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HP wants to build a printer you'll actually get excited about

Printer chief Enrique Lores wants to bring back the joy of simply looking at photos that remind us of the good times.

Enrique Lores, head of HP printing division

Enrique Lores, head of HP printing division

Stephen Shankland/CNET

When was the last time you were excited by a printer? Quite possibly it was in 1999 when three disgruntled employees destroyed one with a baseball bat in the movie Office Space.

Enrique Lores, head of HP's printer business, wants to give you a better attitude. He's happy for you to swipe through the photos you like on your phone. But for the photos you love, he wants you to make something you can feel with your hands and stick on your fridge so you can relive the good times.

To get us there, he's trying to make printers that are easier to use -- especially from your phone -- and that aren't plagued by ink cartridges that you discover dried out when you dust off your printer for your kid's school project.

Lores has grander ideas in the pipeline, too: social printing at parties with HP's tiny Sprocket printer, individually customized magazines, augmented reality coding that'll reveal whether that Louis Vuitton purse is or isn't a counterfeit, and printers that emblazon doors, shirts and curtains with new designs. HP's even part of a Japanese hotel project that will customize your hotel room's floor, walls and furniture if you visit during the 2020 Olympics.

And perhaps most radically, he wants to build a printer that you'll actually be happy to see.

"To our disgrace, we have seen that consumers spend more money in furniture to hide the printers than in buying the printer," Lores said. If HP's investments in design succeed, you'll be proud to show off your next printer.

Lores, a trim man with a lilting Spanish accent, oversees a business that pulls in $20 billion a year selling not just the cheap inkjet printers sitting in your home office but also the hulking printer-copiers in offices and the mammoth Indigo presses that can print high-quality custom photo books from companies like Shutterfly. And if you're a photography enthusiast, he's got some large-format fine-art printers he'd like to sell you.

Lores discussed his business with CNET. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: People see printers as utilitarian things that take up space in the office. Are they a boring product category?
Lores: This has been the case for a long time, and this is one of the things that we have started to change.

Excitement will come more from the output than from the printers themselves. What consumers want is to print a photo of the person they love. Something we haven't done enough of is to redefine the category and make the printers look cool. If I look at the printers we used to do 29 years ago and the printers we do today, they're similar. As the leaders in the category, we have not done enough to reinvent it. This is something that we are doing today.

We launched Sprocket last year, a small printer for consumers. We like this not only because it's a great business, but because it's bringing energy to the category. It's showing consumers new things, new ways of experimenting with the printed document. It's making printing cool again.

For young generations that have never used printing before, it's showing them what it is possible. We have an initiative called social printing that is about how can we create those experiences. We [will enable] what we call party mode -- several people can connect to it and print their photos to the same [Sprocket] printer to make sure it becomes a social experience.

The portable HP Sprocket Plus printer is designed to be used with phones. HP is working on a social printing mode to let multiple people use it at parties.

The portable HP Sprocket Plus printer is designed to be used with phones. HP is working on a social printing mode to let multiple people use it at parties.

HP

So the printer is a means to an end -- spotlighting memories. Can you give examples of what's going to happen that you can't do today?
Lores: The best example is photos. Think about how many photos are taken every day by all of us with our phones. The big, big, big majority are never seen again. You forget you have them. We have lost the joy of seeing photos that we took. With printing you can bring that joy back. When you have a physical photo at home or on your fridge, that photo brings back the memories of the instant you took it. Physical experiences are important because they really help you to live again those memories that you really enjoy.

How about a subscription service where your photos get automatically uploaded and you get a page with a bunch of pictures?
Lores: We are working on many of these directions. For example, we are enabling voice management. You come back from a trip, you see your photos on Google Photos, then you say, "Print this photo."

How big a business is printing at HP?
Lores: It's about $20 billion per year -- around 40 percent to 45 percent of the revenue of the company and about 80 percent of the profit of the company. Since the separation [splitting Hewlett-Packard into Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and Lores' company, HP], the business has started to grow again. We have been growing for the last five quarters. Before that, we had not grown since before 2011.

You've switched some ink purchasing to a subscription model. What fraction of customers are on that plan?
Lores: We don't release the amount of customers, but it is growing for the last four or five years. It's starting to be a significant part of our business.

With the subscription model, it's 70 percent cheaper to print. And HP monitors amount of ink in the printer, so before the printer runs out of ink, we ship our new cartridge to the consumer. We make sure that the printers are always working.

Is this how everybody will buy supplies at some point? I imagine some people are nervous about that because they think they're going to get hit with costs they don't expect.
Lores: Many customers don't like to give their credit card or don't like subscription services in general. So I don't think we'll ever be at 100 percent, but for a very large portion of consumers, yes.

I'm curious about your technology for custom printing things like photo books and magazines and photo calendars. Tell me what you guys did with the April issue of Elle with Kim Kardashian.
Lores: Every cover has a special, unique message. This one is "Hi, Enrique," with a signature from Kim. Every subscriber got a different magazine with a special dedication. It was about helping them to build a different connection with their subscribers. This is just the beginning, because in the same way we have personalized the cover, we can personalize the full magazine.

Customized issue of Elle for Enrique Lores, head of HP printing division

Customized issue of Elle for Enrique Lores, head of HP printing division

Stephen Shankland/CNET

All these magazines have a lot of information about subscribers. They know the articles they like, the articles they don't like. They know the type of products that could be interesting and the type of products that are not interesting. They could redesign the full magazine and create fully personalized magazines. But you cannot personalize 100 percent, because there is also value in the unexpected -- but you also can personalize the unexpected. Eventually it will happen.

We can produce personalized textbooks. You can choose the lessons. This will completely change the teaching experience and the learning experience.

Augmented reality is interesting. How do you fit into that?
Lores: We have printing technologies that can embed in images special codes that are invisible to the human eye but are visible to sensors. When the sensor sees the image, you get emails or you get a digital experience. All the Sprockets we sell today have this technology built in. For example, you can take a video of a bird and print one of the frames. When you see that frame through your phone, you will see the full video.

We are going to be embedding that in other technologies. We are doing that for packaging. This can also bring security, and security is very interesting for office documents.

In packaging, you will get a lot of information about when something was produced, or whether it was produced in this factory or that other factory. You can use this for security and anti-counterfeiting. If you think about medicines, for example, anti-counterfeiting is really critical. All these technologies will really help to simplify that.

I was covering a patent trial -- Apple v. Samsung -- and every morning people would wheel into the courtroom these huge carts with three or four dozen binders, each packed with 300 or 400 pages of paper. Most of them just sat there, these inert lumps of dead trees. Is this the right way to be doing things?
Lores: Let me talk about the dead trees. Sustainability is more and more important for all of us. Today, printing has a stigma of not being sustainable. Believe it or not, it's not right.

The HP Envy printer line, introduced in late 2017, is designed to make photo printing better and easier.

The HP Envy printer line, introduced in late 2017, is designed to make photo printing better and easier.

HP

When you think about the dead trees that were being carried in the courtroom, you have a visual from probably 50 or 100 years ago, when paper was coming from trees that were in forests. Today, 90-plus percent of paper comes from trees that have been planted to become paper. It's actually, if the printer demand declines, all those trees will never be planted. It's a difficult story to explain because it's totally counterintuitive, but a lot of trees that are planted in the world today are planted because there is a demand for paper.

It's something we're working on right now -- how do we communicate that in the right way so consumers understand that actually print is sustainable.

But millennials supposedly want less physical stuff. In the long run will people value that as much as they do today?
Lores: This is where we go back to the value of the physical experience. In fact, millennials are the ones using Sprocket and enjoying it. This value of having something that you can touch, you can smell, you can play with -- it's true for everybody. When you interact with something printed, you are engaging with more senses than when you look at something on screen. And it's about using your tactile sense and your smell. You relate to objects in a different way than you relate to screens.

Right, the smell of a book when you open the new book. But I mostly stopped buying paper books. You can fit a lot of books on one your phone these days. Are we moving more toward a paperless world?
Lores: What we see is the number of pages of office documents printed per person in developed countries is going down because many processes are becoming digital. But when we look at the total number of pages printed in the world, it's actually stable. The decline in developed countries is compensated by the economic growth, mostly in emerging countries.

HP has a lot of researchers. What are the pains you expect to see vanish? Inkjet cartridges that don't go dry? The end of paper jams? Printer drivers that don't suck?
Lores: Making printing as easy and convenient as possible. Most of the content today is in our mobile devices, but how do we make printing easy from mobile interfaces? As we all go to voice interfaces, you will see a lot of work in that space.

To our disgrace, we have seen that consumers spend more money in furniture to hide the printers than in buying the printers. Making printers that look cool and that you and I would be willing to have in the living room is another thing you will see us doing -- there's a lot of investment.

To me, printing is a necessary evil in my life.
Lores: You need to think of the positive. It brings your memories back to life.

HP's Indigo products are mammoth, complicated printing presses used by companies like Shutterfly to make custom photo books.

HP's Indigo products are mammoth, complicated printing presses used by companies like Shutterfly to make custom photo books.

James Martin/CNET

Let me explain a cool thing that probably I shouldn't. We have been working in the last years to help hospitals decorate rooms where kids are being treated. We did some technology to print posters and wallpaper. It is the only technology that can be used in a hospital. So now, in many departments for cancer treatment, they have been decorated so when kids go through the big machines, they are like space shuttles. What we are doing now is embedding AR technologies on those posters, so when the kids are waiting to be treated, they can go through a scavenger hunt. This help them to forget what is happening really with them. It can bring very cool experiences that can really help people to go through very difficult times.

You're not in HP's 3D printer division, but you are expanding beyond printing on paper. What other media are in the future?
Lores: By the end of the year, we will be shipping our first textile printer products. We are also launching this year a printer for corrugated cardboard. We can print on almost any type of plastic material. The amount of substrates we cover is very broad, and we are going to continue to expand that.

This year we are also launching the first printer that will be able to print on rigid material. You can put a door through it and we will be printing on the door. It's up to 3 meters wide. It's going to be used a lot for either decoration and advertising.

With fabric printing, the first thing that sprang to my mind is custom T-shirts.
Lores: Our interest in textile is going to be more in sportswear, because for every kind of fabric you need to have special type of inks. You can print curtains or big textile signs. We will be expanding to T-shirts or other types of garments when we a design new type of ink.

Who are the customers for that?
Lores: It could be Nike printing sports shirts. We also see companies where you upload your photo or your design and they will print it for you. For example, most cycling teams have their own shirts for the club.

2020 is the year of the Olympics in Tokyo. We are working with a big publisher there that has the rights for manga comics. They are going to open a hotel. When you register, you will be able to say how you want your room decorated, and then they will personalize the full room for you. The carpet will be your carpet. The bed sheets will be the ones you like. The wallpaper will be the wallpaper you want. The photos or the portraits in the room will come from the topic you say. You can say, "I want a Star Wars room," and the room will be a Star Wars experience. Maybe the next person will have a soccer theme.

Things that today we get the same as everybody else -- in the future they will all be personalized. 

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