Just occasionally, a slightly mundane post on Twitter will end up striking an unexpected chord. Last week, Scott Irlbacher, a resident of Pittsburgh, in the US, aired his thoughts about computer printers. Within a few hours, it had racked up a quarter of a million likes.
“Quit sending millennials things to print at home,” he wrote. “We don't have a printer. [We’ve] been surviving on secretly using our work printers for years.”
Thousands of replies demonstrated how printers are no longer seen as a necessary evil; many are baffled by their existence, while others are celebrating their passing. “Anything I have to print can be emailed to my local copy shop,” read one reply. “They have it ready when I walk in the door. Cheaper than a home printer.”
There was also more evidence of a generational divide: "I told my boss once that the 30 and under crowd just doesn't have printers at home, and they didn't believe me!"
The swing towards digital, driven in part by the habits of the younger generation, is accelerating this year because of the effects of Covid-19. Market research firm IDC has predicted that the number of pages printed worldwide will fall by more than 13 per cent in 2020, saving the equivalent of seven football fields worth of paper every minute of every day.
But in truth, global printer sales have been in decline for some time. “It's a real challenge for the industry, because even the older generation is printing less,” says Louella Fernandes at printer industry analysts Quocirca. “And now everyone’s becoming more accustomed to using digital tools, particularly as a result of the pandemic.”
An unscientific (but telling) poll of about 3,500 people I conducted on Twitter at the weekend illustrated our ambivalence towards the printer. About 30 per cent of respondents revealed that they don't own one, and of those who do, more than 60 per cent barely use it.
Many things that were once printed for the sake of convenience can now be shared electronically, and the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and cloud storage is driving that change. Filing cabinets full of stored documents are an anachronism. Tickets and passes that used to be hurriedly printed before leaving the house have now migrated to digital wallets. The advent of e-signatures is bringing to an end the laborious practice of printing documents out, signing, scanning and sending them back.
“We did some research last month, asking people why their printing has declined, and companies allowing e-signatures were one of the top reasons,” says Fernandes. “And that included a lot of lawyers. Another study showed that just 36 per cent of office workers think print is still going to be important to their business in five years time.”
Outside of the workplace, few would mourn the death of the printer. While these machines incorporate some dizzyingly complex technology, they are probably the most loathed of computer peripherals, thanks to a combination of mechanical difficulties, wireless networking gremlins, ink that runs out at inopportune moments and the sheer cost of replacing said ink.
As the “razor blade” business model (sell printers cheap, price ink high) has fallen out of favour, firms have tried to bring consumers on board with a range of alternative options. Epson released a series of printers called EcoTank, with refillable ink tanks that last for months on end. Subscription models such as HP’s Instant Ink, where a monthly fee gets you new carts whenever you run out, have found some favour. But younger people are harder to tie into such contracts. And why would they bother, when cloud printing services – such as EFI’s PrintMe – are on hand to help whenever family, friends and workplaces cannot?
Surveys of younger generations have shown that their preference for digital over physical is by no means all-encompassing. A kind of “digital fatigue” has been suggested as a reason why they still value books over their digital counterparts. It’s even been suggested that millennials are the most likely age group to print out photos, releasing them from the digital realm and creating a physical memory. But these revelations don’t point to a reversal of the decline in printer ownership, and that has big implications for the companies who have made their names selling them.
“Some are managing to weather the storm by expanding into areas like digital workflow, and helping organisations improve their business processes,” says Fernandes. “But that’s not enough to compensate for the loss of pages. They’ll have to radically reinvent their business models.”
All around the world, old printers are covered in dust, ink levels are low and, as Irlbacher said in his tweet, “we haven't found the power cord from our last move”. The older generation may cling to paper for its comfort and familiarity, but as Fernandes notes, when today’s teenagers enter the workforce, they’ll bring skills that could finally fulfil the decades-long dream of the truly paperless office.
And they’re guaranteed to create a less paper-centric world.