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HP Moving Closer To A Retail Printing System

If you are really on the inside in the photo industry you know what an NDA is.

This is the designation for a document called a Non Disclosure Agreement. I'm often asked to sign such a statement so that a manufacturer can show me the details of a new product and gain from me the promise to not disclose information about it to anyone else until a specific release date. It works for us both in that what I write is not published for about six weeks anyway, so I need the lead time, and the manufacturer protects the secrecy of his product until his chosen date.

Manufacturers will also use NDAs to approach a select few customers—or prospective ones—to show them a new product to get their opinion on whether it will fly. It could be a product under development or a beta version that the manufacturer wants to test in a retail environment. In any case, the retailer is asked to sign an NDA in which he agrees not to discuss the product with anyone.

Hewlett Packard has been keeping its own printing machines quite busy duplicating NDA forms to be presented to chosen customers as they are slowly and quietly taking the wraps off a new product of some sort to eventually be shown at some time—someplace.

Whispers have been heard for the last few months that HP would be entering the retail photo finishing market. Maybe it would be better represented as re-entering that market since they came that close with the Phogenix minilab, a Kodak-partnered venture that collapsed in the starting gate.

Speculation was fired especially after the July introduction of its "new technology (that) is a breakthrough in the architecture and manufacturing of the inkjet printhead." They claimed that it "enables a faster development cycle at an estimated 50% lower cost."

It was also stated, "Because the new platform is scalable, HP is able to address the diverse needs of the printing market, from high-volume consumer users and small to medium-size businesses, all the way up to the commercial market."

Whether this technology is the key to whatever the finished product may be is not known—at least by me since I've not been offered an NDA (in which case I couldn't tell, could I?)

That HP is gearing up for a retail product program is now quite apparent. Last month Dan Kinsley left his 20-year relationship with Agfa where he was VP of sales, to join HP. It also turns out that in March, Rick Voight, an 18-year veteran at Kodak, also joined HP. Rick's last job at Kodak was VP and national sales manager of output and he was the lead player in setting up the Kodak relationship with CVS. Both Dan and Rick have the title of director, Photo Finishing Sales, and report to HP veteran Dan Gilbert, vice president, digital photography and entertainment, in the HP Rancho Bernardo, CA facility.

That makes two key executives from the retail photo finishing sector now at HP where they are obviously applying their talents to opening up the channels for HP to connect with the photo finishing trade. They have been doing so while getting important on-site folks to sign NDAs in order to be taken into HP's confidence and promise secrecy. It's been working, as there is only a limited amount of information available.

Officially, HP acknowledges that such a program is underway, though they are not ready to release anything for publication. They won't even say when they will unveil their product(s) though it would seem that the PMA convention in Orlando would be the likely time and place.

I was able to learn that Wal-Mart has been testing one of the new HP systems at a store near its Bentonville headquarters. I understand that two HP input stations are in place and that they take digital input for output to a single HP laser jet, wide format printer that is set up to output up to 12x12 album pages and calendars. Why not an inkjet? I don't know.

Another possible product I heard about was an HP kiosk that would allow the customer to print onboard from an HP inkjet using the new printhead technology with the option of uploading to HP's Snapfish online website for mail delivery to the home of the shooter or a relative across country.

As for a behind-the-counter finishing product, HP would have to bring forward a system that would be competitive in price with silver halide in three ways: capital investment in the equipment; media costs; and output speed.

If the trend in the cost of home printers is any indication, HP might be expected to bring to market a unit that would be very attractively priced. After all, this is a consumables business. As for the other elements, I would judge media and ink would have to be about 10-cents per 4R print from a machine that should output about 750-4R prints/hr.

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