Konica Minolta seeks to reinvent itself as an IT services provider with the launch of Workplace Hub
Faced with declining print volumes, longer hardware replacement cycles and shrinking margins for their core products, printer vendors, for years now, have been trying to reinvent themselves as IT services providers, often with scant justification and little success.
Konica Minolta is planning to buck the trend. Earlier this year, it signalled its intentions with the acquisition of ProcessFlows, a document management and automation specialist, and now, more significantly, it has launched a new platform designed to simplify IT infrastructure and management in small and medium-sized businesses.
The Workplace Hub is a compact server/storage/networking unit that connects to an organisation’s existing tools, services and devices, providing a single dashboard for easy management of the IT infrastructure, plus a range of IT services delivered by Konica Minolta.
The platform, developed with key partners HP (server), Sophos (security) and Microsoft (collaboration and office solutions), is designed to help SMEs with their digital transformation now and in the future. The product road-map, for example, includes the integration of technologies such as IoT, AI, Intelligent Edge and Decision Support as they become part of the workplace of tomorrow.
When it is launched in the autumn, Konica Minolta’s platform will be available in four versions: the standalone Edge; the rack Edge; the Workplace Hub; and the Workplace Hub Mini. The Workplace Hub variants feature an Edge built into an enclosure beneath an A3 MFP and an A4 printer respectively.
This link with Konica Minolta’s heritage is for practical rather than sentimental little room for equipment, and the range of the built-in WiFi antenna is reportedly better if located within a printer on the office floor rather than in a server room.
To find out more about the product, James Goulding spoke to Jerômé-Etienne Zastrow, Konica Minolta Manager Portfolio Extension, asking him first about the thinking behind its development.
“We had a look at what work problems SMEs have and found that the complexity of the IT environment in a small company is not much less than in a big company. Yet the big company has an IT department staffed with specialists. A small company or the branch office of a bigger company generally only has one generalist to cope with all this complexity.
“We spoke to these guys and one quote that stuck in my head was ‘When everything runs smoothly my boss comes up to me and says what am I paying you for? And when things go wrong he comes to me and again says what am I paying you for?’. For me, that really expresses the difficult position these people are in,” he said.
Zastrow points out that while IT has become more connected and less complex in enterprises, small businesses have yet to benefit from this trend and are still having to manage large numbers of devices and software applications.
“One of the people we spoke to said he would be happy if he could cut down from 50 to 15 administration software administer?’ and he said ‘Easy. We started with an office in London and then we bought a company in Birmingham with a totally different IT set-up, and then we acquired a small company somewhere else and they again had a different set-up’. As a small company, you can’t immediately renew the entire IT of the companies involved, so huge complexity builds up.
“We thought how can we change that. We looked at all the IT infrastructure in a company and basically put all those that are accessed by multiple people in a box – the server, the storage, the WiFi networking, security, printers and so on. We standardised that so that every workplace has the same server, the same storage, the same security and created a dashboard that we put on top so that now the IT generalist doesn’t have to cope with 10 or 15 different applications, but just one.
“The second part is that we offer services around this. We offer to provide services for everything or just certain items – the customer can pick and mix. At the moment, we are offering back-up and security management, server management, WiFi management, repair services, copy and printing services, IT helpdesk services, and we will add more services in the future,” he said.
The third element of the Workplace Hub is Teamspaces, an HTML 5 application that Konica Minolta has developed to about collaboration. These range from connectivity issues to the complexity of dealing with companies with different collaboration platforms and different file sharing platforms, and even the difficulty of standardising collaboration within an organisation.
“Every company we encountered complained about how difficult collaboration is, which was interesting for us because at that stage we weren’t talking about collaboration but only IT and infrastructure. We thought everything to do with collaboration was solved, but people said there is still a lot that is wrong,” explained Zastrow.
“So we came up with the idea of Teamspaces and putting everything to do with collaboration – text messaging, video calls, voice calls, file sharing etc. – under one dashboard. We are not offering all these services, but are connecting the tools that a company already uses. We can connect to Lync, we can connect to Sharepoint, we can connect to Webex, we can connect to Google Cloud, we can connect to Dropbox and so on. This makes it far easier for non-hardcore users of these systems, while hardcore users still get full usage, because it’s just a connector, a different view.”
This application underlines one of the attractions of Workplace Hub for small businesses, which is the potential to change applications and services at a pace that suits them.
“There will always be legacy systems, and smaller companies don’t like to be limited to one vendor,” explained Zastrow. “The only thing we do is replace the hardware so you don’t have legacy and old equipment. And you don’t need to purchase it – you just rent it per month per user from us, so there is no upfront investment. On the software side, you can keep using what you already use.”
A square metre of datacentre
It is this easy user experience that most excites another of Konica Minolta’s partners, Canonical creator of the Ubuntu operating system used by the Workplace Hub to connect the hardware and software and so create the user experience.
John Zannos, vice president Alliances/Business Development at Canonical, describes the Workplace Hub as ‘a square metre of datacentre in every small company in the world where they have a printer’ – an entry point for data coming into that company and being distributed to employees and for those employees to be able to make use of an application and push information out to the cloud.
He is looking forward to working with Konica Minolta to build a broader ecosystem of partners and applications, incorporating developing technologies like AI and machine learning to make the user experience even richer.
“I foresee a time when this device can be somewhat self-aware. Say, I am in a hospital, what are the applications that matter for a hospital? What are the functions and services the average employee in a hospital needs to use? At launch, this product is about a horizontal strategy hub, but ultimately you can see a world where it is vertically segmented, sensitive to the challenges of each particular market segment,” he said.
For Zannos, its ability to make complex technology accessible to everyone is what really sets the Workplace Hub apart.
“Back in the day, there was somebody that rode a horse, who said ‘I am always going to ride a horse’. Then the train came and they said ‘That’s really noisy, expensive, never on time; I’m going to continue to ride my horse’. After some time, the train was all of a sudden convenient, inexpensive, always accessible and always on time, and that person for all their historical bias stops riding the horse. What Konica Minolta have created is that moment. They are trying to package technology so it’s easily accessible for anybody to use, and that will drive adoption,” he said.
Hub & spoke
Konica Minolta also unveiled a Workplace Hub accessory called the Spoke (naturally). Likely to be launched in 2019, this portable workspace gives mobile workers secure access to all their files (encrypted) when out and about. It comes with LTE (4G and 5G) connectivity and 2 Terabytes of hard disk space and can be used online (including file syncing with the office network) and offline. The final product will also feature a conferencing system and a projector. The latter could be used to project a virtual keyboard onto a flat surface, enabling the Spoke to be used for input and removing the need for an additional device. The current prototype is designed by BMW Designworks and fits into the cup holder of a BMW Mini. The final product is likely to have a sleeker, more bag-friendly form.