The End of the Desktop Printer

February 17th, 2010

I was pleased to encounter Adrian Kingsley-Hughes’ blog posting this evening, “The Slow Demise of the Printer.” Of course many of my readers could read into the title in two ways: an acknowledgement of my frequently noted difficulties at printing companies, or as a note on the decline in the use of desktop printers. You’ll realize from the title of this blog that he means the latter.

This is a topic that I’ve been following for a decade or more. The champions of paper and printing argued early that the Internet and the web actually were accelerating the consumption of both, as most people were not comfortable with reading long documents on yesterday’s generation of CRT screens. It was true. CRT screens did tend to weary the eyes after hours of viewing, and, at the same time, a lot of very long documents were published, whether as Microsoft Word docs or PDFs. Much easier to print them out and read them at your leisure, perhaps during business travel, back in the days when that was not a complete horror show.

As recently as 2006, an article in Toronto’s Globe & Mail proudly stated, “It’s official: The paperless office, predicted for more than 30 years, hasn’t happened. Less paper? Today’s offices use more. Paper use at home is skyrocketing too, and printer sales are way up. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Yet by that December, The Christian Science Monitor was reporting that “…after decades of hype, American offices may finally be losing their paper obsession. The demand for paper used to outstrip the growth of the US economy, but the past two or three years have seen a marked slowdown in sales — despite a healthy economic scene.” More recent reports indicate that the demand for laser printer paper is now declining.

Several things have changed (besides the horror of business travel). LCD screens have significantly higher resolution that CRTs, and the evolution of video cards allows us many more controls to set those screens to a suitable brightness/contrast setting for comfortable reading (of course most people don’t bother with the adjustments, but they’re there). Digital typography continues to improve  through the efforts of Adobe, Microsoft and some of their smaller competitors.

At the same time the web has trained most of us on the art of “skimming.” Yes some documents, books and other printable materials must be read careful, even repeatedly. But the bulk is dross, and if you can make it through the executive summary, you’ve probably aced the comprehension challenge for that piece of malarkey.

I saw early on that for me at least there was far too much interesting information I could access from the web to justify printing it all out and never getting around to reading it. So instead I create PDFs of stories that I think are interesting to me or readers of this blog, and file them carefully. They’re availabe to me through my filing system, but never in my face.

Works just fine.

I occasionally print out longer articles to read while travelling, but just as often copy them to my small laptop to read on-board, on-screen. Also workable.

I do not believe that the future of publishing will include more printed output. The changing landscape is just not tending that way.

Is it different for you?