Following HP’s announcement that it was shuttering PageWide for the office, we decided to take a look back at HP’s history with office inkjet and the evolution of the PageWide.
HP 2000C – The Saga Begins
Released in 1998, the HP 2000C was a serial moving head desktop inkjet printer that separated its four large-capacity ink supply cartridges from its four high-nozzle-count thermal print heads again to achieve lower CPPs and fast print speeds. It was positioned against lower-end desktop lasers for business but was never really successful competing with lasers directly — its real-world throughput was tortoise-like in comparison to desktop lasers, its text and color print quality wasn’t a match for laser printers of its era, and of course, laser bias played a role. However, the 2000C did lay the long-term groundwork for moving inkjet into the office. HP’s very successful OfficeJets, which would emerge in subsequent years, were far quicker, produced better quality output, and had better features than the 2000C. They created a durable and highly successful small business and home office printer franchise for the company between entry-level/consumer DeskJets and its LaserJet business machines.
Technologically, the HP 2000C demonstrated that separating the thermal inkjet head from its ink supply was not only possible and cost-effective, but necessary to achieve the moving printhead speed and ink cartridge supply life needed to make inkjet a credible and preferred alternative to lasers for SMB and SOHO buyers – especially for color output needs. The separate ink tank and printhead architecture led to the development of the successful DesignJet family of wide-format machines.
‘HP Edgeline Technology: Redefining business printing’
In October 2006, HP unveiled the technological marvel that was the Edgeline — a pair of machines that HP said produced the color quality of traditional inkjets at laser printer speeds from 57 to 71 ppm. The fruits of what was reported to be a $1.4 billion R&D investment (some whispered it was more like $3 or $4 billion), Edgeline could print up to 71 entire A4/letter pages per minute in black and color in a single pass, or an A3 page in two passes. The design employed two printhead stations, each with three 10,560 nozzle heads – but in Edgeline, it was the paper that passed by these stationary print heads, not the other way around, similar to the firm’s LaserJet printers. Edgeline architecture also featured a print head that sprayed a hydrophilic bonding agent to the paper prior to spraying the print ink, producing near-instant ink drying. HP suggested that Edgeline users would see a 30% drop in printing costs compared to existing marking technologies. (Note: In 2006, HP also announced its HP Photosmart PS1000 Express Station and the Photosmart pm1000 Microlab printer, also using an inkjet array similar to that used in the Edgeline, but those machines were marketed to retailers for on-demand photo printing applications only.) HP said it planned to tailor some of the more than 200 imaging and printing solutions within its portfolio to build industry-specific offerings for major vertical markets in the public and commercial sectors. What was the target market? In its announcement, HP stated, “… its largest-ever rollout of multifunction printers [were] aimed at replacing copiers in businesses of all sizes.”
Unlike its other business printers, HP marketed Edgeline printers only under managed contracts through dealers, which included Danka as a national distributor (yeah, it was that long ago) and through its existing VAR channel. Danka said it had provided extensive, organization-wide training on the Edgeline, and planned to roll out the new machines to 55 U.S. markets. HP never announced a “price” for an Edgeline, but industry observers suggested that the machine would cost $20,000-$25,000. When released, HP profiled its target Edgeline customer: a high-volume business user needing a color multifunction machine having a monthly AMPV of 20,000 – 60% mono, 40% color – under a routine four-year agreement for service and supplies. This business model was (and still is) the predominant selling motion for copier/BTA office machine dealers – a fraternity HP needed to recruit to get Edgelines to its target customers. HP said it was aiming the technology at markets such as retail printing solutions, industrial printing and high-volume office printing.
Sifting through old posts from various sources about Edgeline, it appears that many dealers were quite satisfied with how the machine performed at client sites, calling it “bulletproof” (even touting that the more prints every machine produced, the better it appeared to operate), and fond of the operator panel capabilities. Others complained about a raft of issues or shortcomings of the machine – most notably lack of finishing capabilities and a limited set of specs for types of print jobs and media it could handle.
One key attribute appeared to separate the Edgeline from competitors: some noted that the unit’s color print quality wasn’t quite as good as a color laser, particularly in full-page color print jobs. Others disagreed, of course. Two things about printer output I learned decades ago:
- Users never go backward in print quality: once they become accustomed to a level of output quality, a new model producing lesser quality is of no interest.
- Print quality is measured on a completely different plane for color compared to black and white. Prints in color, such as human skin tones, the color of the sky, or familiar animals, trigger emotional responses in the viewer that are far more complex than those in monochrome. Edgeline wasn’t built to produce Pantone-compatible colors.
The color image quality issue came to limit Edgeline’s application range for some resellers and users to that of a monochrome printer offering spot, illustrative, or highlight color capabilities. From HP’s business perspective, this limited the typical page volume usage for installed Edgelines, and dramatically reduced the volume of color inks used – an unappetizing and disappointing outlook for Edgeline’s potential adoption curve and its profitability. Further, unlike competing “copier” brands, the Edgeline, combined with a few other HP models as a limited product assortment, wasn’t really a complete product line in the dealer print/copy universe. A common and telling refrain from the dealer channel was pretty clear about HP’s offer: BTA dealers, unlike IT VARs, carry (or marry!) brands, not individual products, because the nature of the business is long-term user contracts, comprehensive client connections and obligations including installation, parts and maintenance, supplies, technical support, operator/user training, applications integration/support, and later migration when upgrades come along. In the BTA channel, therefore, one “hot” box isn’t enough to break deep and long-standing relationships.
By January 2009 (a very difficult economic period), two years after Edgeline shipments commenced, HP announced it was in the process of laying off 150 to 200 staff at its Vancouver, Washington site, including the Edgeline Development and Operations Group, with plans to move those groups overseas (Singapore).
Edgeline had competitive advantages and apparently a group of very satisfied users, but it was not enough to overcome entrenched competition. What went wrong? HP has not publicly stated a reason for the withdrawal of the Edgeline, but the issues we’ve stated here offer a pretty good picture.
Greg Walters’ The Death of the Copier blog made an insightful comment summarizing the Edgeline experience: “If you’re going to attack the copier marketplace, you need to make a copier or MFP centric device, not a printer centric device.”
So, after only a few years, losing money because enough dealers were not placing enough Edgelines in the field and so not printing enough pages to make the product profitable, and facing the necessity of additional significant capital and engineering investments to develop and build the next-generation of Edgeline (not to mention overall restructuring in IPG driven by the then-severe recession), HP withdrew the Edgeline family from the market with no successor named at that time.
It is entirely possible that killing Edgeline was necessary to free up the considerable development dollars and resources needed to bring Edgeline-class technology down to the desktop printer arena – which was The Holy Grail. Full page-width array inkjet in the office wasn’t dead but would have to wait for another time…presumably after HP had learned from its Edgeline experiences. Further, subsequent HP announcements for photo kiosk printing devices and Web presses successfully utilized Edgeline printhead technology. Despite the failure to achieve critical market mass, Edgeline served notice on the printer universe: it proved that full-width page array thermal ink jet was not only feasible but was a reality, that HP had a huge lead in commercializing that technology, that anyone with brains could foresee that HP would bring that technology down to the desktop sooner or–later – and perhaps then it would challenge laser for domination in the office print/copy arena, and elsewhere.
Alas poor Edgeline … we hardly knew ye.