By now the theory of A3 MFP pages and placements migrating to A4 devices is far from groundbreaking.  Most industry watchers have been beating that drum for years and the key printer vendors have touted the A4 value proposition for even longer.  We’ve all agreed on the hardware price, page volume, page size, and emerging market reasons behind this transition and watched as the hold-out copier vendors lined up and tossed their hats in the A4 ring, while the key enterprise A4 players grew their market share in leaps and bounds.

However, the role and relevance of big-box A3 MFPs has remained relatively steady for a variety of very good reasons.  On the product side, A3 MFPs’ intrinsic usage volume, cost per page, paper handling, and workflow solutions advantages have allowed the copier-based MFP to remain the center of most office printing environments.  From a channel perspective, there is no shortage of A3-pushing feet on the street, and although dealers continue to expand to new printing and non-printing technologies, the maintenance requirements of these relatively complex devices play far too high of a role in dealers’ services-led business models to justify anything but selling more copiers.  Meanwhile, A3 MFPs offer the level of functionality needed to drive vendors’ solutions-led strategies (whether its push, pull, or just lip service) and the leading A3 manufacturers are far too invested in copier technology to just back-out or change the course of their respective ships.

So there you have it.  The economic and technical factors at play within the overlapping A3 and A4 MFP segments suggest that, while A4s may continue to grow share, A3 MFPs will remain a valuable part of the office printing equation for some time.

Now if the world around printing would just evolve at the same pace and in the same direction as it did between say 2007 and early 2010, we’d have this engine format argument pretty much figured out.  But something happened in the last 14 months and it may very well have changed the way workers access and print information as we know it.

I hate to bring the discussion back to tablets and mobility, but this is where printable data will increasingly come from, folks.  Sure iPads and other tablets have their limits and would certainly not be defined as content creation devices, but the creep of tablets into the workplace that we’ve seen since last May has been funded through most of these workers’ personal bank accounts, providing even more proof that the ITization of these consumer devices cannot be ignored.

We are way too deep into this blog to debate the needed advances in mobile printing or even what will be printed from tablets, which are both very important, and will have their own impacts on the evolution of the MFP.  However, it would certainly make sense for us to step away from our speeds, feeds, and CPCs comfort zone to think about the printing experience expectations of the average tablet-owning worker, especially the average tablet-owning worker of the future.

If their device is always with them, turns on in seconds, and offers access to all the information they need with a push of a button, what is the chance that they will have the patience to trek across the office to the centralized copier and wait for their job while the guy in front of them finishes off his 500-page run?  Now what is the chance that they will repeat this process a second time?

Lets try another far less hypothetical analogy…

Before we knew what TiVo or DVRs were, we were largely OK with commercials.  Some were funny, they gave us a few minutes to actually communicate with our family, and they paid for the programming we watched for free.  Now that I have a DVR, I either skip over commercials if the show is recorded or hate on the commercials if I’m watching a program live.  We could probably make the same analogies with microwaves, cars, the cotton gin and just about every other technology that came out and shifted an agreed-upon trend off its linear evolution course.

Hopefully this is making sense.  We in the printing world want to be the TiVO.  We do not want to be the commercial break.  Our job is to provide workers with the ability to access and communicate information as conveniently as possible.  If the tablet becomes the TiVO, then unfortunately that would make printing the commercial break and workers would either skip over it or hate it and eventually the debate over A3 vs. A4 would be as relevant as Taste Great vs. Less Filling.  You know why you remember that commercial right?  Yup, no TiVo.

Ok, so now we get to the part that can be hard for us analysts – being constructive.  We need distributed work environments.  No more walking, no more waiting, and much more accessibility and connectivity.  It may not be easy breaking it to your clients that even though their last MPS overhaul resulted in the consolidation of their fleet, we need to spread MFPs and printers back across the office to allow them to print with the level of convenience that they will come to expect.  On the bright side, those consolidated printers and MFPs probably didn’t support mobile print anyway.

Fortunately many of the competitive moves that manufacturers have made in recent years to keep an edge in the aforementioned A3/A4 race have positioned the print industry to support the changing behavior of its users relatively well.  We’ve seen a continued decline in A3 hardware prices, CPCs, and footprints in recent years, which should allow for more even distribution of these large-size and high-ticket devices across the office.  Meanwhile, new A4 MFPs continue to emerge with larger control panels, improved scanning features, and more robust solutions capabilities to address their workflow shortcomings, thus positioning these systems to stand on their own without requiring a nearby copier for more demanding applications.

This convergence certainly suggests that MFPs are heading in the right direction, even if vendors largely made these moves with their competitors in mind, rather than their users.  However, given that prioritizing the competition over the client is a product strategy that will only work for so long, I found recent statements from two A3 powerhouses especially significant.

In just the last two months we’ve seen the idea of changing user behavior and the related need to support decentralized printing environments emerge as key components of both Xerox and Ricoh’s strategies for supporting the printing needs of tomorrow’s worker.  In Ricoh’s 17th Mid-Term Management Strategy covering the next three fiscal years, the vendor indicated that it realizes that the way businesses view and access information is changing, requiring it to expand connectivity to mobile devices and the cloud and adjust its product lines from expensive and complicated systems to reasonably priced and easy to use systems.  Similarly, at Xerox’s recent analyst briefing the vendor suggested that the knowledge worker’s needs are changing to more distributed and accessible solutions, requiring a shift to smaller and more local devices.

I loved each of these statements and was very surprised to see it come from one of them in particular.  After years of price wars and market share races, user-centric strategies like this would surely make Gutenberg, Haloid, and Carlson proud.  No mention of costs or speeds.  No mention of using technology to tie-in services (in these specific statements anyway), just anticipating worker requirements and simplifying their processes.   Assuming that the print environment actually does transition to a decentralized structure, it is hard not to imagine that vendors who properly aligned their products and strategies to match these needs will also benefit from their foresight.  And Gap Intelligence will still have the industry’s best pricing and TCO services when vendors turn their attention back to the competition.