Sharp Unveils New User Interface, Launches OSA v4 at 2011 US National Dealer Show

<p><i>By <a href="">George Mikolay</a>, Senior Product Editor, A3/Copier MFPs, and Dmitry Sheynin, Research Editor, April 4, 2011</i></p> <p>At its recent national dealer meeting at the Wynn in Las Vegas, Sharp unveiled three new A3 models and an updated embedded platform, as third-party developers demonstrated a variety of new and updated solutions. The star of the show though was undoubtedly Sharp’s new user interface (UI). Designed from the ground up to deliver a customizable and intuitive experience, much of the functionality of the new UI is derived from dealer input, according to the company. Sharp is counting on the new UI to play a lead role in increasing dealer distribution and growth of the Sharp product line throughout the top 20 markets.&#160; </p> <p>“Sharp’s the only manufacturer that really tries to develop collaboratively,” said Shane Coffey, director of document products for Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America (SIICA). “We want our machines to speak the language of the customer.”&#160;&#160;&#160;&#160;&#160;&#160;&#160; </p> <p>Indeed, the new UI is more than just “sexy.” It is featured on the three A3/copier-based MFPs announced at the show, the 26-ppm <a href=";spec=5..., 31-ppm <a href=";spec=5... or 36-ppm <a href=";spec=5..., and will be featured on all new Sharp products. According to Sharp, the main idea when redesigning the control panel was to give users a simple way to execute complex tasks like repagination through intuitive usability. </p> <!--break--> <p>One of the most eye-catching features of the new UI is its real-time scan preview feature, which generates a slick montage of thumbnails as captured pages are scanned and digitized almost simultaneously. The iPhone-like view is more than an aesthetic touch, though, as users can leverage it to modify several elements of a scan job before outputting a single page, saving both time and consumables. During the demonstration at the general session, a document was scanned in with an inverted page, a blank sheet and notes on the cover. For the inverted page, an arrow was available on the upper-right hand of the highlighted thumbnail, and by pushing down on it and dragging, users could rotate the page in 90-degree increments to achieve the proper orientation. Deleting the blank page was even simpler, requiring users only to press in the middle of a thumbnail and drag it into a trash-bin icon. Finally, to remove the unwanted notes on the cover page, users simply had to define the borders of the space to be deleted and the MFP automatically replaces it with a blank white space.&#160;&#160;&#160;&#160; </p> <p>“All these improvements are related to things people told us they need,” said Mike Marusic, senior vice president of SIICA’s Business Solutions Group. “The focus was to make a product so intuitive to use that businesses would be able to fully maximize the technology.” </p> <p>Another standout of the new UI is the ability to personalize user settings like layout, language and even the background graphic, which are tied to an RFID card. The card is scanned when held in proximity to a reader (manufactured by partner developer RF Ideas) and the appropriate profile loads in under 10 seconds. Also impressive is the Action Items menu, which provides users of the Sharp UI with a high level of job programming. Each time a feature is selected, the Action Items menu appears on the right side of the main screen, listing the four or five additional functions likely to be used to build upon the original selection. On most competitive UIs, which use more of a combination of soft and hard keys, users typically need to navigate through several sub-menus when building upon the original selection, at times no doubt uncertain which sub-menu provides the capabilities they’re looking for. </p> <p>New User Interface Home Screen </p> <p>Sharp also touted the security on its new MFPs, bringing up last year’s CBS news story involving the discovery in a New Jersey warehouse of 6,000 used copy machines, many of which contained materials that violated federal privacy laws. In general, the industry had been failing to inform the general public of the potential risks involved with a copier, said SIICA President Ed McLaughlin. “In 2008, we commissioned a survey on copier security that found 60 percent of Americans ‘didn't know’ that copiers store images on a hard drive. It was falling on deaf ears, or people didn’t feel it was important.” Whereas previously Sharp offered an optional data security kit that provided both hard drive overwrite and hard drive encryption, Sharp is offering standard overwrite and AES 256-bit encryption on its new A3 color machines, and is also offering an “end of lease” mode, which will reset the machine and all of the customer information on the hard drive, essentially setting the hard drive back to new condition. </p> <p>Partner Program Solutions </p> <p><b></b></p> <p>A number of developers at the show were touting solutions optimized for OSA v4, the newest version of Sharp’s embedded platform. Business I.T. Systems demonstrated a cloud-based remote printing app based on EFI’s PrintMe and DPD International was showing off its embedded fax server application. Long-time Sharp Partner InfoDynamics was ready with an OSA v4 version of <a href=" Books Smart</b></a>, which enables control panel integration for Quicken QuickBooks, Microsoft Dynamics and SAGE. Other developers on board with an OSA v4 iteration included Barr Systems (Barr EOM); DPD International (GoldFax 7.1); Drivve (The Drivve EcoSystem); emFAST (FACSys); FaxCore (FaxCore 2007); Pcounter (<a href=""... v2.6); Sepialine (<a href=""><b>...); and <a href=" (DocuPeak Connector 5.9.4). </p> <p>Improved ease of use and aesthetics were the primary enhancements made to OSA, but as the v4 SDK was released only three months ago and most developers are still at work on new versions of their software, it is likely the nascent platform has yet to be fully leveraged.&#160;&#160; </p> <p>Sharp also demonstrated some of its own products built for OSA v4, including a solution called Ad Splash which leverages the high-resolution displays on the company’s new MFPs to provide a space for advertisements and corporate messaging. </p> <p>A variety of affiliated developers were also on hand with software aimed at maximizing an investment in a Sharp MFP. Many of these had embedded OSA components not yet updated for version 4, but where this was the case, developers promised upgrades in short time.&#160; </p> <p>Jamex demonstrated its Netpad peripheral, which enables pay-per-print billing via debit and credit cards. Jamie Wells, a Jamex representative said the cost-recovery solution differentiated itself from similar offerings by making sure an account has a sufficient balance to output an entire job before starting it. </p> <p>InfoArk was also on hand with its proprietary archival DVD-R offering. The company’s burner creates “SmartDiscs” that are pre-indexed for easy searching. Most unique about the burning process though, is that rather than chemically burning data onto the disc, data is etched into it, forming spirals of data rather than the standard contiguous block. </p> <p>RF IDeas’ card reader is the hardware that enables Sharp’s UI to switch profiles at the swipe of a card. The feature was fairly integral to the way Sharp was positioning its new MFPs, so it’s likely dealers won’t even treat it as an option when negotiating lease agreements. </p> <p>Another unique offering came from Business I.T. Systems with its Metis MPS solution. The software can be stored and run from a USB key, so users need only insert a flash drive to pull meter reads and export any of 16 canned reports.&#160; </p> <p>On the Search for More Dealer Distribution and Growth </p> <p>While the new UI continues to build Sharp’s reputation as an innovator in the industry, the brand is still underdistributed. “We have the innovation and the products for you [the dealers], now we need you to step up and continue to grow with us,” McLaughlin said. Sharp is confident that the new UI provides something that is unique and not currently offered on any competitive devices, which in turn will help more dealers gravitate to it. </p> <p>Roughly 80 percent of Sharp’s dealers carry an additional line, while 20 percent are single-line Sharp dealers. According to Marusic, the big penetration gains in the long term come from getting new dealers to carry Sharp as one of their lines, and to eventually become these dealers’ primary lines. Sharp has a dedicated team whose job is to go into particular markets in which they feel Sharp is underdistributed and talk to targeted dealers about moving over to Sharp. “This has been a focus of ours for four or five years,” Marusic said. But the process is long and arduous, and it can take anywhere from six months to a year to get a dealer to move off of their existing product line. Most big dealers carry more than one line, and typically will need to drop one of its existing lines in order to pick up a new line. In addition, once a dealer is “converted,” there is typically a period of ramp up. “Once we’re in there [with the dealer], we don’t get the same share as the preceding OEM initially,” Marusic said. “It takes time to earn your stripes and work the Sharp line up. We track this very religiously, looking at each group each year to try and ensure they are ramping up the Sharp products in their line.” </p> <p> Results have been strong, according to Marusic. In fact, it’s rare that any dealer that has been with Sharp for two to three years is not already over the 50 percent mark with Sharp’s products. Sharp has also been able to maintain the majority portion in those dealers that already had Sharp as their primary line. </p> <p>Sharp is also once again looking at acquiring dealerships to turn into direct sales branches. As Marusic explained, the downturn in the economy led to uncertainty in the market, leading to a more conservative approach for the last few years. “The number of dealers we acquire is directly tied to two factors: the markets in which we want to expand; and how many dealers in those markets that are willing to sell and that we want to acquire,” said Marusic. “We could at any given time have a large number in the hopper and close just one, but the goal always is to be in the top 20 markets.” Granted, this is not the best time to sell, as many successful dealers, the ones who would be best to acquire, are in a waiting stage until the economy picks up to ensure they receive the appropriate evaluation. Sharp currently has 440 to 450 dealers. </p> <p>The A4 Front </p> <p>In 2009, Sharp became the first of the traditional copier vendors to launch workgroup-level A4/printer-based MFPs that, like copiers, feature separate drums, developer and toner. The initial launches (<a href=";spec=4..., <a href=";spec=3..., <a href=";spec=4..., <a href=";spec=3... and <a href=";spec=4...) earned strong reviews from BLI, and according to Marusic, Sharp’s A4 business began to rapidly expand in 2010 once the company launched the <a href=";spec=5... and <a href=";spec=5..., which feature more robust scanning capabilities. “We can’t make these models fast enough,” Marusic said. </p> <p>Indeed, the size of Sharp’s A4 market keeps expanding. “We’ve had a good run over the last seven or eight years of introducing products before their time,” Marusic said, adding that as more OEMs enter the A4 market with their own devices, it brings further credibility to that market for Sharp. “We feel some competitors have entered the A4 market with sub-par products. And when these OEMs pitch their products and get dealers and customers interested in them, and then we come in with our A4 engines, they say, ‘If we’re going to run with A4, we might as well go with Sharp.’ Our responsibility is to be the best option in that market.” </p> <p>The market share of Sharp’s A3/copier engines is also up, according to Marusic. Further, in segments in which Sharp has A3 and A4 overlap, volumes and market share are up in both areas. As Marusic explained, if a company only has one or two machines, they will likely be A3-based devices. Where you find A4 playing more heavily is in the businesses where you don’t need larger-size paper, such as medical, in which all forms are either legal- or letter-size and an engine needs to fit in a small space. In other areas, such as education, Sharp does not see as much demand for A4. Vertical markets such as education output a lot of booklets, which require A3 paper, and they also copy more than print. </p> <p>This article was originally posted on <a href="">Buyer’s Laboratory</a>.</p>