Flatbed scanners have finally come into their own. With prices for the latest entry-level systems at less than $500 and a growing demand for scanned images in documents and Web pages, the major players in the scanning market are poised to get high-volume sales on their products.
One of the key participants in this change has been Hewlett Packard (HP), whose Scan Jet products, particularly the Scan Jet 4P, have helped change the way consumers view these products. The Scan Jet 4P was introduced in March as a low-cost colour scanner 'offering business customers professional image quality with point-and-shoot simplicity'. It has a retail price of about $499.
HP put more into the product than just a low price. It placed a lot of emphasis on the software that goes with it - an area where many low-cost scanners have failed in the past. It did not skimp on the base hardware - the Scan Jet 4P is a 24-bit colour and 8-bit grayscale scanner that offers 1,200 dpi in high-resolution mode and 300 dpi optical resolution for OCR work.
While the idea of the paperless office has not really taken off, paper is not always the most effective way to share information within a company.
Scanners are fast emerging as a key enabler for electronic distribution of paper-based documents.
'Scanner-enabled document distribution provides paper-based documents with the speed and convenience of electronic communications. A desk-top or network scanner allows business professionals to scan paper-based documents effectively and distribute them in a timely fashion.
'Users can share and distribute information by scanning directly to their email or PC fax applications,' explains an HP representative.
The growing popularity of fax modems and email is driving the acceptance of scanner-enabled document distribution in many industries. Fax/ modem capabilities that are available with virtually all new PCs let users send and receive faxes directly from a computer. But they lack the ability to fax non-PC-created paper documents. Scanners are ideal for this task, as well as enabling users to scan documents that can be distributed via email.
The workgroup concept, and by extension the intranet, has been instrumental in bringing electronic document distribution to businesses, claims HP.
'Although the electronic communications market is exploding, millions of PC users still receive a lot of paper-based information they need to share with colleagues. In fact, more than 90 billion documents were created in 1992, and more than one trillion copies of those documents were made - an average of 11 copies per document - according to the 1993 BIS Copier Report,' claims HP. 'As these statistics show, the paperless office is not here yet. Users need a way for technology and paper to work together so that continuity can be maintained.'
The company suggests that its own research indicates scanners are viewed primarily as a means of placing images and/ or text into documents. It believes many users are unaware they can use a scanner as a front-end to a PC fax or email.
In fact, companies using electronic methods of communication improve their communications processes and also reduce the cost of photocopying.
HP cites the statistics from BIS Strategic Decisions, a US technology analysis firm, which says that printing and copying expenses typically account for between six per cent and 13 per cent of a company's revenue.
Most businesses do not realise how much money they are wasting by using paper instead of electronic methods.
'While sharing documents with others is necessary, photocopying and distributing paper copies is tedious. Distributing documents to colleagues who work at other locations presents the issue of timeliness,' according to HP.
'Scanners can can be used to help optimise paper-based information, regardless of its original form. To meet the information needs of today's business professionals, the company is enhancing its family of scanners to enable rapid sharing, filing and communication of paper-based documents throughout and beyond an enterprise.'
But HP is not the only firm playing the low-price game. California-based Plustek, for example, has announced it will be shipping a $299 colour flat-bed scanner in mid November, busting the $300 price barrier for 24-bit colour flatbed scanners. The FBII scanner is designed for Windows and Windows 95 and connects to the PC via the parallel port with no interface cards needed.
Plustek has designed the scanner for non-technical users who are likely to be most attracted by price. Its specifications and features include a true optical resolution of 300 x 600 dpi - with interpolation to 4800 x 4800 dpi. It also includes a cold-cathode scanning lamp, single-pass operation, an action button on the scanner body and native support for enhanced parallel port. Using the parallel port doesn't prevent anyone from having a printer on that port - any existing parallel printer can be daisy-chained through the FBII.
Software bundled with the scanner includes Recognita for OCR, Image-In for photo-editing, and Plustek's own Action Manager which allows the scanner to redirect scanned images to other software or peripherals for faxing, copying and even language translation.
The FBII is designed to offer improvements over the company's existing Optic Pro 4800P colour flatbed scanner, which originally sold for $399, including enhanced colour processing in the firmware and an improved hardware communications driver.
Jeffrey Benoit, product manager at Plustek, says this level of pricing should bring consumers to the scanner market. 'We believe this appeals to those who have traditionally purchased and used scanners.
'It also helps create a greatly expanded low-cost scanner for those who recognise the need for a colour scanner, but could not justify the cost in the past,' he says. 'This $300 price makes our FBII less expensive than most monitors.'
As the basic scanning hardware becomes more of a commodity, HP is relying on software to make the difference between one offering and another.
As a result, it has licensed the popular Visioneer Paper Port paper-management software for bundling with its scanners.
The inclusion of Paper Port enables Scan Jet users to manage paper information electronically, from creating, processing and storing information to distributing paper-based documents. The software makes it easy for users to group documents singly or in stacks, and organise, file, fax, edit, copy and email documents with automated links using familiar application software.
With Paper Port, users need only learn one application to perform a variety of tasks. For occasional users, scanning can be done entirely through the Paper Port interface.
The Paper Port Desktop Workspace, for instance, offers an easy thumbnail view of scanned images. HP says this saves time and increases productivity in a number of ways. The Links Toolbar at the bottom of the screen allows users to drag-and-drop information on to other applications, that is, drag-and-drop an image on to the application icon.
But if the user is already in an application, these images can be pulled into the application by selecting Paper Port through Microsoft OLE and then selecting the thumbnail image on the Paper Port desktop.
When the image of a scanned text document is dragged to a wordprocessing icon in the Links Toolbar, Paper Port launches the wordprocessing application and automatically runs the text through an integrated Caere OCR engine that converts the text image into editable text. To distribute a document, the user can drag-and-drop the image on to the icon for email or PC fax links, where it is ready for distribution.
Paper Port offers a page viewer, which provides a more detailed view of scanned information. Users can customise documents by enhancing the information with additional text or by deleting unwanted information before they process the scanned document. The page viewer can be attached to a document and sent via email, allowing the recipient to read the email even if the recipient does not have the Paper Port software.
Apple, meanwhile, is not resting on its corporate laurels and has realised the scanner market could be the answer to its much-publicised woes. As a result, Apple announced in September its Colour One Scanner 1200/30 for the Mac market, which offers OCR to HTML conversion for quick creation of Web pages.
The Colour One Scanner 1200/ 30 OCR to HTML conversion is the result of an exclusive software bundling agreement with Xerox for its Text Bridge 3h software. Apple claims the user can scan a document, apply OCR, and then drag-and-drop HTML to the Web authoring application within its One Scanner Dispatcher software.
Kathi Fox, director of product marketing for Apple's imaging peripherals systems, says: 'The Colour One Scanner 1200/30 is Apple's first flatbed scanner to meet the demands of publishing professionals.
'It offers integrated Web authoring capabilities and supports positive and negative film scanning with negative-to-positive automated conversion with optional transparent media adaptors. These advantages help deliver superior image quality with the ease of use long associated with Apple's imaging peripheral products.'
Apple's Colour One Scanner 1200/30 offers a 600 x 1200 optical resolution and a 4800 x 4800 interpolated resolution for improved OCR accuracy and scanning small areas at high resolutions. For superior image quality, the Colour One Scanner provides 30-bit depth colour, which recognises more than a billion colours - a significant advancement over 24-bit scanners.
At an estimated dealer price of between $799 and $849, it is clear Apple is leaving the lower end of the scanning market to the likes of HP and Plustek. But it may be surprising to learn that long-time Mac peripherals supplier and image specialist Afga is also joining the downmarket move.
At the August Mac World Expo, Agfa introduced Snap Scan, the newest model in its line of personal flatbed colour scanners. With an estimated retail price of $389, Agfa says the Snap Scan 'is positioned to appeal to today's PC user. Its exceptional speed and quality provide users with capabilities needed for a variety of home office applications'.
Agfa clearly wants to get into the home market and plans to trade on its higher-end name to get there. 'Agfa is in the best possible position to apply its professional experience,' suggests Per Save, Agfa worldwide marketing manager for image capture systems.
'We understand the demands of image capture. This is especially important for home or office applications, where consumers want quality that is uncomplicated.
'Snap Scan isn't just another low-end scanner, it's a versatile tool with a range of features that allow users to adjust to their level of experience. Home users get simplicity, functionality, and exceptional quality at a very attractive price,' he says.
For dealers, the challenge will be to find a way to appeal to users.
Clearly, lower prices will help, but with strong software hooks such as the ability to easily handle OCR work and edit photographs, they will either make or break a sale.
The growing base of higher-resolution colour inkjet printers makes it possible for users to create their own full-colour documents, such as birthday cards, Web pages or school projects, at very low cost. So scanners should finally come into their own in 1997.
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