Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Printing is broken

What is the most frustrating part of your home office setup?  If you answered 'my printer' then you and I think alike.  Printers are given away at every step, with many computers coming with free ones.  Buying ink is confusing and expensive, when it needn't be either. Printer compatibility and setup is unnecessarily difficult.  And god help you if you're printer also scans, because it's going to try to install ALL SORTS of unnecessary bloatware and crap to your computer that is nigh impossible to turn off/remove.  What follows is my personal critique and analysis of home printing.

Do I even need a home printer?

I'd say that the chances are you really don't.  Think about the things that you have printed at home.  Now, think about how many of those things you could have either
  • written down on a sheet of paper yourself,
  • emailed to the person you wanted to show them to, or
  • printed off at work.
Is it most?  Then you probably don't need a printer.  Most schools and offices have printers, and those are likely why you are printing them.  I can see printing maps for directions as being useful, but those can be copied down, and many phones can show you maps.  I haven't had a printer for personal use for the past 5 years, and it's never been an issue.  I print things off at school, or I don't need to print them.  Also, printing is wasting precious trees, have a heart.

Why is ink so expensive and difficult to buy?

Money.  Imagine you are the only person who makes a vital component to a machine that you build, and needs to be replaced often.  Do you charge a fair price for it, or do you gouge your customers eyes out for it?  They are so many different printer cartridge types and they are all so expensive so that and because nobody else can make them, giving the printer maker almost complete control over the price.  And do you ever think about how much the ink cartridges cost when you're buying a printer?  Do you compare the cost of different cartridges?

There have been attempts buy independent companies to offer refill kits for your ink cartridges to circumvent the high first-party cost of ink.  The notion is admirable, and I applaud their attempt.  To combat this, ink cartridges have been redesigned to not be refillable, and the idea ultimately doesn't work well.

We need a standardized cartridge system.  This will make printer cartridges interchangeable and competition will lower prices and up quality.  Now, this is bad for printer makers because it threatens their ink monopoly, so maybe they should start charging for printers again instead of practically giving them away with every new computer ever.  That might fix things quite a bit.  You know, a distribution model that's similar to pretty much every other thing in the world.


A driver is a piece of software that helps your computer communicate with a piece of hardware.  Think of it as an interpreter.  Your printer doesn't speak "Print this for me" but it does understand "You should put a dot of ink here" and a driver helps interpret such a command.  For some reason, every printer speaks a slightly different language, and because of this, needs a different driver.  I understand having different drivers for different video cards, because video cards are high performance, highly tuned pieces of hardware (ideally), but printing out my report for English class isn't a daunting task, and doesn't need to be of the highest quality.  Printing photos on special photo paper is a different situation which I feel would require a higher level of specialized interpreting.  However, if I'm going to do high quality printing, I'm going to go to a Kinko's or other similar establishment, because I want it done properly.  If I could get a general driver that would let me print black and white text on a page for any printer I can imagine, I would love it. 

What does this software do?

Like I said, god help you if you buy a printer/scanner.  If you own a business, you might have someone who you might call a secretary.  Part of their job is to answer the phone in case someone calls, if you don't have a secretary you might miss the call.  If you have a scanner, you need a program on your computer to be running in case a scanned image comes in from the printer, otherwise the image will be lost.  So, printer companies install software on your computer that starts when your computer starts, so that when you scan an image your computer will receive it.  Fair enough, right?  Not really.  At heart, this software can be relatively lightweight, meaning it won't bother you, or your computer very much, unless a scan is coming in.  It should sit there idly doing nothing.

But it doesn't, your printer/scanner software sits there waiting for scans, tells you that your ink is low (33% is not low, in my book), tries to manage your photos for you (don't touch those, they're mine), threatens that it is necessary in order to print, is 3/4-impossible to turn off, and wastes tons of boot-time. 

I don't need an ink indicator on my computer, their should be a display on my printer for that.

I don't need you to manage my photos, my operating system does that just fine.

My scanner software should be separate from my printing driver.

I don't need you all the time.  If I want to scan something, I can start the program myself, and when I'm done, I'll turn it off.  It's not that difficult.  All of this automatically running software is just confusing people.  Software makers try to do things automatically to keep less-aware users from having to worry, but it's just holding them back from learning what is going on.

My ideal printing future.

In my ideal world this is how it would be.  
  • Ink cartridges would be standardized and interchangeable.  And not proprietary.
  • A basic driver should cover basic printing functions for ALL printers.
  • Specialized drivers can do the advanced feature, but should only need to be installed if you need those features.
  • Printing drivers should be separated from scanning software.
  • Scanning software should be lightweight, and easy to turn on and off.
  • Ink supply should be indicated on the printer, not on my computer screen.
  • Don't try to manage my photos.  If I need a photo manager, I'll find a free one separately.
If these things happened, maybe I would own a printer.