts that its MFP service techs can provide “cradle-to-cradle” services. That’s not babysitting, although I’m sure Ricoh would do that too for the right price. It’s just another bit of undefined industry argot. Ricoh touts its expertise in device lifecycle management, distribution, installation, maintenance, training, and physical asset retirement. But Ricoh never really pins down what exactly any of these services are; how many or what kinds of employees provide the services; or any options for service delivery.


Then in June, Konica Minolta announced it is investing up to $3 million in Knightscope, a Silicon Valley maker of security robots. This follows a small initial investment in 2014. It’s the rationale that’s interesting. The focus isn’t on robotics technology or the security market. Rather, it’s “to leverage Konica Minolta’s service technicians.”


The common thread in what Ricoh and Konica Minolta have announced is a parallel quest to find new things for MFP service technicians to do. When you break it down, the message is really pretty simple:  “We have lots of service techs who do lots of stuff, so why not let them do stuff for you?” We’re not talking here about MFP vendors advising other companies on service infrastructure design, field service systems or software, or best service practices. This is about providing MFP service tech bodies and hours far and wide so that other companies don’t have to hire, train, deploy and maintain service techs of their own.


This type of offering is new in the MFP world, but the practice has a long history in the IT market. Today, field service outsourcing is just another link in the booming logistics support and supply chain management business. In some cases, it’s closely intertwined with IT outsourcing.


Now for the cautionary advice. Look back to the early days of field service outsourcing in IT in the 1980s, and see who was doing it. And why. I stumbled across a “leaders” list IDC had prepared over 30 years ago. It’s a veritable who’s who of old, largely forgotten mini and mainframe companies like DEC, Prime, Data General, Tandem, Wang, Burroughs, Microdata, Basic Four, etc.


Now think back to what else was happening in the ‘80s. The PC market was exploding, and these mini and mainframe computer companies were getting slammed. They too had lots of service techs and were looking for a new way (or any way) to make money. Does this sound at all familiar? Nearly all of them got into field service outsourcing, and it was a decent business ... for a while. But it wasn’t enough to help most survive. In fact, only a few in that business managed to hang on (e.g., IBM, HP, Unisys, Honeywell), and none of them still do field service outsourcing.


So this early interest among two MFP vendors who want to leverage thousands of service techs warrants some critical thought. Let’s start with the most fundamental question. Either these vendors have too many service techs; or they think their techs can easily take on totally new tasks; or they’re expanding their service forces to gain new outsourcing work and customers. I have concerns with each of these scenarios.


MFP service needs are declining, which means fewer techs. If a vendor has too many techs, downsizing is the prudent choice. However, if the idea is to build an outsourced service business, then the economics, competitive dynamics, prospects, and business model for that endeavor deserve a harder look. Field service outsourcing faces a lot of pressure on pricing, margins and profits. And the barriers to entry are hardly insurmountable. Ask Xerox about its experience with complementary services. Just because a vendor can stretch the services it offers, does that mean it should?


 


June 2017:  “Zis-Boom-Blah”


It’s been quite a while since I’ve editorialized about what it’s like to be a print industry analyst. The last time was back in September 2010 (“That Raised Eyebrow”). Then, the introspection had been brought on by the untimely death of a dear colleague. As I stated at the time, “No one likes to defend what he does for a living, least of all an analyst who’s accustomed to examining others.” I also emphasized the value of “inherent and inerrant skepticism.” As I said, “To be a thoughtful and well-grounded skeptic is the epitome of what it means to be a strong analyst.” I still stand by those words.


But much has changed since then in printing, and more generally in the way people today look at news and unvarnished analysis. In our own industry, too many vendors now act as if all they need to do is string together trendy argot and add a few aspirational “change the world of work” statements. They equate those modest efforts with actually delivering tangible news. And they look daggers at anyone who doesn’t drink their hardcopy Kool-Aid. For some vendors, any contrary assessment that an analyst or a member of the press publishes is treated as if it were “fake news” and a deep personal affront.


Here’s a case in point. I was recently admonished quite harshly by a vendor for certain statements I had published months earlier about that company. The vendor complained long after my words had appeared. Only now was I being told those words “were not necessarily interpreted as a token of trust or an interest in building a good relationship.” If I knew it were a date, I would have brought flowers. I won’t say who the vendor is as THAT wouldn’t really be newsworthy. In this instance, I choose to side with Shakespeare’s Henry IV. “The better part of valor is discretion.”


And that wasn’t the worst of it. This wasn’t a case in which the vendor actually disagreed with my assessment. Indeed, the vendor had long ago made very clear in a phone call that it agreed with me completely. During the call, the vendor had told me other analysts and press people shared the same perspective. But now, many months after the fact, I was informed the real problem was that I had had the temerity to express my views publicly and in writing. Quelle horreur! I was to be punished because my feedback shouldn’t ever have gone beyond our call.


I’m not one to let sleeping dogs lie — especially not when there’s an opportunity to enlighten and to be snarky all at the same time. Indeed, one of the few perks of publishing is getting to have the last word. So, I asked this vendor a simple but telling question. Was his company equally offended and morally pained when on several occasions since that fateful commentary I had dared to put in print certain genuinely positive and occasionally even glowing assessments of other things the same company had done. The response? ... nothing but crickets.


And that’s precisely my point. I’m not here to be a cheerleader. I don’t do rah-rah. Not for any vendor, not for the industry, not for a product category, not for a technology, not for a particular channel, not for any program. Nor am I here to serve as a mere conduit. You know. You put your carefully crafted “news” in one end, and wait to see it pop out from the other end. Nope. Not gonna do it.


Reasonable vendors and responsible executives have to understand they can’t have negative feedback shared quietly behind the scenes, with only positive feedback deemed suitable for publishing.


In the abstract, I believe most vendors agree with me ... most of the time. And all vendor certainly agree with me all of the time, as long as my critiques are focused on their competitors, or they relate to a segment of the industry in which they don’t participate.


But as soon as I call YOUR baby ugly, all hell breaks loose. And as often as not, it’s not really that your baby is ugly. It’s just that you’re marketing and ability to communicate are lacking. You’ve failed to convey sufficient content and enough context in order to persuade and enlighten me. And as I always tell vendors, if you can’t convince me, when I’m devoting time and effort to understand what you’re saying, how are you ever going to use that same approach to win over customers or partners? I’m you’re off-Broadway, out-of-town reviewer. Think ahead about how I’m going to react, take to heart what I say, and act accordingly. It’s the things no one else bothers to tell you that will really hurt you.


I understand vendors and their employees aren’t dumb or lazy or uncaring. And I know every company is under pressure to do more with less and do it faster. But no other important constituency cares enough to dissect what you’re doing.


I’m not going to change. I’m too old and cranky, and I’m way too cynical to move toward lighter and brighter. I’m gonna keep saying things — sometimes mean and hurtful things. I’ll criticize you when I understand you, but I don’t agree with you. I’ll explain why I don’t agree. Then you decide if you disagree with me. You’re free (even encouraged) to pick apart my rationale for disagreeing. Whether you share that with me isn’t the point. It will make you a better vendor. It’s the circle of life ... or at least it’s how I think life should be for an industry analyst like me. Rah!.


 


May 2017:  “In Search of Goldilocks”


There are some big similarities between where hardcopy vendors should look to go from here, and the ongoing quest by astronomers to locate habitable planets somewhere out in the universe. MFP industry executives and stargazers alike are focused on identifying what’s known as the “Goldilocks Zone” — not too near and not too far, not too hot and not too cold. Everyone is anxiously seeking a new place that’s just right.


In astronomy, that means pursuing rocky planets in the so-called habitable zone. They’re not too big or small and not too close or far from their star. Temperature and atmospheric pressure there coincide to maintain liquid surface water.


And in the hardcopy universe, logic and experience prescribe an equally narrow habitable zone. Those new business opportunities must lie adjacent to the company’s current print technology or leverage its current business practices. And that basically points toward two options.


A vendor can use its inkjet technology to move into industrial printing. It can be anything, from labels and packaging, to signage and wall coverings, to textiles and ceramics, and even additive manufacturing. Because high-speed, high-quality inkjet printing is a complex and narrowly held technology, there are pretty good barriers to entry. And one also shouldn’t underestimate the comfort factor for vendors who want to stay in the “printing” business. So it’s not surprising that industrial inkjet printing is becoming the preferred path. But there’s not room for everyone.


The alternative is to make the big leap from managed print services in the office, to a more broadly — but not too broad or distant — set of services for workflow, business process improvement, or managed IT. While demand exists for all of these varied kinds of services, the risks are pretty high when expanding into these new arenas. Above all, one can’t just ignore all the competitors who didn’t come from the hardcopy world, as MFP vendors have been wont to do.


And just as astronomers have found that being even a little bit outside the Goldilocks Zone has profound implications for the chances of life to exist, so too do the odds of business success appear to dissipate rapidly the further vendors in our industry stray from their core business.


For better or worse, the experiences over the past half-decade at Xerox with BPO services and at Lexmark with ECM software have closed the doors on areas that initially had seemed quite reasonable to pursue. It doesn’t matter now if one argues the real problem was Xerox’s or Lexmark’s management, the companies they acquired, or the prices they paid. No reasonable investor or lender is ever going to fund a repeat.


Even if one puts aside these two particular failed efforts to buy one’s way into a diversified future, there are other examples playing out among top hardcopy companies today that have nothing to do with recent acquisitions. And what they show is that different is not always synonymous with better. Look no further than HP’s ordeals in the PC market, or Canon’s huge problems with cameras, or even the obstacles confronting Toshiba TEC in the POS business. Not only is each of these product domains fraught with challenges, they all have much worse profitability than the hardcopy business.


Yes, I know it’s easier for me to cajole, caution and criticize vendors than it is for those companies who are dependent on the printing business to make such a huge leap. At the same time, I just don’t see a lot of other options. Most vendors who choose not to move toward industrial printing or a broader services portfolio are left only with different versions of what amounts to giving up.


Sure, a weak or small printing vendor can try to sell itself to a larger or stronger one. But this is really just doubling down on print. One better hope the buyer is doing a better job planning for the future than the seller did. Yet this is also the most likely outcome for several vendors today.


Or a vendor may be able to sell itself to an investment firm in what amounts to nothing more than a financial transaction devoid of interest in technology or products. The buyer will gut R&D; slash administrative and operational costs; perhaps undercut the competition on price; suck off the profits for five or so years in order to make the deal pay off; and then let the doors close.


Or a vendor might try to find some IT-oriented buyer who sees value in a high-touch direct and indirect B2B sales and support operation. Perhaps a printer company can be rejiggered and redeployed in another product or services domain. But such buyers are bound to be few. And given the high degree of risk, the price a vendor would obtain in such a deal is likely to be low.


The only other option is really nothing more than the default choice. It’s a non-decision decision to stay the course. No vendor is ever going to admit that’s the plan. But the financial results we’re seeing today tend to indicate this is indeed what’s happening inside many firms. They’re still talking about change and transformation and plans and finally “getting it.” But they’re really just hoping for a very gentle decline in the printing business over an extended period of time — preferably until management is able to retire.


 


April 2017:  “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful ... And Altogether Inadequate”


When assessing an MFP product launch, I often tell vendors my simple rule of thumb. If I - an experienced and admittedly compulsive analyst - have a hard time finding a reasonable level of detail on your products, what does that mean for customers who have far better things to do with their time?


Based on what I've experienced over the past couple of months, there's been a definite downward trend in what vendors seem able or willing to provide. I'm left to conclude there's a concerted effort among the industry's leading companies to obfuscate when it comes to their new products. Tell me. How is this supposed to help sales?


The latest examples I've encountered are quite literally the biggest MFP vendor announcements in recent memory: HP's massive new A3 product launch; Epson's pagewidth inkjet A3 device news; Xerox's big WorkCentre-to-AltaLink upgrade; and Konica Minolta's Workplace Hub debut. In each case, the announcement and the follow-through have been sadly subpar, to the point where I wonder if many customers will even bother trying to figure out what's going on.


There have to be some common reasons for the consistent bungling and missed opportunities. It's not a coincidence. So here's my take on the top seven causes - and by implication the remedies - for these major marketing misfires.


Consumerization. Bringing consumer products and technologies into business isn't a bad thing, but the misapplication of consumer marketing norms does a huge disservice to the office MFP industry. What I call the CoverGirl approach - easy, breezy, beautiful - has unfortunately become all too common in the business IT world. The focus has shifted to flavor, feeling and fluff at the expense of facts and functionality. Connect the damn dots! It's not a marketing win when an analyst or would-be customer listens to your big pitch and walks away thinking, "That's nice, but what is it this company's really delivering?"


The Two-Step. In each of the examples I cited, the vendor opted for a big emphasis on the pre-shipment launch and a much more vague postpartum promise that the details would follow. But just as in Hollywood, a sequel is never as good as the original. There can certainly be good reasons for announcing products months prior to their availability. But those reasons should never include a desire to delay final collateral, setting prices, determining messages, and fine-tuning everything else. Vendors have to be able to maintain a sense of urgency, even after the excitement of the pre-announcement fades.


The Big Picture. Somehow office imaging companies has convinced themselves their mission is only to solve their customers' absolute biggest problems. It's all about security and workflow and mobility and content and cloud and happiness and world peace and on and on. As a result, it doesn't seem to occur to vendors any longer that they still have to excel at the basics, like speeds, features, options, economics, configurations. It's clarity on the details that enables buyers to accept those loftier promises.



Doubt. I'm convinced a lot of the dysfunctional marketing I see these days around MFP product announcements can be traced back a fundamental but uncomfortable truth. Vendors don't really believe their own hype any more. It comes down either to believing more or hyping less. I'm convinced the best way to bridge the gap is for vendors to do a better job providing details and explaining features that deliver real upside to customers. And that includes those pesky pecuniary facts called prices!


Ennui. This is the French word for boredom. But it connotes more than that ... a certain weariness, fatigue and apathy with a whiff of wistfulness and a soupcon of sadness. Increasingly, I think the lack of depth and completeness in MFP announcements can be attributed to vendors who deep down believe there's really nothing new, interesting, important or different in what they're bringing to market. And all that fosters a certain laxity when it comes to satisfying the basic requirements of marketing. Meanwhile, I suspect vendors tell themselves it's really about a lack of resources and too few personnel.


Buck-Passing. All too often too many vendors behave as if there's some other group down the line that will compensate for their own marketing shortcomings. Offshore vendors look to their regional sales companies to do the job; marketing pushes the task onto sales; and vendors assume channel partners will pick up the slack. But too often, the buck stops before it gets there.


Paranoia. Implicit in some of the reluctance among vendors to perform what used to be considered marketing basics is an irrational fear that such information "will only help my competitors." News flash! ... Your competitors already know this stuff or they will very soon, regardless of what you do or don't do. So does it really make sense to hobble the ability of your customers and prospects (and analysts and press) to fully appreciate what you've got out of some misguided hope you're impeding competitors?


As the saying goes, "You only get one chance to make a first impression." So stop screwing it up!


 


March 2017:  “Are These the Good Old Days?”


I’m not one who recalls lots of famous lines from TV shows or movies and sprinkles them in my conversation. However, there’s a line from the 2013 finale of The Office — the US version — that’s particularly apropos to one segment of the MFP business today. It’s when Andy Bernard laments, "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."


No, I haven’t gone all sappy. Hardcopy today is far from “rainbows and unicorns,” but it’s dawned on me that we’re on the cusp of what can legitimately be looked at as “the golden age of desktop MFPs.” To clarify, I’m talking about economical A4 laser or LED color and monochrome MFPs sold in open channels. And it’s more about what users get from these “low-end” MFPs than any claim these products are creating the best of times financially for those who make them.


To see what I mean, look no further than some of the products noted in this issue, particularly the color devices:  Canon’s new imageCLASS models; Brother’s latest MFC series; and Xerox’s first VersaLink MFPs. HP is no slouch in this category either, but these latest products are now a step ahead. Lexmark also remains a contender, but one with some issues. You might put OKI in this category, too, although less so when it comes to scale and viability. And with the imminent departure of Samsung-designed MFPs in this segment, that’s pretty much it. Six vendors in a market that can probably support three or four with a reasonable degree of success.


Certainly in relative terms, the A4 side of the MFP business is where the unit volume and sales growth are to be found these days, especially for color devices. Meanwhile, we’re seeing most traditional A3 vendors pretty much give up on true A4 innovation and promotion. They’ve concluded — probably correctly — there’s no way to be an A4 evangelist without exacerbating already tenuous sales trends in the more lucrative A3 side of the business. Is it any wonder just two vendors (Lexmark and Kyocera) offer today’s only fully credible A3 replacement-type A4 models?


But forget about the vendor side of the equation for a moment. Instead, look at what customers get from the latest crop of mostly sub-$1,000 A4 laser MFPs ... which they can buy instantly at dozens of places online, have UPS or FedEx deliver to their door, and be using tomorrow.


As much as the industry has come to denigrate ”speeds and feeds,” who doesn’t like faster better than slower? Today’s latest desktop MFPs offer color speeds in the range of 30-55 ppm and some monochrome models are up to 65 ppm. Nor is it just output speed. New single-pass duplex document feeders are enabling image capture at 20 ipm on up to 60 ipm on most models.


And vendors are at last getting serious about paper-handling. Not only is duplex a given for both input and output, a paper supply north of 1,000 sheets is hardly unusual. Even though most engines are still front-facing printer designs, today’s new machines are compact and require modest space. They’re easy to fit almost anywhere and relocate as needed.


Arguably the greatest progress has been in  usability. No longer are big touchscreens limited to pricey A3 devices and consumer AIOs. Color touchscreens on new laser MFPs measure up to 7”, and vendors are enabling tablet-style gestures and features. These enhanced UI’s are providing the basis for more powerful customization and personalization, user-defined workflows, downloadable apps, and simple but powerful solutions. Likewise, vendors are providing more and better tools for device management and MPS.


Finally, vendors aren’t yet getting enough credit for how they’re quietly but significantly bringing down page costs, albeit from levels that used to be downright embarrassing. There’s still more room for improvement on color pages, but monochrome costs are now pretty attractive. Across the board, vendors are offering more toner choices, and many of the new cartridges have unprecedented high yields. And keep in mind, these savings come without restricted access to supplies and without any need for a service contract ... unless that’s what one wants.


So what are the missing pieces? A few things come to mind, but I’d categorize them as making a good thing even better. On the product side, simple finishers would be a nice plus. That would be facilitated by the addition of more sideways print engines. And I’m still holding out hope for more A3-capable A4 products like Ricoh’s easy-to-overlook (apparently even for them) monochrome MP305 Plus. And we’re still lacking a toner program like HP’s Instant Ink. HP piloted a “professional” version of its inkjet supplies replenishment program in 2014, but nothing came of it. And while other vendors offer automated toner shipment programs, none yet has the simplicity or economy of Instant Ink.


 Nonetheless, as these final improvements begin to hit the market — as they undoubtedly will — they’ll quell some of the last blanket arguments in favor of A3 models for lots of SMB customers and for many enterprise workgroups. But even without additional improvements, you still won’t find a more robust and innovative MFP segment today than the A4 desktop business. So enjoy it


 


February 2017:  “Runts of the Litter”


 t’s one of those cold, hard facts of animal life. There’s often a runt or two in a litter of newborn dogs or cats. They can be cute and they may yet thrive, but the odds are stacked against runts from the get-go, and their early disadvantageous circumstances are hard to ever fully overcome.


Sadly, the same holds true for hardcopy vendors. Back in the beautiful, bountiful days of yore — when there was plenty of business to go around — runts could manage to hang on, perhaps exploit a particular niche, and work assiduously to stay out of the way of their bigger brethren. But those kinds of lives are increasingly difficult to maintain in a printing business that has peaked and now faces an unknown rate of decline.


Survival of the fittest dictates one of two possible outcomes for hardcopy runts. Either they’re sufficiently attractive to be bought, although perhaps at less-than-ideal prices, or they’ll simply exit. The latter process will be abrupt for some; others may linger on a few years, slashing expenses and milking the supplies and service annuity. But we’re beyond the point where spunk, grit or wishful thinking will save the day.


So who are these printing runts? Sadly, it’s a growing list that includes practically every vendor that falls below a certain hardcopy revenue bar. And I’d argue that bar keeps moving higher.


There are common threads among those on the list. None is highly diversified in print. Each has a fundamental technological limitation, whether that’s laser vs. inkjet, color vs. mono, A4 vs. A3. Most are focused narrowly on a particular sales channel. Some rely heavily on OEM suppliers or are themselves focused on OEM sales. Others have surprisingly narrow geographic coverage. While it may be counterintuitive, the majority have been doing what they’re doing in print for a very long time. And more often than not, they’re small pieces of larger entities.


Let’s start with the two most recent guests at the printer party, Pantum and Funai. Neither offers anything distinctive in terms of products or technology. They’ve made no real headway in a particular channel, category or geography. And they’re abysmal marketers. Plugging away a few more years won’t change any of that. Buh-bye.


And you can put Avision in almost the same category. It’s halfheartedly tried to leverage a background in scanners and offshore manufacturing to create a couple of midrange A3 and A4 mono laser MFPs that no other vendor or customer has shown an inkling to OEM or buy.


Casio is unique, but not in a good way. It’s made a few OK-ish A3 color LED print engines, but its OEM business has dried up. It’s also the only printer vendor anywhere with no MFPs, and it sells its Speedia line of printers only in Japan.


Then there’s NEC. The one-time would-be contender has scaled back its printing presence again and again such that today it OEM’s just a few models from Fuji Xerox and sells them only in Japan. It’s time to say goodbye for good.


Lenovo is a big company and a dominant PC player, but the collection of rebadged mostly mono A4 models it sells only in China have nothing to recommend them. And a development project with Ricoh has been a disappointment. This company has much bigger fish to fry.


Dell is in the same sort of leaky PC boat. Its big printing dreams of a decade ago have dwindled down to me-too OEM’d models in the US and Canada. It’s past the time to admit defeat and move on.


Also due for a dose of reality is Panasonic. Just when you think they finally get it, the company launches a half-dozen more A4 monochrome laser MFPs that get a few sales in a smattering of markets, but not in the US. Printing and Panasonic haven’t been a match for over a decade.


OKI is somewhat better off, but this vendor too needs to accept it will be perpetually in the third tier. However, it’s among the few on my list that could extract at least some kind of modest price in a sale to the right A3-centric MFP vendor.


The slow-motion demise of Muratec in printing is getting harder to watch. Clearly, being a nice company with nice people that treat others nicely isn’t enough. Fortunately, the company is involved in a half-dozen much better businesses.


Olivetti is the last of the full-line MFP relabellers. It offers no differentiation and few solutions, selling through tiny dealers in a handful of mostly European countries. And it generates about 1% of Telecom Italia’s revenue. Arrivederci!


Rounding out my list are two wanna-be production inkjet vendors. RISO is gradually shifting from outdated duplicators to mediocre presses, but the future looks far from rosy. Then there’s Memjet, which has spent an obscene amount of other people’s money, with very little to show for it. It’s time to give up and sell off.


And while Sharp and Toshiba aren’t officially on my watch list, it’s hard not to worry about their futures. At least these MFP operations should command OK prices from buyers someday.


 


January 2017:  “2017? It's Gonna be Yuge!”


It looks like Washington isn’t the only place this year where braggadocio and bombast are back with a vengeance. For separate but similar reasons, HP and Xerox want to make 2017 yuge for the MFP industry and for themselves. Each is seeking to foment its own “MAGA” moment in a declining global office printing business dominated by not-so-American makers. Time will tell if these latest hardcopy histrionics will pan out.


There was blood in the water as each vendor nervously sought to convince itself, its customers and its investors the other guy was wrong and destined to fail. But HP and Xerox were so obsessed with their own challenges, they underestimated Japanese vendors, and both companies ended up suffering as a result.


Last September, HP set the stage for 2017 when it announced plans to disrupt the “copier” market — a term every other vendor stopped using in the last millennium — by reinventing and replacing service-intensive boxes with superior multifunction printers based largely on failed Samsung devices. That crusade will commence this spring with the launch of sixteen A3-size laser and inkjet MFPs that will available in 54 specific configurations that differ mostly in terms of their bundled paper-handling accessories.


Not to be outdone, Xerox at its Wall Street investor conference in early December stated it would launch 29 new MFPs in mid-2017, which is more models than HP but fewer SKUs. Xerox said it will be “the largest new product launch in its history.” We’ll bide our time to see how really new these A3 and A4 MFPs actually are. Xerox has been milking the same old B&W A3 platform for 15 years, and its last “new” MFPs were differentiated only by a tiny firmware tweak and the addition of an “i” after the old model numbers.


Assuming the numbers of new devices are real and the launches happen as planned, HP and Xerox this year will add more models than any other MFP vendor launched last year, in some cases 50% to over 100% more new products.


Of course, one mustn’t overlook the fact HP and Xerox are facing some pretty tough headwinds that have been far from kind to their respective hardcopy operations of late, albeit in somewhat different ways. Also not a coincidence is that this latest last-man-standing battle over office MFPs is being waged after both companies have shed major parts of their respective business empires that until very recently each vendor had portrayed as being the epitome of synergy.


Likewise, the ultimate attraction — but also the Achilles heel — for the upcoming MFP salvos at HP and Xerox has more to do with channel than product or technology. By my count, this latest A3 push at HP will be that company’s seventh concerted effort to ignore, obsolete, or co-opt office equipment dealers. And Xerox’s newest pitch to those same dealers caps 20 years of yearning, learning, burning and churning that have yielded precious few gains. But Xerox calls it a “greenfield opportunity.”


Nonetheless, all these new models are to be so beautiful and really great. HP and Xerox this time promise to succeed bigly where every previous push has faltered. Just ask them. But don’t ask for lots of details. That would spoil the surprise. Anyway, details are for losers. Winners are happy with vision.


According to Xerox, channel partners “have always wanted our A3 products,” which somehow ignores the fact its MFPs have been there for the taking for years. And Xerox also says dealers have great confidence it will be here for the long haul. OK, if you say so. And HP is sticking with its “performance of copiers with the reliability and ease-of-use of printers” bloviating. Good thing we’ve never heard that one before.


Still, if I were a betting man — and I have to say I’m not — it would appear the odds are not in favor of either HP or Xerox succeeding, or succeeding as fully and fantastically as they need to in order to satisfy their impatient investors. So sad. Dealers are sticky, risk averse, and rightly focused on other priorities these days. Even if those new MFPs do all HP and Xerox are trying to convince the world they can do, it’s far from clear these vendors won’t just end up running faster to stay in the same place, while they hunt for an elusive future less dependant on print.


One of the biggest unintended consequences could easily be that Xerox and HP once again sharpen their foci obsessively and narrowly on themselves, leaving Ricoh, Canon, Konica Minolta, Sharp and Toshiba to keep on doing what they’ve been doing, which is to dominate selling and servicing of office MFPs, and then use that as a springboard for their cautiously gradual expansion into adjacent opportunities.


Believe me ... that’s what people are saying.


 


December 2016:  “The 'N' Word”


At the risk of overstating the obvious, the whole point of a newsletter is to report on and examine that which is ... NEW! So after publishing The MFP Report for over 21 years, I consider myself to be something of an expert on how newness is handled in the hardcopy industry. And what I’m here to say is that the often cavalier and occasionally craven way this industry handles what’s new is getting pretty darn old. As I frequently lament when talking to MFP vendors, if what they do perturbs or misleads me, just think what it probably does to a customer or a prospect.


There’s no better way to appreciate how vendors go astray with the concept of “new” than how they announce stuff. What I encounter more often than not any more is a classic “day late and a dollar short” double whammy.


The hardcopy industry no longer believes “timing is everything.” More and more, I stumble onto new products that pop up on a vendor’s web site or appear at online stores; these products never get properly (or even improperly) announced. Hear ye! Hear ye! If a product is worth being called “new,” it’s worth being announced. Of course, this isn’t to say all announcements have to be equal in breadth, depth or import.


The two alternatives to the non-announcement are only slightly better. One is the early, vague pre-announcement that is never followed up by a proper announcement. And the other is the long-after-the-fact announcement. As I write this, Ricoh has finally announced some pretty newsworthy A4 MFPs ... that shipped six months ago, and Funai has just announced a mundane AIO it’s been selling now for three months. Go figure.


Once a product is announced — or not announced, or pre-announced too early, or announced too late, as the case may be — I often encounter a litany of other issues and frustrations. And so does everyone else who devotes less interest and effort to your products than I.


Typically, I find vendors these days do one of three things, and increasingly they go for the full trifecta. First, vendors are extremely imprecise in how they choose to define what’s new. They fail to put any brackets around their bold claims. However, there are crucial differences between saying something is new to mankind, to the hardcopy industry, to a particular sales channel, to a specific product segment, or to just that vendor at that moment. All of these can be valid, but such qualifiers can’t be treated as optional.


Second, vendors often subscribe to the “more is better” school of marketing, so they cite a litany of “new” things in the “new” product that by any rationale definition are not new at all. Repeating in your announcement nice features carried over from the predecessor model, or things that are shared with your other current products, doesn’t magically make them new all over again. It’s like virginity; you get one shot and then you lose it.


Third, vendors who are busy tallying up so many new things that aren’t new, invariably overlook important things that are new ... or at least newsworthy. I’m struck by how often I end up using adjectives like first, best, only, fastest, cheapest, etcetera solely because of my own due diligence, rather than because a vendor has actually pointed out that stuff. Incidentally, vendors also should take credit when eliminating a shortcoming that was in the previous product. It shows you listen!


The flip side to all this is that once you’ve launched something, the “new” clock begins ticking. And by definition, nothing can be new forever or for a protracted period of time. Yet I’m continually flabbergasted how elastic the measure of newness has become. It’s routine for some companies to keep that “new” starburst next to products on their web sites six months or longer after the launch. That’s old!


And while we’re on the subject of web sites, I’ve yet to see a vendor whose “compare” button actually reveals any substantive differences between the old and new versions of two products. This is becoming especially troublesome among vendors who insist on keeping two or even three generations of products on their web sites until the very last old box in the channel is gone.


So far, I’ve been talking strictly about hardware, but the same issues are increasingly common when it comes to solutions, services, programs and more general business or strategic announcements. However, the dysfunction in each of these areas has its own particular gnarly twist.


When it comes to solutions and services, it’s apparently impolite to talk about anything tangible or detailed because it’s all so high-falutin’. Every solution and service is inherently new and a thing of value. Specificity would sully the innate beauty. And because programs are works in progress that continually grow and morph, they’re simultaneously always new yet timeless in the way they’re presented and described.


But by far the biggest problems arise when vendors pronounce new strategies that are not really new at all. This results in a vendor — Xerox is the prima facie case this month — providing no evidence for why its new pronouncements of old strategies should reasonably be expected to produce different results. New is getting so old.


 


November 2016:  “You Got Some Splainin' to Do”


When I was a little kid, “I Love Lucy” was already in reruns. I watched it every day before catching the school bus to my half-day of kindergarten. It’s amazing what sticks with you from that early sitcom exposure. These days, I sure feel a lot like Ricky Ricardo when I try to make heads or tails out of MFP vendors’ latest announcements of their new services-type things. As Ricky would so often say to Lucy, “You got some splainin’ to do.”


Permit me to put this gripe in context. Announcing and promoting new MFP hardware has always been at best a mixed bag. A few vendors do it better than others, but almost none are terribly consistent. Some products inexplicably get short shrift. And vendors have an uncanny ability to emphasize features that are neither important nor new, while glossing over or even ignoring significant improvements. And MFP software marketing has always been a big step down from there, with scant attention devoted to purpose, features, components or pricing.


But it’s when hardcopy vendors get beyond tangible “things” (i.e., machines and code) that they really go off the rails. And the situation has gone from bad to worse across the industry in the past few years. It would be laughable — it’s already an unending catalyst for snark on my part — if it weren’t for the fact this kind of marketing malfeasance is so terribly detrimental to the whole industry and its future. I really do wonder how a typical sales prospect is expected to extract meaning or develop any actionable intent as a result of the vacuity, inanity and vapidity that characterize the usual pitches for services.


Let’s start with nomenclature. MFP vendors have decades of experience with paper, documents, files and content. But when it comes to pitching new service offerings, they’re all in the business of “work” ... workflow, workstyle technology, workstyle innovation, smart work, working smarter, a new world of work, and work that works better. I fully expect the next services pitch to cross my desk will feature a CIO dressed as Snow While singing “Whistle While You Work” or outfitted as Ru Paul proclaiming “Work it, girl!”


It’s too bad vendors are putting all their work into coming up with cute slogans that feature the word “work,” rather than doing the real work of fleshing out the words that describe exactly what work they do to make work really work.


Next, I really bristle when vendors tell me to think of their new offerings as services ... or software ... or solutions. Take your pick. MFP vendors in their collective wisdom have decided these very different terms for very divergent offerings with very different delivery models are really all the same. As an analyst and a writer, I’m left scratching my head. If a vendor doesn’t realize the critical differences between services, software and solutions, is it really the right company to come into mine and fix my work?


The one thing these vendors do know is that their latest stuff is intended to make really, really BIG! changes in a business. Revamping a paper-intensive application or a forms-based process ... where’s the glory in that? So instead, Xerox’s latest workflowy thing will “automate the way organizations cope with globalization.” Ricoh’s new servicey thing will help you “realize your ideas in real time.” And Konica Minolta’s recent solutiony things are said to be “redefining the modern sustainable workplace.”


And even though vendors may not be able to tell you what their new offerings encompass with an acceptable degree of detail, they’re enamored with the fact they have so many of them. That’s why new service offerings are always in a list or a group or a portfolio.


In addition to being numerous, hardcopy vendors’ new services are typically vertical ... except when they’re horizontal. And I’m still waiting for the elusive diagonal service offering. Regardless of the orientation, the one trait these services share is they’re vague. After all, why would any prospective customer actually want to know the boring details of what was under the hood in a particular MFP vendor’s proposed service offering? The shared philosophy among these vendors is a cross between “We don’t need no stinking details!” and “You can’t handle the details.”


But humor me. Just perhaps, there’s a wee smidgen of value in vendors communicating and customers understanding a few pesky details in some of these fancy-schmancy new services.


Maybe some crazy customers are silly enough to think they’ll benefit from knowing what software is used in that service ... and who developed it. They might ponder how that software integrates with their own applications ... and what it costs to achieve said integration. And they might even be dippy enough to wonder how long such a service engagement lasts ... and how many people are involved ... and what the typical cost is ... and what the ROI is. And those really kooky customers may even wish to know what’s so different or better about this particular service versus similar services proffered by other hardcopy companies and more IT-savvy vendors.


But apparently no one but me — or Ricky Ricardo — is prone today to telling the Lucy vendors of the world, “You got some splainin’ to do.”



 
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