Where’s the iPod of Printers?

Because of some recent client work, lately I’ve been thinking about printers. Aside from some pretty trivial advances in technology, I don’t think they’ve changed much in the last decade.

I’ve been musing on what the game-changer for printers could be. You know, the thing that makes the whole industry look up and go “WTF?” I’m talking iPod-type change.

Here are the best two ideas I could come up with, neither of which really qualifies as game-changing:

  • Give the printer away, and just charge for printer cartridges and paper.
  • Sell the customer the printer, but they never have to change the cartridge or the paper (presumably the printer has a big storage capacity). The printer automatically calls home when it’s low on either, and then somebody shows up at your door to replace the ink and paper.

I suppose the real game-changed will be the eventual arrival of electronic paper. E-paper now has a kind of flying car rep–always promised but never delivered.

How would you re-invent the printer?

Reading over this post, it feels a bit like I’m trying to do shady market research for my client. I’m not–printers have just been on my mind lately.


  1. What would really take off is if you don’t have to change cartridges or toners.. Just buy the printer and you don’t have to replace anything. I don’t have an idea how that could become possible, however I believe that one day it would be possible!

  2. Without singling out any particular brand, I’ve come to consider printers one of those things where the values are all messed up and so I avoid them altogether.

    Here’s what I mean: In some cases the cartridges are so expensive it would be cheaper to throw away the printer and buy a new one for the included cartridges.

    I know the cartridges are pretty complicated, but it feels to me like the cost of keeping a printer up and running is skewed and as such I have a hard time judging the value. So I end up walking down the street a few blocks and doing most of my printing at a copy shop.

  3. B&W laser printers provide much better value if you don’t need colour printing — plus the toner tends to last a lot longer.

    But here’s my proposal: the iPod of printers would be like an iPod. It would really work, all the time, over the network or directly, with any computer that’s hooked up, easily and without fuss.

    Even in our Mac-only, geek-filled household, one of the most common refrains is, “What? Why isn’t it printing again?” (Yes, even with the supposedly “zero configuration” Bonjour networking built into Macs.) I’m sure any tech support person in any company will tell you that “it won’t print” is one of their most commonly heard complaints.

    Solving that problem is not so much a matter of printer technology, but of drivers and operating systems, so I don’t know if a printer manufacturer can make it happen.

    But if there were a printer that was cheap and easy to refill and that worked every time from any computer I threw at it, I’d be happy.

  4. I’m quite happy with my sony prs-505 ebook reader. It doen’t replace printers, but ‘e-ink’ is definitely interesting technology.

  5. The iPod of printers would be built-in to my laptop, so that I’d always have a portable printer. I imagine e.g. a slot on the back of the screen that you can feed a sheet of paper into. It should also have very low consumables costs.

  6. What, $300 colour laser printers aren’t enough?

    Printers barely wider than a sheet of paper and only a few inches in the other two dimensions are already available, and have been for at least a decade.

    The reason printers aren’t advancing fast is because the technology is mature and the market is not growing. Inkjets are pretty flaky, and the consumables cost the world, but the clever people have already converted to the very reasonably priced laser printers.

    Cost per page on lasers probably has more to do with the price of paper than the price of toner, these days.

    To that extent: printers are in the same territory as DSLRs now: in the consumer market, the cost of the “analog” elements (lenses in the case of cameras, toner/paper in the case of printing) is coming to dominate the cost of the total product.

  7. Riffing on a few ideas in the other comments:

    No consumables: how about thermal paper that works, looks like laser.

    Speaking of thermal…laser, how about just burning/etching the paper directly somehow, so it doesn’t have to be full of chemicals as thermal paper probably is–voila, no toner needed.

    Or maybe drumless laser printing, so it could be small and linear like an inkjet.

    My favorite printing technology of late is GreenPrint, a driver between your app and the printer that lets you select which pages to print (e.g. remove those blank pages when you print your e-ticket) and a font that puts up to 20% more info on a page. There’s some other stuff there too, but I really like those two because they have the “why didn’t I think of that” feel.

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