RealTime IT News

Spilling More Ink in The Digital Realm

Forget the printer wars. Ink is the new blood sport in the printing market, thanks to the budding growth of digital photo prints.

Get ready for users and vendors to spill more of it, with smiles all around.

In a consumer and business world utterly saturated with printers that do everything but take out the cat, a new niche is starting to emerge: The single-function photo printer, typically printing snapshot-size photos on glossy paper.

In addition, more and more multi-function printers that copy, fax and scan are now shipping with all kinds of memory readers for photos.

Printer makers, feeling the pinch of dropping prices for printers, are looking to build back their margins on ink sales. Printing digital photos is in that sweet spot.

Looks like consumers are in the mood to oblige, too. We're seeing a subtle shift among digital camera owners to print more images beyond the usual pack of early adopters. It's easy to see why.

Seems that no matter how much digital photography has reshaped the old guard of the photography industry, our connection to printing and publishing images dear to us is too strong to snap off after a few years of digital device adoption.

Viewing them on a device is one thing. Holding a glossy, sticking it on your fridge, framing it, slapping it on your t-shirt – the ease of that from a digital file is the next growth phase to watch.

That's not to say photo printing has ramped up with the explosion of digital camera adoption. Far from it.

Printer sales in the consumer realm are overall still fairly flat, according to IDC, as well as InfoTrends, which tracks consumer behavior with digital photo and merchandise.

But single-function photo printing is spreading, along with sales of multi-function inkjets that cover this category, mostly in the direction of retail outlets, notes Sandra Collins, senior consultant with research firm InfoTrends. She's projecting about a 124 percent growth in photo-centric printers between this year and next.

"More people are buying cameras, but that doesn't mean people are printing more," she cautions. After all, folks are also enjoying the freedom of choosing what not to print from their digital troves.

Plus, a larger chunk of the photo-printing volume is flowing to retail kiosks, for example. It's a perfect outlet for busy moms: drop the photo disk at a drug store's printing area, pick out more diapers.

Still, InfoTrends reckons that the retail value of all inkjet cartridges for desktop-type inkjet printers was $13.5 billion in the U.S. alone (that's a different ink category than retail kiosks). This year, it expects that number to rise to $15.1 billion, up by 11.8 percent, according to InfoTrends' John Shane.

Wouldn't you think that the younger generation, which never experienced analogs like vinyl records, would be pooh-poohing printing? After all, why print when you can share your images on a Web site and create a digital equivalent of a scrapbook?

InfoTrends' data suggests otherwise. Turns out the 18-to-24 age group is the most likely to print, as well as those 25 to 34 years old. And they capture more images too, between 141 and 143 every three months.

On average though, the firm found that about 67 percent of digital camera owners in its sample study most often print at home. About 37 percent of that group are digital camera owners who print in multiple locations.

Keith Kmetz, hardcopy research analyst for IDC, is seeing a lot of blurring in the printer area because of the emerging printing trends from digital images.

"We're even seeing color laser devices incorporating photo slots," he says, as well as general inkjet devices challenging the photo-centric printers hitting the consumer market.

It's just a different kind of photo-printing dynamic at play now. People are sharing their photos online, and perhaps printing from those sites, such as HP's  Snapfish.com.

It's not explosive growth, but it's enough to give printers heart and give camera owners a new sense of ownership and creativity about how they use those digital files.

All the major printer players are adding these slots to their printers, with visions of more ink cartridges spilling into their margins.

Lexmark , for example, recently introduced a 450 Series printer that does 4 x 6 glossies in lots of different incarnations: photos, scrapbook features, greeting cards, index cards.

It's also the first photo-centric printer that lets you burn CDs as well as read from one. So not only is the company targeting folks fed up with using their computers for simple image printing, but it's also addressing the backup and security for those precious images.

I played around with the 450 and found myself delightfully surprised with the ease of use and how it fueled my creative juices.

Although the quick-start guide was utterly out of synch with the LCD readout explaining how to get started, it's intuitive enough and similar in menu format to most cell phones and kiosks that getting to print was easy enough with some hacking around.

The main menu could use a little less tunneling to get to cropping, red-eye and other retouching features. But my frustrations melted away once the stunning images from my 8 Megapixel camera rolled off the printer.

Lexmark P450
Lexmark's single-function workhorse.
Source: Lexmark

In a snap, I had joined the growing numbers of digital camera owners reconnecting with that tactile pleasure of holding a photo image in their hands, sticking it on a fridge, or framing it for display.

Truckloads of photo-focused printers are already rumbling into the market, at pricepoints of about $200 or so, and more are on the way this fall.

They're carrying with them a real on-demand printing world, an ability to connect with our images the old-fashioned way, and new avenues of creativity with digital formats. Let the ink spill.

Erin Joyce is executive editor at internetnews.com.