Friday, April 7, 2017

Are Printers Dead? My Short History with Computer Printers

As a kid, I thought this Digital Equipment Corporation 9-pin dot matrix LA-36 "Decwriter" that was a big as a desk and weight 200 lbs, was pretty hot shit.   How times have changed.

Printing has changed dramatically in the last few years.  I realized this when my last HP printer died and I decided to replace it and discovered that a new printer was incredibly cheap - almost dirt cheap.   Cartridges, on the other hand, are another story.

But it got me to thinking how printing has changed over the years, and how eventually printers may go the way of the dial phone - as no one prints out much anymore.  Part of the problem is electronic devices - we display documents and photos on screens now, not paper.  And crappy inkjet printers do a lousy job of "printing" photos, if the cartridges are not brand spanking new - so most people don't bother printing much.  The cartridges dry up and we get tired of paying so much for them and just stop printing entirely - and not missing much.

Maybe printing, like photography, was slated to go by the wayside.   But the way the printer companies, particularly HP, sort of milked us for every last nickel, made the whole process so toxic that it accelerated the demise of the technology.

My first printer was an Epson 9-pin dot matrix job, and I thought I was pretty slick to have it.  I think it cost over $200 new, which was a lot of money back then - enough to buy a used car, or at least a used motorcycle.   I had big printers at work, and they cost thousands, so the idea I could print faint 9-pin images at home was startling.   All I needed was a box of tractor-feed paper, and I was off and printing!

Ah, yes, "plain paper" printing was still years off.  Paper feed mechanisms were just not that robust, so the paper you used had tractor feed strips on the side, and if you were really slick, you bought "plain white" paper with "micro-perf" perforations on the sides where the tractor feed strips attached, as well as between pages.   When you separated pages of printed material, only a fine fuzzy edge remained!

The only other "supply" the printer needed was a ribbon, which was a continuous thing that wound around again and again through a cartridge until the printing got lighter and lighter.  3rd party cartridges were readily available and cheap.

I managed to find an old Remington "Daisy Wheel" plain paper printer with a sheet feeder.  It did "letter perfect" printing using a carbon ribbon, but was a loud as it's namesake's shotgun.   I managed to salvage an "acoustical enclosure" and an older printer desk for it, and used it at my Office at the Patent Office.   It would take at least a few minutes to type out a page of text.
My next printer was, I believe, a Panasonic KXP-1134, 27-pint dot matrix printer.  I think it was about $250 or so.  This was an advance from the Epson, and I guess the Daisy Wheel had died by then.  The 27-pin head could produce "near letter quality" text, and it worked well enough.   I ended up getting a second one at a garage sale for $20 and I used both of them with tractor-feed check stock to print checks for a few years.

By then, I had my workhorses - a pair of matched HP Lasterjet 4/P with something called Adobe "Postscript".   These were real diesel engines and lasted over a decade. I think I paid nearly $1000 each for them - laser jets!  The big time!  They could be networked and printed out documents all day long, which at the time was necessary as everything we filed a the USPTO was on paper - as was the copies sent to clients.   In fact, damn little was sent by e-mail back then.

Cartridges for the laserjets were not too expensive and 3rd party cartridges were not hard to find - or refilled ones.

The Laserjets followed me to my home office and then one to New York and another to Georgia.  They slowly wound down, jamming more and more often.  All those little rubber wheels and flaps wear out over time and it just jams.   I had a fax machine back then - "plain paper" which came with an extra set of rollers to replace when the originals wore out.  A good idea, but not worthwhile today.

I bought a huge photocopier on Craigslist - actually three of them - from a place in Jamestown New York, for about $100, and assembled one working copier from the three.   It had a computer interface and could work as a printer as well.   By that time, my Laserjet in New York was on its last legs.   The copier was pretty cool, but it used a lot of juice when it ran.  It could print a 600-page document in only a minute or so, both sides, collate, and staple as well (I was in printer heaven!).   It had four different paper size drawers and a huge main paper supply that could accomodate an entire pallet of copy paper, or so it seemed.  Eventually, though, it too started to get old and jam and I found out that getting rid of an old photocopier ain't easy to to!

We moved to Georgia and the last Laserjet died finally.   I bought it in 1995 and had it until about 2007 - not a bad run.   I replaced it with a smaller HP Laser 1320 from Staples, for about $250 or so.  That printer worked "OK" although the OEM HP cartridges were ridiculously expensive and aftermarket or re-fills never seemed to work quite right.  It soldiered on until this year - nearly a decade, before succumbing to increased jamming and frustration.

Now, along the way, I also had a number of inkjet printers, including a black-and-white printer I used with my laptop while traveling.   Back then, and even today, they gave away inkjet printers with the purchase of a computer, but they were very slow and the cost per page was very high.  One cartridge would print only a few hundred pages before you had to replace it.    Color printers weren't much better and the cartridges were expensive.

Inkjets, when they work well, work well.   But unless used constantly, the cartridges dry out and the images have stripes or other artifacts in them.   I install new cartridges and print a couple of photos and they look great.  A month later I try to print something else, and there are lines and artifacts in the images.   You might as well not bother!

The printing industry was getting away from the capital equipment model of printing and into a cost-per-page leasing type model.   When I bought the LaserJets, HP made money on the printer.  The cartridge business was secondary and there was an aftermarket for cartridges.   Inkjets followed a different model - the printer was essentially free, and the companies made money on the cartridges.  In essence, you were paying by the page to print, not owning a machine and operating it to make printed pages.

It is like the difference between owning a stamping press and operating it to stamp out car fenders, as opposed to just buying car fenders from someone else.  This whole trend left a bad taste in my mouth, as it did with others, and it made printing an expensive pain-in-the-ass.

In a way, it was like CDs.   The record companies charged a boatload of money for CDs, basically gouging consumers if they wanted to buy records.   Who wants to spend $10 or $20 on a CD and maybe find out you don't like the music?   When the iPod came along - and later online streaming - people were happy to be done with the CDs which were quite bulky in their little plastic cases.   Technology changed, but new tech became popular because the people pushing the old tech made it noxious and expensive - pushing people to new technology.   The new tech wasn't a draw, people were pushed - much as railroads and trolleys, with there miserable service and high prices pushed people to cars..

The same is true for printing.   We just don't print anymore - not the 600-page documents I used to make on that enormous copier/printer.   Today, we attach PDF files or WORD files to an e-mail and send it.   Or we just type an e-mail.   The kids today don't even do that - they text or tweet.   Printing and mailing things is just annoying, so no one does it.   And when we receive a document, it is just as easy to read it on a screen (or dual screens) as it is to print it out and read it.

I went online to look for a new printer.   Mark suggested going into town to Staples or Sam's Club, but I knew in advance they would have a limited selection and high prices and the people working there would have no idea of which one was better than the other, if they knew anything at all.   They would, if asked, either shrug or suggest the one that the main office was pushing them to sell.

I found a Canon laser printer / scanner / copier online for about $95 including shipping.   A laser printer for under a hundred bucks!   The cartridges from Canon are like $75 each, and even third party cartridges are $35.   Even laser printers today are basically disposable.   If one jams a lot, simply throw it out and get a new one.   It ain't worth dicking around with a worn printer!

But coming from the old-school "capital equipment" model of printing, it took me a while to figure this out.

Compounding the problem is that the printing companies are getting greedy - trying to milk the last dollar out of a dying business.  So they put "chips" in the cartridges so you cannot use a 3rd party cartridge, as the printer won't recognize it.  HP also seems to love to say your printer is out of toner long before it actually is, too.

Printing is just, well, annoying these days, and I guess that is because it is a dying industry.  And since so many of them are now made in China, the cost of the printers is down to, well, nearly nothing.   You are almost better off just buying a new printer as to putting a new cartridge in it.   $95 for the printer, $75 for the cartridge.  Just buy a new printer - although that seems wasteful, doesn't it?

I am not sure where this is going, but it seems that this is another connect-the-dots thing in a long line where we, as "consumers" (a name I detest) are owning things less and less and renting or leasing them more and more.   Technology passes through our lives, but does not linger.   You don't buy for the long haul anymore, but just for the next 18-24 months, it seems.

And maybe part of that is the rapid obsolescence of technology these days, or maybe it is part of the planned obsolescence of technology.   But looking back, it is hard to tell which was better and which was worse.   Those HP 4P Laserjets were expensive machines.  And even though they lasted a decade or so, the cost of my current printer is 1/10th that of the old Laserjet.   I could buy a new one every year for less than the cost of the old HP 4P.

It is a new world, and I guess I need to re-think how I use technology to its best advantage, in terms of cost and reliability.