The year is 2020, and your morning newspaper is ringing. You take your wake-up telephone call offering the latest tape-recorded hot headlines. If you’re a senior citizen on ‘security alert’ and don’t respond, the newspaper’s vigilant mainframe computer will assume you’re the victim of some mishap and notify the police. Putting down the phone, you retrieve the print portion of the paper from your doorstep—only the sections you’ve requested, of course. The Washington Times, April 5, 1990
The Digital Future, on Paper
When I was 10 or 11 years old I saw a commercial for a printer (I think it was an HP) that stayed with me over the years. In a home office, bathed in warm early-morning light, a printer blinked to life and printed a few pages of headlines and text. A golden retriever picked up the pile in his mouth, walked into the bedroom next door, and dropped it on his owner's bedside table. Boom: Morning paper, fresh-printed but still with that magical dog-slobber touch.
But even as I child I knew this dog wouldn't hunt: Wasn’t digital media, including home printing technology, supposed to challenge the dominance of print materials, not encourage it?
The 1990s were a lot of things—progressive, revolutionary, boring, futuristic—but hindsight, its technological advances often seemed only to cloud our impressions of the future. Said another way, one would have been hard-pressed to make an accurate prediction of what digital media (and especially the internet) promised.
Before web technology became ubiquitous, we tended to believe that the coming digital revolution would change things, but only in such a way as to enable and encourage the consumption of printed information. Physical media would remain the dominant form because, well, that’s how it had always been, and that's what we knew. Imagine: the printer as the informational focal point of the future household. What a wonder!
A Cloudy Crystal Ball
What rubbish. Clearly, we underestimated the internet’s impact on printing, because this is not how the future unfolded. Knowing now the slender grip print media has on public convenience, it’s interesting—and a little funny—to look back on how people were preparing for the coming digital revolution. Shall we?
A 1994 article in The New York Times predicted that home printers would eventually be located next to the television set, so as to more easily “deliver tickets, discount coupons and printed information.” This was suggested as part of Time Warner’s idea of an “interactive video system.” The idea of merging disparate technologies into a single, do-it-all gadget is a central force behind many great advances, so Time Warner’s proposal may not have been wrongheaded in its attempt to broaden the potential of the home television. But they were clearly wrong in assuming the supremacy of physical media as part of their solution.
But this trend wasn’t limited to media conglomerates. On the hardware side, there was the Canon Note Jet 486 computer. Released in 1993, this 7.7-pound laptop featured a built-in inkjet printer. That’s right: a built-in printer. Far from the lightweight simplicity of Galaxy tablets and MacBook Air laptops, this facsimile-enabled behemoth cost a whopping $2,499. Even with its monochromatic display and Y2K non-compliance, tech journalists were impressed. Here’s The New York Times in 1993:
“The Note Jet is also a harbinger of future generations of mobile computers that offer many features that executives now enjoy in their offices. If a laser-quality printer can be tucked inside a notebook PC, it probably won’t be long until we see built-in cellular telephones with answering machines, wireless pagers and beepers, send and receive facsimile capabilities with a built-in scanner, and even video cameras for remote teleconferencing.”
He was sort of right about built-in answering machines and video cameras, but adorably off the mark otherwise. Why do you need a beeper if you have a cell phone? How would a fax machine ever fit in your pocket? But how can we blame him; in 1994 the internet was stilled called “Internet.”
Even into the late 1990s, as the internet hit the mainstream, the world wasn’t sold on the idea of a mostly digital future. Take this 1998 article from the New Straits Times (an English-language Malaysian newspaper):
“Although digital access, distribution and storage are the principle (sic) enabling force of information growth, paper will remain the preferred human interface because it is still the most effective means of presenting, reviewing and sharing information.”
If by “effective” this reporter means “familiar,” then sure. But I don’t think anyone living in the year 2012 would agree that the classifieds section is more effective than Craigslist, cue cards more effective than PowerPoint, or microfiche more effective than Google News. The author only digs himself deeper with this call-out in the same article:
“Myth: As more and more information ended up in a digital form and put on networks, particularly the internet, there will be less need to print.”
But perhaps these positions could be chalked up to mere denial. After all, the newspaper industry has been fretting its own demise since the early 90s.
In 1993, the New Straits Times reported on a publishers convention in Boston that saw one marketing consultant stand up and declare to the room full of newspaper professionals, “You guys are irrelevant… You are extinct.” Even before internet access was common, newspaper readership was declining. Is it surprising, then, that the print industry expected more printing to be the antidote? Wouldn’t the subscriber numbers jump if they could simply print their newspapers at home?
It turned out that, no, they wouldn’t. Rather, consumers welcomed the convenience of digital, non-printed media—but only the savviest of publishers recognized this. In 1992, the Associated Press published a story about Oxford University’s move to adopt “electronic publishing,” as it was then known:
“All you need to subscribe is a PC, a telephone line and access to a communications system like Bitnet or Internet. Articles are instantaneously available around the world and can be printed on a home printer.”
While still fixed on the idea of home printing, the article exhibits a rare display of technological foresight, in that it shows how some institutions were preparing for the digital future. Among them were universities, unsurprisingly some of the first to make widespread use of network services.
The article goes on to quote a librarian from North Carolina State University, who argued “there is little doubt” electronic publishing will replace paper within the next 20 years. Today paper is by no means dead, but considering that this article was published almost exactly 20 years ago (December 9, 1992) and digital media is making serious inroads on print, it’s still an impressive prognostication.
Print Is Dead, Long Live Print
Demand for personal printing is still kicking, and we suspect office printers will outlast plenty of gadgets that we currently take for granted. However, the advent of smartphones and tablets has sent the home printer market into a death spiral. Most of the major players are leaving or have already bailed on the market—Canon and Epson are the last big names left.
Most people simply don’t feel the need to print information they can view (and share) perfectly well on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. And as wild as some predictions from the 1990s were, this trend has only recently taken hold. Five years ago, who could have predicted that nearly half of U.S. adults (45 percent, according to Pew Research) would own a smartphone by now?
And what about tablets? Remember how widely ridiculed the “it’s just a big iPod” iPad was right after Apple announced it? Now tablets computers are everywhere. And then there are e-readers like the Kindle. Amazon recently announced that its ebooks are now outselling print editions. Even photographers—long considered one of the last lines of defense for the home printer industry—are finding new, digital means of disseminating their work.
While we can expect paper-based information to be around for a long time (inertia can take a while to overcome), personal printing is beginning to look more and more like a 20th century novelty.