Lexmark outlined the future of printing in the digital world at its third annual 2020 Vision on Print conference in Boston last week and focused on where the market would be in 2020.
As with last year, delegates at the conference spent most of the time trying to convince themselves that printing technology will have a role in the future.One of the main speeches was delivered by Tom Lamb, executive vice president of Lexmark, who argued that printing was here to stay. The problem was that nobody argued back.
For a company that is convinced the paperless office will never happen, or at least not for a very long time, Lexmark seemed quite paranoid about the whole subject.
"Since 1982, paper shipments have increased almost threefold to three trillion sheets. Whenever email is introduced into an office, printing volume is increased by about 40 per cent," Lamb claimed.
"People are accustomed to producing and receiving hard copy. They prefer and even like it. Hard copy output is one of the ways by which we bridge the gap between technology and people," he said.
This kind of statement is hardly a revelation. Who actually prefers reading text off a screen to off the page? Anyone looking at their desk space would find it hard to disagree that the paperless office is still a distant ideal.
Apart from the speech by Lamb, and the occasional interjection of a Lexmark representative, very little of the panel discussions and the many speeches had anything to do with printing. Broader issues were preferred.
Bob Metcalfe, ethernet inventor and founder of 3Com, briefly alluded to the paperless office - or lack of it - at the beginning and end of his address, but otherwise spent most of his time talking about the future of the internet and ecommerce, a subject much closer to his heart.
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, dominated a panel discussion on the digital civilisation. He professed his hatred of software copyrights and patents, and gave his vision of a socially ideal world where everyone would work for the benefit of all of mankind and not just themselves.
Stallman shouted down anyone who disagreed and printing was barely alluded to.
Discussions on the digital office started promisingly with the importance of colour, a subject close to Lexmark as the vendor relentlessly tries to convince businesses that colour printers will benefit them. But things soon lost their way and ended up in the home. Apparently, all people will work from home and no one will live or work in cities any more.
It seems that printing just will not be very important in the future. Lexmark did not need to convince people that printing will still be around. There might one day be printers embedded in everyday objects or portable printers, and businesses might even start to use colour printers. Printing will no longer be vital, although some could argue that it isn't now.
"Recently, a very bright strategist at Lexmark spent 30 days actually trying to go paperless, but it didn't work," said Lamb.
"It wasn't that the Lexmark engineer couldn't shuffle bits and bytes around the digital world. In fact, there wasn't anything he couldn't handle. The problem, it seemed, was the rest of the world," he added.
Breaking the habit
But the rest of the world is catching up. Slowly, but it's getting there. There is very little these days that has to be printed out. Printing-out materials mainly happens due to preference or force of habit. Printed text is easier to read than on the screen, and documents feel more official when in hard copy. But technology will improve and people will become more accustomed to receiving and sending official documents via email.
Lexmark and all the other printer manufacturers have no need to panic just yet about the industry's future. It will not disappear overnight, although printing volumes may eventually reduce as working with electronic information becomes easier and more acceptable.
For now, Lexmark should concentrate on how to catch up with Hewlett-Packard, or on recent models for pricing based on consumables, or even on how to convince users that colour is beneficial.
The best summary is perhaps in the words of an IBM print executive who once said: "We will have a paperless office when we have a paperless toilet."
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