Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    An invasion of the Hydras likely to be welcomed by offices that don't want a flock of machines with overlapping functions

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #306  September 5, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Is this anything like your office?
    You have a phone. You have a fax machine that sends and receives digital documents, and makes so-so copies in a pinch. You have a photocopier. (In small businesses or home offices, it's a personal model. In bigger organizations, it's the big machine down the hall.) You have a computer--maybe one with a fax-modem attached to your phone line. And, possibly, you have a scanner, to make digital copies of pages of text or graphics. Almost certainly, the computer is attached to a printer--a small one for your personal use or a larger one attached to a network.

    What's wrong here is that your battery of office hardware duplicates and reduplicates many of its functions. For instance, your scanner copies pages, making digital copies for your computer, which can then send the copies to the laser printer. Sounds rather like a photocopier. In fact, Hewlett-Packard bundles a copier utility with its computer scanners, giving you a photocopier-like interface, letting you use your scanner, in concert with your computer and printer, as a very slow, very expensive replacement for a photocopier.

    Your fax equipment also makes copies. The fax modem and the fax machine both send and receive faxes. And the scanner and the fax machine both create digital representations of pages. Need a copy of your signature to add as a graphic to word-processed documents, so you can fax signed letters from your computer? Sign a letter, and send yourself a fax, receiving it on your computer. Instant scanning.

    The result is often an office full of gadgets with overlapping capabilities, and, not surprisingly, a number of companies have decided there may be a market for a gadget which can combine all these functions ("It slices, it dices, it chops, it purees, why it even..."). Somewhere along the way, these multipurpose machines were dubbed "Hydras," after the many-headed monster of Greek mythology. The manufacturers, of course, prefer less evocative names like "multifunction devices."

    So take a computer printer, add a scanner and a phone, and you can replace an office full of machines with a single unit--potentially a money- and space-saver for small offices or people working from their homes. A typical example is Canon's Multipass 1000, built around one of its well-regarded Bubble Jet inkjet printers. Attach it to your computer and use it as a near-laser-quality black-and-white printer. But it includes fax capability for plain-paper faxing--no more rolls of thermo-paper twisting into curly documents that fade away over time. And since it's connected to your computer, it can also send documents directly from your software, or send faxes as digital documents to your computer, with or without printing them out.

    The same hardware that scans your printed pages for faxing is used to scan them for editing on your computer. They can be edited as graphics, or, by using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software (a separate purchase), you can read or edit them as text. Combine a scan and a print, and you've got a photocopier. Total cost? About $1,000.

    The same philosophy can be seen in Hewlett-Packard's OfficeJet, and at a somewhat higher price in the Xerox 3002 (which includes OCR software.) Xerox has the most copier features (not surprising given its corporate ancestry), but the HP model has friendlier software (and a friendlier price).

    If you want real laser-printer output rather than the "near-laser" quality promised by the three inkjet models, check out the Brother MFC-4500ML. At about the same price as Xerox's inkjet, it gives you a six-page-per-minute, 300-dpi laser printer as the basis for its combination printer/scanner/fax. Or wait a while for the promised colour-inkjet unit from IBMLexmark. spinoff

    These units remind me of ghetto-blasters: they stuff what have been a series of formerly separate functions into a single, lower-priced unit. Serious audio lovers may sneer at these all-in-one sound solutions, which clearly have inferior sound quality and fewer features than separate stereo components, but they've become big sellers nonetheless. Similarly, you won't get the same sophisticated output and wealth of options with a hydra as you would with a collection of separate units. Despite this, these hydras may be just the solution for many offices where money, space, and simplicity are valued.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan