Are Universal Print Drivers a Competitive Advantage for HP?

News Analysis: Back in 2005, HP developed its Universal Print Driver. Though popular among HP users, other top printer vendors do not appear to be following suit. Does this give HP a leg up on the competition?

In computers, a printer driver is software that enables a users PC to communicate commands such as "print" to a users printer or scanner by translating the programming codes into code that the users printer can recognize.

Printer drivers also provide users with options such as how many copies, whether the user wants to print in color or black and white, what size image the user wants, or if the user wants to print on one side or two.

However, there are an abundance of individual printers, printer servers and print drivers, forcing companies to manage all of these devices individually, which has made the process both time-consuming and potentially expensive.

"Today, most businesses use printer-specific drivers, where a unique driver is required for each device model in use," said Vince Ferraro, vice president of marketing for the HP LaserJet Business. "In larger businesses, the technical staff must certify, deploy, update and support dozens or even hundreds of drivers."

In an effort to try and streamline printer management, Hewlett-Packard developed the UPD (Universal Print Driver) back in 2005, which provides users with a single print driver for all HP printing devices.

HP recently reported that since its launch, 2 million copies of its UPD had been downloaded from its Web site.

"Developing universal print drivers is a compelling argument for any brand as they should increase speed to market across printer offering portfolios, especially with large operating system events," said Keith Kmetz, printer analyst for the Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm IDC.

HPs UPD uses SNMP (simple network management protocol) to talk to the printer and then creates a driver and user interface that can adapt to the features installed on the device, helping to provide the user with a common interface for all printers as well as the ability to access features installed on the device.

"A common user interface simplifies the user experience and helpdesk support and can also reduce driver administration, Ferraro said.

Peter Grant, printer analyst for the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, a technology research firm, believes that HPs UPD is beneficial to those who are looking for a central drive to control their printing needs.

"HPs UPD has been in the works for a long time, requiring HP to align the many different printer controllers to a standard design, which allows a smart printer driver to go out and see what printer it is working with on the fly to provide users with the options that it offers," Grant told eWEEK.

HPs UPD also helps IT departments by enabling them to "save the time and money associated with testing, deploying and managing multiple product-specific drivers," Ferraro said.

"For IT, it is easier to have one tool set to manage all of the diverse printers they might have to support and the more these printers operate the same, the easier it is for IT to manage, monitor and support," Kmetz said.

As a whole, Grant said UPDs can benefit a business in several ways because "a universal print driver can reduce Help Desk call for printer support, reduce tech support costs by reducing tracking, maintaining of printer drivers for a company wide felt of printers as well as reduce training costs, support costs and improve user satisfaction."

"For the end users, it is a common experience from the client [the PC] in using any and all printers with the same drivers, such as tabs, set up and defaults, paper trays, as well as a common way to install the drivers," Kmetz added.

When asked if other printing manufacturers will follow HP and develop UPDs, Grant said that Xerox has been developing theirs for years but that it does not support their MFPs (multifunctional peripherals) yet.

"If you standardize on Xeroxs new products, then you have a better chance of getting it all to work with one driver," Grant said. "Xerox has the resources and desire to solve the support issue via a UPD."

However, both Grant and Kmetz agree that UPDs, though beneficial to businesses, will not necessarily become a significant trend across the entire printing industry due to issues in sourcing, expense and customer demand.

Out of the top five printer companies, which were HP, Canon, Epson, Lexmark International and Dell, mentioned in "IDCs Worldwide Quarterly Hardcopy Peripheral Tracker Quarterly", only HP has developed a universal print driver.

When asked if their company would be able to keep up with HPs UPD, Canon, Epson and Dell declined to comment while Lexmark told us to "stay tuned."

"Other printer vendors see it as a huge expense to align their products controller designs to get this advantage, plus they dont have the large install base of current customers who are asking for it," Grant said.

"Universal print drives can be less suited for brands which source products from multiple providers, as there are some issues such as color rendering which are not always optimized for each and every printer the same way," Kmetz said.

Despite the obstacles that other vendors see with developing a UPD, what can be surmised from industry analysts interviewed is that HP and Xerox, who have significant resources, may see user advantages in UPD that translate in to possible competitive advantages that can be marketed.

"Brands with universal print drivers with proven track records may be more attractive to IT departments," Kmetz said.

"HP holds 80 percent market share for monochrome workgroup printers in the U.S., which means that their large customer base that has standardized on HP printer can all capture savings from reduced support cost," Grant said. "With their UPD, HP has created a barrier for others to get in."

"This is big for HP because they have a large installer base, and it is also a competitive advantage for HP moving forward as older HP printers that are not supported are replaced with newer HP printers that work with the UPD," Grant said. "With their UPD, HP has created a barrier for others to get in."


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