Can excellent marketing of Lasers prevent Pagewide acceptance in the office?

Certainly, masterful marketing plays a key role in the success of a product line; yet, will excellent marketing by a world-class brand sustain an inferior product?  For the astute, who are willing to learn from the mistakes of others, IBM’s experience selling printers as the incumbent against a mere printer industry entrant provides a ready object lesson.

Actually, there was a time in the 1980s when IBM was the printer incumbent and a primarily calculator manufacturer, HP, was the challenger.  The outcome of that contest is apparent now, but it did not seem so obvious at the time to the participants.  Therefore, the battle for market share between these two industry giants has instruction for us today as we contemplate which printing technology will dominate the future and how we should act accordingly.

IBM had a range of print technologies from the fast and inexpensive dot matrix Quickwriter, to the thermal transfer ribbon Quietwriter, to the superior print quality (PQ) daisy wheel Wheelwriter, and various line printers, all the way up to the 3800 data center laser printer.  Each technology had differentiating positive attributes.   Particularly, the Quietwriter: it was, well, quiet (yes, there was a time when printing was actually a loud, thought interrupting process: “quiet” offered differentiation).    The line printers were fast and relatively low cost, true, but they had poor PQ and would not fit on a desk. The impressive 3800 accepted output at 200+ plus pages per minute directly from a mainframe computer!  IBM had all the bases covered.  What could go wrong? The marketing giant was poised to dominate into the new millennia.

HP, however, eyed the growing personal computer market and clearly coveted a share of the associated printing annuity business model.  Experimenting with several technologies, HP finally settled on the Canon desktop laser engine.  Recognizing the opportunity, HP committed to taking all of Canon’s volume capacity, and Canon committed to the HP brand to sell their engines.  The partnership borne spawned dramatic growth.

IBM knew the tide was turning circa 1988.  One marketing response was to initiate a program that utilized product developers from the lab to assist in positioning printers to customers.  The idea was that when the products were properly explained by experts, the customer would come to see their value.    This author, a former electrical engineer at home in the lab, had an illuminating year long experience riding shotgun with the industry’s best sales and marketing team.  Better yet was obtaining a life-cycle view of the Wheelprinter, having participated in its design, transferring to manufacturing to build it, and then selling it in the field.  Being a proud creator may make the fall doubly hard upon realization that one’s daisy wheel printer “baby” does not fare well against a more productive HP device with “good enough” PQ.  An entrant’s market disruption can carry sting.  As customers came to understand laser printers’ productivity and quietness, laser sales gained momentum.  No market position or program could stop the tsunami.

The printer contest between IBM and HP ended when IBM’s office printing division became Lexmark, which quickly focused on laser printers and dropped the legacy technologies.    It is interesting to ponder how the outcome might have been different had IBM, with one of the first laser printers in the 3800 mainframe device in the mid 1970s, had the vision of lasers being the office print technology of choice by the mid 1980s.

The fruitfulness of this discussion is more than a stroll down memory lane or wistful contemplation of what might have been: dynamics are currently taking place in the office printing industry between the now incumbent laser technology, and the rising Pagewide technology.  When laser technology was the challenger, it had to offer other attributes to overcome the daisy wheel incumbent’s superior PQ.  Now, as the incumbent, laser offers superior PQ to hold off its challenger, Pagewide.  Can Pagewide muster enough other positive attributes to disrupt the office printing market — as laser technology disrupted the market strength of the daisy wheel legacy?

The primary driver in laser’s favor when it disrupted the market was productivity, which was essentially a speed statement because early desktop lasers often cost 2x more than a slower daisy wheel or dot matrix printer.  Today the analogous feature to productivity is cost/performance.  The industry is looking for ways to lower cost, not just increase speed.  In this environment, Pagewide offers lower cost and higher productivity relative to similar class color lasers.  Therefore, Pagewide will have a compelling advantage.  As scale is achieved and the technology matures, it will be interesting to see if a color Pagewide device can be cost/performance competitive with a mono laser.  If that event occurs, disruption will accelerate.

A secondary driver in laser’s favor when it disrupted the market was quietness, as daisy wheel and dot matrix printers are fundamentally noisy.  Today it is taken for granted that a printer should be quiet, and it would be nearly impossible to sell a noisy model.  The analogous feature to quietness is overall environmental impact.  It is not enough to just not disturb the work environment with noise.  The entire environmental impact of printing must be minimized, including power burned and waste stream materials (such as consumable packaging) produced.   By this measure, Pagewide has a clear advantage over laser with considerably less power used and considerably less materials cast into the waste stream.

The attributes of maximum cost/performance and minimum environmental impact will be taken for granted in future printer selection.  Pagewide will dominate the marketing space with these messages.  Certainly, as Pagewide’s improving PQ obtains the “good enough” threshold, the compelling space for lasers will diminish to a niche, even with an excellent marketing program.

Please contact the author, Tim Strunk, at to learn about Photizo’s Ink In The Office Advisory Service.

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