Copiers and Printers Warm Up in Battle For the Printed Page

Sometimes, despite all the new technology, we rely on old habits.

For example, have you ever printed out a document, then run over to the copy machine to make copies? Unless you're doing a large run, it's crazy not to rely on the printer for the extra copies.

In fact, your future copying decisions could affect the huge battle shaping up between the computer printer and the copy machine. After years of peaceful coexistence, big printer companies like Hewlett-Packard are facing off against copier titans such as Xerox. At stake: billions of dollars in revenues, the future of entire corporations, and Japan's toehold in the marketplace.

Some people suggest it's the first shot in the revolution that will end the reign of paper.

Yes, I know. Every expert who has predicted the paperless office has been buried by a blizzard of bleached pulp that keeps growing every year. Last year, the United States printed so many newspapers, magazines, catalogs, office memos, and neighborhood newsletters that it would amount to more than 12 trillion sheets of 8.5-by-11-inch paper, according to Hewlett-Packard.

That's enough paper to build a stack that would encircle the earth three times or reach a third of the way to the moon. So printed paper won't disappear anytime soon. But consider this: Two huge paper-printed technologies are rapidly consolidating into one.

"The worlds are coming together, particularly in the office," says Xerox's chairman, Paul Allaire. "There's no question that we will be competing in the same place."

Counters Kurt Barats, manager of digital printing for Hewlett-Packard: "I think the copier is going to go the route of the typewriter."

As offices get networked, workers increasingly zip their documents around electronically. When they want hard copies, they're not likely to run off to the traditional stand-alone copier.

So copiers are going digital so they can be networked, especially in Japan. In its last fiscal year, 40 percent of copiers sold there were digital, says Tomohiro Sakanushi, manager of system solutions for Ricoh, which sells more copiers in Japan than anyone else. "The digital market is growing very rapidly."

But there's a catch. Only Japan's largest copier companies have the resources and expertise to make the transition to digital machines, industry insiders say. The rest face a bleak future of declining sales.

Even the transition to digital may not be enough to save the copier. Technically, there's not a lot of difference between digital copiers and computer printers. Copiers tend to cost more, but because they use toner more efficiently, they make cheaper copies. They excel at high-volume jobs that are printed, collated, and stapled or bound at a central location within the office. Computer printers, meanwhile, are spread all over the office, much closer to the workers and better suited for small document runs.

"I think the copier is dead in the long run," says Charles LeCompte, president of Lyra Research, an imaging-industry research firm based in Newton, Mass. Of course, the printer's days may be numbered too, thanks to the Internet, he adds. "Sometime in the not-so-distant future, people are going to be comfortable sending everything by e-mail."

But Mr. Barats of Hewlett-Packard thinks the opposite will happen. Although people may print out a smaller share of electronic information, the Internet will create such an explosion of material that printers will create even bigger paper blizzards.

Don't get buried.

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