Multifunction Space Heats Up

The sometimes sleepy multifunction printer (MFP) segment is about to heat up, with Sharp launching an all-out assault at the high end of the market and Xerox planning to augment its SMB line.

Equally important may be what the moves say about the potential dollar signs those vendors see in the channel for units that print, copy and scan. Along with the fact that their direct-sales upside isn't what it used to be, the market for MFP products is one of the few that isn't completely saturated.

That may have been Sharp's thinking during the two years of planning prior to its debut last month of its new line, which it says will offer VARs margins in the 17 percent to 23 percent range. The first two models, the DM-3551 and DM-4551 MFPs, are targeted at midsize and large enterprises, are networked-based and are priced in the $11,000 to $14,000 range.

Bypassing traditional copier dealers, Tech Data will be the exclusive distributor for the devices and will help recruit and certify VARs. For its part, Sharp is hoping VARs will come from the ranks of those seeking an alternative to Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark. Indeed, Ed McLaughlin, president of Sharp Document Solutions Company of America, says that HP's recent decision to combine its PC and printing units into a new Imaging & Personal Systems Group will be a boon to his sales prospects.

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"I think it's the best thing that ever happened to our business," McLaughlin says. "They are going to be more focused on computer-related business and less focused on imaging."

As for Xerox, which has long had a large direct presence, it has been working hard to build up its MFP channel ever since it began offering low-end, black-and-white models through resellers in 2003 via a pilot program.

Later this year, Xerox will add to its SMB channel lineup a model it says is the first MFP to use Xerox's proprietary solid-ink color technology. Longer term, the document-centric giant plans to streamline its partner programs, moving from a multitude of product-oriented programs to a more centralized approach that will provide one-stop training.

Both moves are being orchestrated by James Firestone, the executive named president of Xerox North America last October. "We have a big opportunity in SMB," Firestone says. "We have high expectations for expanding our participation in that market."

"I think their timing couldn't be better," adds Alan Lamb, president of PrintStream, a Dublin, Ohio-based Xerox reseller.

As an added bonus, Xerox's revamping of its partner program should ease the sales cycle for VARs such as PrintStream.

"We're trying to break these product-driven constraints on our channel program and make them more customer-driven," Firestone adds.