The last time Apple made printers -- well over a decade ago -- there was no iPad, no iPhone, and no Retina displays that could make a digital page look as real as a paper one. In many ways printing isn't as crucial to the average user experience as it once was, but more advanced printing tasks like producing high-quality photos at home are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. We may not need printers as often, but they're not going to outright die in our lifetime.
Apple will likely never get back into the printer business, but could it? I think the answer is yes.
Why Apple should make printers (again)
At a consumer level, printing hasn't been sexy for a long time. In fact, you could argue that printing has never been sexy. Today's printing hardware, including the HP and Epson models Apple sells in its own online store, are clunky, obtuse, and ugly. If they don't have too many buttons for their own good, they sport convoluted (oftentimes resistive, ew) touchscreen interfaces that make navigating an iOS device feel like a Sunday drive.
The customer reviews of these printers are mixed at best, with only two of the 12 AirPrint-capable printers on Apple's online store scoring better than a 3/5, and none of them beating a 4/5 rating. The HP model that I have can't keep an AirPrint connection to save its life, and the average rating of all the printers on Apple's online store is 2.5/5. Apple doesn't make 2.5/5 products, but they're selling them because they haven't seen fit to do it better (yet).
Even when Apple sold its own brand of printers in the 80s and 90s, they weren't really Apple printers as much as rebadged Canon and HP hardware. If Apple were to decide to enter this fray, they would be starting with what is essentially a blank slate. The company could snag a printing engine from one of the many giants of the industry -- who you can bet would be lining up to get their slice -- but Apple would most definitely want to design the rest of the unit in-house. I mean really, look at the new Mac Pro and tell me who wouldn't want to see a Jony Ive-designed StyleWriter?
Apple has a couple of things going for it already if it should decide to pull the trigger on printers: First, as mentioned above, the competition isn't exactly stiff. Second, AirPrint itself has matured greatly since its birth a couple years back, and I'd be willing to bet that an Apple smartphone would talk to an Apple printer with much less fuss (and consumer complaints) than is true of the current third-party units.
It prints money
The main argument against Apple making printers is also one of the biggest reasons why it should try; "There's no money in it." Yes, there's also no money for Apple to make with a smartphone, a tablet, or a micro desktop computer either, right? Apple is nothing if not the master at creating its own markets, and with a fresh take on printing, I don't think it's silly to think the same would be true once again.
Conventional wisdom pushes the idea that the real money to be made with printing comes from selling the supplies, not the hardware. Well, that might be true when you can pick up an HP printer for $50, but let's remember the company we're talking about. If it's gorgeous, it works, and it has even a hint of that Apple magic, price is rarely a deal breaker for anyone walking into an Apple Store.
I'm not saying you'll be searching for Apple-branded ink, but don't fool yourself into thinking Apple would be on the same playing field with HP, Epson, Canon, or anyone else in the business. Like it or not, "people who buy Apple products" is now a market of its own, and a pretty big one at that.
Why Apple won't make a printer
You're not likely to see a "Designed in California" label on a printer any time soon, and printers themselves are largely to blame. Apple is often at its best when creating a new product category, not entering an established one -- the iPod being a big exception here.
Iterations on tablets and smartphones come fast and furious because Apple is already a leader in those spaces, but in categories where the company is merely a player, change comes slow if it comes at all (*cough*Mac Pro*cough*).
I've done my best to avoid using "innovation" in this article, but that's what it really comes down to. I'm sure Apple could (or already has) come up with a feature that would breathe new life into consumer-level printing, but I couldn't tell you what it is.
A sexy design, the "it just works" quality, and the Apple logo would sell more than a few, but in the end it's about giving people what they don't already have. I'm confident Apple has the brains to make that happen with a printer, I'm not convinced the company is willing to actually do it.