Interview Series–Brother International

On Wednesday 3 November, I had been invited by Monique Haylen from Mint PR to have an interview with staff from Brother International at their offices in Macquarie Park. The staff members who I talked to were Heidi Webster (Brand and Marketing Manager, IT and Office Products) and Stephen Bennett (Pre-Sales Technical Support Specialist, Network Printing Solutions).

I raised some general findings and trends that I have observed in the industry since writing this site and they may be of interest to a company like Brother as they develop their products for use in a home or small-business network. One of the reasons I have put these findings forward to them is so they can make their products compete very well in a crowded marketplace.

A3 multifunction inkjet printers

After my review of the Brother MFC-6490CW A3 multifunction inkjet printer, I thought it might be a good time to delve deeply into the future developments of these MFCs.

This class of printer is selling well but is popular mainly with graphic design, CAD and engineering customers who appreciate working with this paper size for their plans and artwork. The architect customers especially appreciate the ability to scan and copy from A3 size mainly as part of submitting their building plans for government approval.

Brother wants to see these machines and the A3 page size used more in the general office space rather than just these vertical markets. The applications that we were talking of include printing up of large spreadsheets as well as using this large page size to turn out promotional material that impresses customers. Heidi even was thinking of the cafe that we were having coffee at and how a cafe or restaurant could print up menus and “specials” lists on this page size.

They intend to implement a survey program amongst the people who have bought the A3 multifunction printers in order to find out how the printers can be “taken further”.

They looked at the usefulness of A3 scanners in these machines but these would be of use primarily to the previously-mentioned vertical markets. They reckon that this function may not see much use in the general office space and may keep the A3 scanner as a product differentiator for some of their high-end models. But they have also said that there is still the desire amongst most users to enlarge material that was originally printed on A4 and print it on A3 paper.

IP-based faxing

I have raised the issue of Internet-based faxing and email-to-print applications but this appears to be a very difficult feature to implement for most small business and home users. This issue is becoming more real as we move towards IP-driven telephony setups like the UK’s 21CN project and Australia’s National Broadband Network that will play havoc with regular fax technology. This technology is designed for the circuit-based telephone setups like the “plain old telephone service” or GSM mobile telephony and Stephen said that businesses who have moved their telephony infrastructure from the orthodox analogue-based setups to all-digital setups have had lots of trouble with their fax systems after the conversion.

The current solution that Brother uses involves the use of T.37 technology which uses regular POP3/SMTP email setups with use of existing mailboxes but the task of setting this up isn’t simple for those of us who aren’t very computer-savvy. Heidi and Stephen raised the idea of implementing a “wizard-driven” setup experience to establish this functionality. They also raised the issue of the IP-based telephony projects providing support for T.38 Internet-fax protocols and I was also thinking of these projects implementing “bridge” setups to link existing fax machines and circuit-based phone networks to this packet-based technology.

The way that they will prepare for the IP-based faxing world would be to integrate PSTN and IP fax functionality in their SOHO and SME network printers when they provide fax functionality.

Implementation of HomePlug powerline networking technology

I have raised the issue of Brother implementing HomePlug powerline networking as a network connectivity method for their printers, like I would do with all the other printer manufacturers who offer network-enabled printers. This is in order to see this network-connectivity technology be considered as an additional or alternative “no-new-wires” connection method.

There is action on this idea in Japan but they will probably release it in to a subsequent generation of printers. Stephen has also raised the issue of connection reliability with Wi-Fi networks that he has encountered through his work, and this could become a valid idea.

I have also raised the possibility of printers that are connected to a wired network being a Wi-Fi access point as an optional function and they have accepted the idea. This includes the concept of a secondary or “infill” access point for difficult setups and I was citing old double-brick houses with extensions, multi-building setups.

Sewing machines being linked to the home network

As I know that Brother also have made and do make sewing machines and similar equipment, I have raised the possibility of integrating this kind of equipment with the home network. This is because, from my observations, most households are implementing home networks whether to provide Internet access to many computers and devices, or to provide wireless Internet access to a laptop computer that is moved around the house very easily. I was targeting this idea at the high-end computerised sewing / embroidery machines that allow a user to design embroidery patterns on their regular computer using manufacturer-supplied software and upload these patterns to the sewing machine so that it can start working on the pattern.

Most such machines directly connect to the host computer as a peripheral using a USB cable. But there are people who don’t want to have the computer, whether a desktop or a laptop unit, in their sewing room. Even if they do want the computer there, they would have to create room near the machine for the computer and this can be very difficult in the midst of a project with all that cloth, all those craft tools and other bits and pieces.

I told Heidi and Stephen about the Silex Stitch-Link device (http://www.silexamerica.com/support/other/stitchlink.html) that uses the USB-over-network technology to link sewing machines to PCs via the Wi-Fi network. Like other USB-over-network devices, this unit requires the user to install special software on their computer and make sure that their host computer “claims” the USB-over-network device in order to establish the link to the peripheral that is connected to the device.

They were interested in this idea especially as a way of endowing more functionality and features to the high-end class of machine. They also saw this on the premise of “if Brother can network-enable their printers, why can’t they network-enable these sewing machines”. I then put forward ideas like integrating Wi-Fi or HomePlug functionality or simply adding an Ethernet socket to the machine for use with an optional HomePlug kit or Wi-Fi client bridge or a simple Ethernet cable.

Conclusion

These issues are likely to help with placing Brother’s position in the home and small-business network for the main device classes that it specialises in.

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