Is this the beginning of the end for printing at home?

Zac Butcher
Dec 8, 2010

We are moving house this coming weekend and in the general clear out process we have decided that the printer will not be making the journey. It’s only 18 months old, a colour laser and barely run in. It has years of life left and it came with a free mono toner replacement that has not been opened. Yet in the short period of time since purchase we have, without a conscious effort, entirely removed the need for a printer at home. With smartphone numbers growing rapidly and tablet PCs expected to start eroding PC shipments from 2011 I believe we are currently witnessing the beginning of the end for printing in the home.

Since 1984 and the launch of the Apple Macintosh we have been in the PC era.  Desktop PCs, GUIs and the mouse have become the norm. For the last quarter century the rise of the PC has been largely mirrored by the rise of the personal printer. In fact the HP LaserJet, like the Apple Macintosh, celebrated a 25th anniversary in 2009. During this period our printers have been physically tethered, via a cable, to the PC. As content has exploded so print volumes have also grown consistently, albeit at a much slower growth rate. Yet things are changing and printers are no longer attached to the current generation of computing devices. 

By no means are we early adopters but I have been receiving boarding passes on my Android smartphone for some time. The same phone has GPS and Google Maps so I no longer need to print directions. I don’t print email reservations and confirmations as they are available at the touch of a button or a tap of the screen. I have scanned my signature so expense forms and other documents are now an entirely digital process. We have recently acquired a Kindle and I prefer to read longer documents using that rather than printing. I have been banned from buying a first generation iPad but we will undoubtedly have a tablet of some form by mid 2011. Even without access to a tablet PC there is no longer a single thing I can think of that I need to print at home. Whilst I’m sure there is something I haven’t considered, in an emergency there is always the office printer or the local copy shop which I notice charges 15p per page (approx. €0.18/$0.23) so given the tiny volumes this will not be cost prohibitive.

As we track the digital photo markets we already know that there is a reduction in the levels of photo printing taking place at home as photo books, online services and photo sharing grow. Assuming for a moment that my experiences are not unique and others also see a significant and rapid decline in what they print at home then what is the motivator to upgrade a working printer to a newer model? Perhaps more importantly, is there any need to replace a broken printer?

It is ironic that the biggest gripe for users tends to be the cost of replacement ink or toner and this becomes less of an issue as print volumes decline.  Personally, I would expect people to begin recognising that their print volumes are in decline and for this to result in older printers remaining in use. Perhaps a bit like video recorders remaining in use after the world started to transition to DVDs and hard disk recorders.

Of course, this is just my view and I recognise that there are no children in my household so we will, as always, be considering all points of view as well as the economic indicators during Q2 of 2011 when we create the forward looking forecast.  Still I can’t help thinking that the future of printing at home is already well advanced on its natural progression to greater use of display technologies.

It is widely known that the real world tends to follow Sci-Fi. I have often wondered if there is not a fancy name for this effect, putting that aside, my boss observed around eighteen months ago that you never see paper in sci-fi movies. I’d say he’s right. I cannot think of single example to the contrary although I’m happy to hear of any.Towards the end of Pixar’s WALL-E (OK, so it’s not exactly Sci-Fi but bear with me), when we first see humans moving around the spaceship on floating recliners, they are totally absorbed in their screens. I’ll avoid the morals and message of the story but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to make the link with Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, iPads and the slew of tablets on the horizon. Oh, and not a single piece of paper in sight.

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