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Behold the future of multifunction printers


More than one industry analyst has said that software, not hardware, is the future of information technology.

The latest manufacturer to jump on that bandwagon is Xerox Corp.., which on Wednesday pulled the wraps off its ConnectKey platform, a Linux-based system embedded in a new line of multifunction printers (MFPs) that the company says gives organizations of all sizes more administrative control, more document management power and security for digital and print documents.

ConnectKey can be seen as the next generation of Xerox’s SmartController platform, which included a network controller and some similar capabilities. However, SmartController wasn’t available on all MFPs and there were different controllers for some machines, which meant they didn’t talk to each other.

Unlike SmartController, ConnectKey doesn’t need to be mounted on a server: It can connect directly to the Internet and cloud storage. Applications can run native on MFPs, so there can be a Web interface for remote control.

RELATED STORY: How to buy the right multifunction printer

Xerox is also touting ConnectKey’s ability to print from mobile devices, including BlackBerry 6/7, Android, iOS and Windows.

ConnectKey will be standard on all Xerox MFPs going forward, so IT administrators and users will have a standard interface and capabilities.

To make sure customers understand it will deliver on that promise, Xerox also introduced the first of what it says will be six new MPF lines with 16 ConnectKey-enabled printers that will be available before the end of March.

Except for two models, ConnectKey won’t be available for install in older Xerox MFPs, but a company official said pricing of newer models with identical features should be the same.

“This is huge,” Terry Antinora, Xerox’s vice-president and general manager of the mid-market business group, said in an interview. “It’s one of the more exciting things that Xerox has delivered.”

Evan Hardie, a senior analyst who specializes in printing solutions at IDC Canada, didn’t go that far. Competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark have recently made their own mobility and document management product announcements as well, he said, some of which also have a common platform across printers.

But ConnectKey has one ace up its sleeve, he said: Embedded security protection from McAfee, which can identify malware in digital documents. The new lines will also be recognized by Cisco System Inc.’s TrustSec network protocol, which protects data paths to and from the devices.

The new MFPs include the WorkCenter 5800 series of black and white printers, the entry-level 7200 series (which replaces the 7100 series), the 7800 series (which replaces the 7500 line), and the ColourQube 9300.

The existing ColourQube 8700/8900 series will be backwards compatible with ConnectKey.

In a briefing to reporters before the official announcement, Rick Dastin, president of Xerox’s office and solutions business group, said the idea is to sell customers on ConnectKey and then let them pick the MFP they need for the job. That would turn selling on its head, which is usually market the hardware first.

But ConnectKey is going to be marketed as an ecosystem that allows printing to be simpler than ever. In addition to one-button printing and scanning, ConnectKey can link to Microsoft SharePoint document repositories so documents can be digitized and then sent to on premise or cloud storage such as DropBox, Salesforce.com or Evernote.

Administrators can get into the system remotely for maintenance, or for training staff.

ConnectKey has an open application programing interface so organizations or system integrators create apps for the platform through a Xerox-hosted tool called App Studio.

Apps allow the printer interface to be customized for each customers’ workflow, for example. Xerox [NYSE: XRX] will initially create some apps on its own (one of the first include the ability to email a document from a printer), but ultimately it is hoped partners will create apps to be downloadable – some for an extra fee – from an app store.