There was a time -- early in my computing career -- that your average printer could output better results than any screen could. In the days before WYSIWYG word processors, we would guess what the printed product might look like and then let an Okidata monstrosity scream out ugly 5 x 7 dot matrix results.
When it worked, it worked well, and we were thrilled that our 16KB machines could make something real. A continuous ream of paper was fed into the printer and we'd happily tear the perforated pages apart like birthday gifts from the digital deities.
But when printers failed, they failed gloriously. The paper would crumple like a multi-car pileup until we found the right panic button -- the printers then had no way of knowing things were going sour -- and it resulted in a maw of ink and sorrow that made us long for the simple days of IBM Selectrics.
So here we are, 29 years later. We've moved on from dot matrix to laser or inkjet and things are so much better. Printers are so reliable now. They never fail. Printers are great.
Despite all the other advances we've made in reliability and usability, printers are still stuck in a fiery underworld spiked with prickly pain points and endless troubleshooting loops.
Why are printers stuck in the 20th century?
Just this weekend, I took it upon myself to design and print some info guides for my upcoming wedding. The layout part went well: I put together a simple color, two-sided tri-fold brochure in basic page-layout software.
I had recently picked up a fresh, new and sleek printer that I was sure -- given its sexy appearance -- would handle the job without issue. Unfortunately, I was returned to the screaming dot matrix, PC load letter, paper jam days of the past.
Of course, the printer immediately jammed on the first piece of paper.
"No problem," I figured. My printer has a handy paper-feed cleaning process that I ran and it seemed to do the trick.
So I was off to the races, right? Not so fast, turbo.
Turns out modern ink jet cartridges, despite their $60 price tags, are good for about 50 pages of full-color printing. That's more than $1 a page. Sure, if I was printing like a normal person and not using all those colors and double-sided printing, I could get much more out of my cartridge, but I had to go and be all fancy with my silly wedding brochure.
So I bought another cartridge. I spent the rest of the day monitoring the printing process, clearing paper jams, cleaning the heads every 20 or so pages and generally feeling anxious about the task of dealing with paper.
I don't print things often. In fact, I try to keep as paperless an office as possible. But there are times when we must deal in the physical world: boarding passes, legal documents, wedding brochures, etc. When I do need to print something out, I expect it to go as smoothly as turning a monitor on. Is that too much to ask?
Why have printers lagged so far behind in terms of technology? All we really have to show for the past few years is wireless printing and sexier form factors. Reliability, it seems, is still a game. Is there not enough competition? Have we, as consumers, been trained that $60 ink cartridges and paper jams are just how things go?
Or have I just been cursed with lemon printers throughout my entire life? Are there printers out there that just work?
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.