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Paper Jammed

Paper Jammed

An attempt to cut back on printing leaves our obstreperous observer with a painful paper cut

I’ve decided that the long awaited nirvana of the paperless office is more distant than ever after receiving a press release touting a swag of new printers, which shows they’re alive and thriving. I have the press release on my desk so I can’t give any specific details, not because I can’t find the press release on my desk, but I can’t find my desk. It’s probably somewhere under numerous piles of paper.

Printing technology has extended well beyond print so it’s no longer accurate to call them printers — they are now MFPs. MF stands for multi-function, although people often use an alternative name when a paper jam occurs on the most important page just as the document deadline is due.

The multi-functions include printing (thankfully they’ve retained that function), fax, scanner and photocopying. Some MFPs scan at such a high resolution that they will fill your hard disk with a single photo (and fill your night waiting for it to complete). Often these are bundled with OCR software providing questionable degrees of accuracy. OCR is optical character recognition, but one piece of software I used recently read it as Opbcal Cbaracten Reoognitlon.

Printers have even gained their independence, breaking the shackles of a computer attachment. They now plug in every size and shape of memory stick, USB key and flash devices, progressing from multiple holes required in paper for tractor feed to multiple holes required in printers for data feed.

With all the MF capabilities jammed into these printers now — if they could take photos and make phone calls, they’d replace smart phones — it’s amazing how the designers have retained so many inaccessible places paper can get jammed. Opening the various flaps, lids, hatches, drawers and levers to locate the paper problem is reminiscent of antique multi-compartment Chinese bureaus designed to keep papers hidden. Little has changed.

On the Dot

Printer technologies have now consolidated down to either laser or inkjet — a far cry from the varied range that has come and gone in the past 20 years.

The old faithful was the dot matrix. It had average but acceptable quality for text documents, which was all people used to print, and a reusable print ribbon that lasted months with a minuscule cost per page. Effective, reliable and cheap — obviously it needed replacing. As technology advanced, newer word processing software presented all documents — even plain text ones — to the printer as images rather than characters, which reduced the printing speed to about two pages per hour.

Resistive ribbon was one of those impressive technology ideas that never made it, so is now forgotten. Ink was embedded in wax on the ribbon which was released by heated pins in the print head that melted the wax: sort of a “hot matrix”. This printer technology emerged largely due to development problems and delays in inkjet printing.

Pen plotters made a brief appearance, showed themselves to be slow and expensive (but with lots of pretty colours) and settled into a technical drawing niche.

Thermal transfer was a cheaper and more compact technology, making it ideal for point of sale (POS) and electronic whiteboards, with the tiny disadvantage that the printouts, assuming they were legible when printed, faded shortly afterwards, especially in bright light. Photocopying or faxing a page usually resulted in a blank copy and indistinct original.

The biggest advance in printing recently has not been technological but economic, with vendors switching profit margins from the product to the consumables. Multi-function printers can be bought for under $70, which is around the same cost as individual printer cartridges. Suddenly the six-colour printers don’t seem quite as attractive as they were in the shop. Add the cost of paper (unless you work in an office, where it’s provided as part of the unofficial salary package along with pens, folders and the occasional laptop), and printing is a seriously expensive endeavour.

This is the same successful strategy that has served the mobile phone industry so well (get the phone for free, pay for coverage for life), and more recently pay TV. Given the cost of petrol, the next industry to follow this model is likely to be automobiles. I predict we’ll soon see Mobil giving away new cars, fitted with Mobil-specific petrol caps and requiring monthly Mobil-branded servicing.

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