Is Desktop Printing a Hopeless Technology?

Add it to the list of “Things that shouldn't be done at home.”

At the beginning of the day, I like to take the temperature of the printing scene on the internet. Any hot news? How about wild conjecture? To be honest, exciting things don't happen every day, but almost inevitably, intriguing trends do emerge over time.

Ever since the beginning of the new year, for example, I've been seeing a lot of tweets to the effect of, “I got a printer for Xmas. Still sitting unopened in the corner…” Moreover, as of late, multiple bloggers have been questioning the future of printing—not commercially speaking, but on the desktop.

And believe it or not, this trend didn't start with The Oatmeal. For a long time, there's been a building sense of animosity towards the desktop printer. And while the rest of the infuriating things about technology seem to be improving, slowly but surely, it's as if home printing technology hasn't moved a step. It's gotten more complex, yes, but it hasn't gotten any more usable, or functional.

As Matthew Inman put it—eloquently, I'll admit—in the timely comic “Why I Believe Printers Were Sent From Hell To Make Us Miserable,” the average printer has been consistently sold without essential components, with impenetrable software, and guaranteed to disappoint with bizarre glitches, useless error messages, and baffling ink problems. And this has been going on for well nigh on twenty years.

So what does this tell us? Maybe that the printer is one of those things, like the Beer Machine, the Flowbee, and the home appendectomy kit, that was never suited to the personal size. It actually reminds me a lot of the snowblower my family had when I was a kid. It was supposed to be a miniature version of those huge, industrial, tractor-like machines used by city workers to deal with natural disasters. Needless to say, it got the job done about as well and consistently as does a desktop printer.

In the end, the reality of snow was just too much for the personal-sized snowblower. It lacked the power and complexity to actually clean up after a snowstorm. Under optimal conditions—a fine powder, let's say—it did great, but throw in ice, grit, or any other natural obstacles, and poor little John Deere At Home would fall apart.

And the same is true for the printer. Desktop printing technology keeps coming up with new features. What it doesn't come up with is a printer that works half as well or consistently as, well, a real printer.

When we buy a printer at Hotcards, we travel halfway around the world to pick it out. Our new printer is shipped to us in a container large enough to sneak in a few smartcars. When it arrives, it requires an intense setup process, and constant loving care. It prints millions of sheets a week, and it lasts for…let's just say that many of the very first offset printers are still in operation.

Is this really the sort of thing that you can translate into a clickety, clackety desktop contraption?

I'm not trying to naysay the desktop printer in an effort to convince everyone to use commercial printing for all their coupon-saving needs. I'm just saying that as the years tick by, and most technologies evolve, consumers are becoming more and more frustrated with the options available to them. And whether or not the desktop printing industry wants to hear it, it's true: printing technology may be too complex for the desktop. Either start building home printers that vaguely resemble something made by Heidelberg, or leave the printing work to the printing experts.

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