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Remember the paperless office?When word processing became common, it was going to replace printed documents. Later, email was supposed to replace memos. Online forms were going to replace physical ones.
None of these things happened as fast as the salespeople and pundits predicted. Clueless executives may have stopped having their secretaries print emails for them to read, but there are still many situations where paper is preferred:
- Meetings. Employees still print documents and presentations to edit, mark up, and share, particularly for meetings.
- Signatures. Electronic signature processing is uncommon, which means that a lot of legal transactions still require a printout and fax with a physical signature — which is why a lot of business cards and email signatures still contain a fax number.
- Record keeping. While electronic records are common, some departments (like human resources) and individuals still want a physical backup in case of data loss or for privacy.
All this means that printing is still a growing multibillion dollar business.
How Printing Has Changed
While the need to print hasn’t gone away, printing itself is changing.
- Wireless. A lot of new printers can connect directly to Wi-Fi networks, which can speed set-up — particularly for small businesses who don’t have a lot of time to deal with wired networks — and makes it easier for users to print from notebooks anywhere in the office.
- Mobile. Print companies have been enabling printing from mobile devices for several years, like Ricoh’s HotSpot Mobile. But now, mobile phone vendors are getting into the act as well, which will make mobile printing more common. Apple’s iOS 4.2 update introduced AirPrint, which lets users print directly from their iPhone or iPad to a supported wireless printer. Google has a similar service called Cloud Print which lets users send print jobs from the mobile versions of Gmail and Google Docs (as well as upcoming Chrome OS notebooks) to an Internet-connected printer. The list of printers that supports these services is pretty small today, but as smartphones increasingly penetrate the enterprise, this could become a required feature.
- Managed printing. Companies like Xerox and HP offer managed printing services, where they lease printers to a company, deliver supplies on demand, monitor print usage and create detailed reports for managers, and offer advice on how to use them. Customers benefit by consolidating printer hardware, reducing waste, and using less energy.
- Sustainability. Printing is not known for being environmentally friendly, and printer companies make a lot money selling toner cartridges, paper, and other supplies. But vendors have realised that customers are concerned with the environment, and are promoting cartridge recycling programs and offering tips on how to use less paper.
- 3D printing. 3D printing is really more like manufacturing than printing as we normally think of it. It is used in industries like aerospace and medical design, and allows users to take 3D computer images — like CAD designs — and automate the creation of physical models from plastic or other material. 3D printing has been expensive, but there’s a burgeoning startup and do-it-yourself industry growing up around it, and there are now 3D printers available for under $5,000. By the end of this decade, 3D printing could become as common as paper printing is today.