Technology is like an everlasting gobstopper - once you start it,come as ubiquitous as the printer - but just what can we look forward to? it just goes on and on. Once a particular product has been invented, it can be continually reinvented until someone comes up with something better. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
This is the case with the humble scanner. Scanners have been about for ages, starting off in high-end applications and then, as technology developed, reinventing themselves as handheld units. At this point, the scanner changed from a heavy-duty professional peripheral to a fun home device almost overnight. And now we are witnessing another change - the sheet feeder scanner.
This development is a reflection of all sorts of other technologies coming to maturity. There is the document management area - where scanners are bundled with OCR software, allowing companies to cut back on dust-gathering store room files by storing all their old documents on hard disk.
The consumer end also plays its part, with photo-real printers and photo manipulation software becoming affordable for the home user. There is a growing market in photograph scanners that take an ordinary photograph and put it on hard disk. And then there is the internet, with the graphical image finding a new home on the Web - scanner sales are being driven by the current insatiable need for digital pictures.
All these developments are working against the handheld and towards a more stable scanning system - the sheet feed. Of course it isn't all one way traffic. Another change in the market is the phenomenal drop in the flatbed scanner price, traditionally seen as the high-end of the market - considerable confusion has been caused over the fact that flatbed scanners often cost the same as handhelds or sheet feeds.
It is hardly surprising that there has been considerable fallout from this. Basically, the bottom has fallen out of the handheld market. With some flatbed scanners costing just #99, few people would prefer a handheld - despite some insiders suggesting low-cost scanners are of questionable quality.
Nowhere is this better shown than with Logitech, one of the UK's leading suppliers of handheld scanners. Logitech is effectively pulling out of the scanner market by selling its product line to Storm Technology (which already sells scanners). The deal is expected to increase Storm's market share to more than 15 per cent of the overall personal scanner market.
Logitech's decision reflects the difficulty in keeping margins healthy.
According to Romtec, the handheld scanner accounted for 12.5 per cent of the market last year with the sheet feeder taking 7.5 percent. This balance is likely to change over the next 18 months. However, there are still sales to be made. According to Storm Technology, scanner sales were 6.5 million units in 1997 and are set to grow to more than 12 million by 1999.
All the same, the flatbed market hasn't gone away - unit sales in the colour flatbed category rose nearly 253 per cent in August 1997, compared with August 1996, according to US market research company PC Data. And there is still money in the market - revenue rose 58 per cent, despite a 55 per cent decline in the average price for colour flatbed scanners.
PC Data also reported that flatbed scanners accounted for more than 70 per cent of retail scanners' unit sales in August 1997, up from a little more than 50 per cent in January 1997. Also, colour scanning has all but taken over the market. According to Romtec, colour scanners make up 90 per cent of the handheld market and 85 per cent of the sheet feed market.
Despite all this movement, the technology is still much the same. In a lot of ways, scanners resemble photocopiers, but they're just not as simple to use. In the early days, all but the most sophisticated and expensive scanners were simple black and white or bi-level scanners.
During scanning, a change from light to dark or dark to light would turn the black on or off respectively. Scanner sensitivity defined which colours at which intensity were defined as dark and which as light. This was perfect for line art drawings but was a complete waste of time for anything else.
Around 1987, things started to change. As the PC and Macintosh markets developed and matured, more devices that could monitor the differential change in image became available. The technology began to move from a digital (on and off) to analogue rendition.
To receive the image, an internal light source bounces rays off the item being scanned. Then, either the device or image is moved at a regular speed, and a charge coupled device (CCD, basically a photo-sensitive sensor) picks up the reflected light and converts the different readings into digital values.
The number of sensors defines image resolution. There are usually 300 CCD sensors in the scanner, which switch on and off about 300 times an inch as the scanner moves along, thus providing a 300 by 300 dots per inch (dpi) image. Most manufacturers have increased the resolution by halving the interval between steps, effectively doubling the number of samples and giving a 300 by 600 dpi image.
As the image is processed in the scanner, each shade of colour or brightness gives a different voltage - the brighter the image the higher the voltage.
And that bandwidth is sliced up into 16, 32, 46 or 256 levels. On a black and white scanner, each level is assigned one of an equivalent number of greys, each of a different density. To get 256 levels of grey, the system needs eight bits per pixel.
For a colour scanner, the machine simply splits the light coming from the lens into three - one each for the three basic colours; red, blue and green. Again, these are converted into digital numbers using eight, 10 or 12 bits per colour. The advantage of more bits per colour is simple - more bits mean more information, which translates to smaller changes in colour between pixels (called posterisation). Thus, there will be a smooth graduation in colour, which is more realistic and also gives better detail in dark areas.
In theory, a 24-bit scanner offers eight bits, or 256 shades, for each of the three primary colours. The three numbers multiplied together gives a total of 16.7 million colours, enough for all applications, and the maximum which most high-end graphics boards will display. A 30-bit scanner offers 10 bits, or 1,024 shades, for each colour and a 36-bit scanner offers 12 bits, or 4,096 shades - giving photo quality.
Complicating matters, almost all 30 or 36-bit scanners use the extra bits internally, sending just 24 bits to the computer. That's just as well, since there is very little PC software to take advantage of those additional bits. They aren't thrown away though - they are used by hardware in the device to improve the image (usually by adding information in very dark or very light areas).
Although colour is taking over the world, the black and white hasn't gone away. A lot of machines give 300 by 600dpi 24-bit colour but will go up to 2,400dpi in black and white. This is a direct response to the growing use of optical character reader (OCR) software.
The OCR world is another traditional flatbed area that has been invaded by the handheld and sheet feeder scanners. This area has grown massively over the years, and relatively cheap software has provided impressive results (97 to 99 per cent accuracy is the standard claim).
The problem for handheld scanners has always been the length of time required to scan large quantities of text and then process it. The sheet feeder on the other hand, is perfect for this task since you simply stock it up with the relevant documents and press go - yet another nail in the coffin of the handheld scanner.
Another major force behind the scanner market is the Twain specification.
Developed in 1992, Twain (technology without an interesting name) is a standard software scanner interface that gives compatibility between the scanner and applications software.
The specification's open interface allows hardware developers and applications programmers to support a large number of devices by writing to just one standard device driver.
It is a public specification that enables applications to communicate directly with any hardware that generates faster images (line by line screen data). It allows users to grab images from within compatible applications, including wordprocessors, spreadsheets and desktop publishing programs.
When a Twain driver is installed, new menu items for scanner selection and image acquisition are added under Acquire on the File menu of each supporting application. Although some scanners still need special drivers, most manufacturers have adopted the Twain standard.
Another problem, on the verge of being solved, is how scanners connect to the PC. Traditionally, Macintosh scanners plugged in to the Scsi port, and there are still a lot PC scanners which do the same. But, as the market moved downward to the home user, Scsi was seen as too complicated.
There were a handful of devices shipped with cut down Scsi renamed cards and there were devices with their own interface card causing all sorts of compatibility problems.
One solution was to connect the device up to the parallel port, which has proved a very popular approach, but this will all vanish after Windows 98 has been launched. Windows 98 will usher in the era of the USB (universal serial bus) which - according to the marketing people at least - will change the way we work.
USB allows up to 127 daisy-chained peripherals to be connected to one port, communicating at 12Mbps. It allows users to patch nearly all input, output and peripheral devices into a single port, and permits devices to be hot swapped.
It shouldn't need a lot of driver software either. And that 12Mbps compares well to the 115Kbps of serial ports. It is even faster than a parallel port, plus the bus also provides power to the connected device, making installation much simpler and tidier.
The system was developed, among others, by Intel, Compaq, IBM and Digital and is aimed at just about all peripherals from printers to joysticks and mice to keyboards plus, of course, scanners. Unfortunately, the industry is still waiting for proper USB support.
However, Windows 98 is due in the middle of this year and Microsoft has added some limited USB support in the latest OEM version of Windows 95 (OSR2.1).
OSR 2.1 contains all the basic software drivers needed to run a USB peripheral, but not all, which means some users are having problems getting USB peripherals to work.
And not all PCs have a USB connector - thus there is also a growing market in USB controller cards that supply a USB connection and controller to the PC.
However, USB scanners are slowly coming to market - Logitech has already released a 24-bit sheet feeder device in the US, and more are due to follow. The USB convention will breath more life into what is already a growing market place.
Essentially, the scanner has reinvented itself again and looks like it is about to become as ubiquitous and cheap as the printer.
However, there is one major difference between the everlasting gobstopper and the scanner - the scanner is useful. Now that has to be a reasonably novel concept in the computer industry.
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