Printers: Demolishing the dream of a paperless office

In 1938, a dry printing process called electrophotography (commonly called a Xerox) was invented, forming the foundation technology for laser printers.

The first high-speed printer was developed in 1953 for use on one of the first commercially available computers, Univac.

Of course, the printer “sitting quietly on your desk” is a bit of a false impression. Early printers were line or “impact” printers using keys (or daisywheels or “golf balls” or pins as in dot matrix printers), which means they were slow, huge and noisy — so much so that some keen users watching their printouts were said to have lost their hearing. One institution using a “radiation printer” reported the paper bursting into flames, with the paper feeder acting as a stoking device, adding more fuel to the fire! Who says printers aren’t exciting!

Linton Scott, director of IT at ABN Amro, says: “Because line printers were very expensive, large companies could only afford one printer and, usually, mainframes were only capable of driving one printer anyway.” To that end, he says, users in the early 60s resorted to all sorts of trickery to improve printer availability, such as using facsimile-posting machines to reproduce printouts and sticky labels to add information to ledger cards.

Between 1969 and 1971, the original laser printer EARS (the Ethernet-Alto research character generator scanning laser output terminal), was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC, also responsible for developing the Alto WYSIWYG PC, the mouse, the GUI, Ethernet, etc, etc).

According to Xerox, the first xerographic laser printer, the 9700, was released in 1977, although IBM has similar claims for the high-speed IBM 3800 installed in an accounting office of Woolworth’s in 1976. Also in that year, the inkjet printer was invented, although it took some time to become accepted.

No one knows who invented z-fold paper.

Nonetheless, printing speeds and quality kept pace with demand. In fact, in many cases availability of printer technology and ease of printing, as well as the growth of e-mail and the graphics-heavy Web, encouraged users to print more, putting an end forever to the concept of the paperless office.

Scott says that “There is no doubt that the laser printer has revolutionised printing within offices in terms of speed, cost, quality of graphics and quality of print. And in recent times, the cost has reduced to such an extent that they are simply commodity items in any office, and now affordable in most homes as well.”

Ross Marshallsea, department manager, Information Technology & Telecommunications at Chisholm Institute of TAFE in Melbourne southeast region, says: “The introduction of shared printing (and copier) devices has forced a change in office dynamics; no longer does everyone need a printer attached to their computer, and increasingly more information is printed and not photocopied.” He should know: Chisholm’s print centre outputs 18 million impressions per year, and non-print centre printer/copier volume is an additional 10 million copies a year.

Office printer politics gets very territorial at times. Marshallsea adds that, at least at Chisholm, “Even if a fast modern network printer is located in close proximity, there is a lot of resistance from people surrendering old and outdated personal printers.”

This has caused major problems with financial implications. “Stopping the purchase of non-standard print consumables remains one of our biggest challenges. If the institute can reduce the cost of printing (and/or copying) by 1 cent per page, the savings would equate annually to $100,000.”

According to Joel Martin, IDC’s research director, infrastructure & communications, recent major developments include the demise of the dot matrix printer in favour of laser printers, the rise of inkjets and the use of colour, and solid ink technology that reduces waste.

Lai-Ling Lam, a Gartner analyst based in Singapore, says the main trends are better features, faster speed, wireless printing, and the convergence of different devices into one (such as the multifunction printer that prints, copies, sorts, collates, binds, and makes the tea).

Martin expects printer speeds to increase, especially in colour printers, as well as increased portability (small form factors) for mobile users.

Scott (a Canon user) says: “The colour laser printer will be the device that we will find in every corner of our office and home. With these, we can expect to produce excellent quality at a cost that we can all afford.”

Marshallsea (a Hewlett-Packard user) says the increased use of wireless in the office and home environment will provide users with greater access to a range of devices, including printing.

“Cost-effective colour printing will also be driven by users’ expectations and demand for quality.”

Quoting Gartner, he adds that “By 2004, 70 per cent of all printing will be billed on a cost-per-page basis.”

But if there is one trend Marshallsea would like to see reversed, it’s the remanufactured laser toner cartridge.

“The market is regulated by bandits and crooks. The absence of any ethics or quality standards in this section of the IT industry frustrates any real attempt to realistically measure printing costs. As a consequence, the uninitiated will continue to pay a premium for consumables and for those with any savvy, the transition to a manageable cost-per-page model will probably not come quick enough.”

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