Why Apple will never make printers again

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Apple improved music players with the iPod, and revolutionized the cell phone with the iPhone. So why shouldn’t it do the same thing with printers?

That’s the question a Macworld editor put to me when describing the slideshow look at Apple-built printers over the years. I’m not sure if the editor was joking, but it took me a while to stop laughing before I could remind him why some things are better left in the past.

Frankly, there’s no money in printers, only in printer supplies—and you can only get that revenue if you make the printing engine. Apple never did.

As discussed in this overview of Apple’s printer business, the company sold printers throughout the 1980s and 1990s because it needed to be sure that high-quality printers were available for its computers. You may forget that the “Windows monopoly” didn’t really consolidate until around 1995-1996. In the ’80s there were lots of computer makers; in the early ’90s, the operating systems were so fragmented that every application supported its own graphic printer drivers. Consider yourself lucky if you don’t remember the days when PC owners had to check every application to see if it was compatible with their particular printer.

Graphical operating systems with their own printer drivers helped reverse that trend, but far more gradually than you may realize. The Classic Mac OS had no “printing architecture.” Each printer driver implemented everything, from the ground up, including figuring out how to emulate every hack that every application had used to get better results from the ImageWriter and LaserWriter drivers. (My favorite: Until about 1998, unless printer drivers set a specific address to non-zero while the Finder was printing, the Finder refused to print icons.) QuickDraw GX hoped to change that, but died under pressure from application developers who didn’t want to rewrite their printing code.

By the late 1980s, HP and some other innovative printing vendors had done the thankless work of figuring this out; they started shipping their own Mac printer drivers. By the time Steve Jobs returned to Apple, there were plenty of high-quality Mac-compatible printers available from a wide variety of manufacturers. When the company had to winnow projects to focus on the basics, lower-margin printers were an easy cut to make.

If you long for the days of Apple printer innovation, you should know that Apple never made its own printing technology. The print heads in its dot matrix printers came from C. Itoh; the inkjet engines from Canon or HP; the laser engines from Canon or Fuji-Xerox. Early on, Apple built some printers itself with OEM parts, but by the end, StyleWriters were merely rebranded HP printers built with Apple’s logo. The innovation, at the time, was in the drivers. Thanks to CUPS in Mac OS X, printer drivers are no longer nearly the black art they used to be. There’s finally a real printing architecture open to everyone.

That’s all background to the main point—there’s no money in printers. Macworld’s own comparison pricing site lists a 4800-by-1200-DPI color HP DeskJet printer, capable of 20 pages per minute, available new for as low as $30. HP’s annual report says that the money in printing is in supplies—some specialty papers, but mostly ink and toner. Lexmark’s SEC filings describe no fewer than six restructuring programs since 2006 and detail the company’s efforts to focus its products on “high-usage” markets—the ones that consume the most supplies.

Printer companies have been trying to protect the fat margins on their printer supplies with everything up to and including smart chips that only accept digitally signed supplies, leading to lots of lawsuits and consumer enmity. And those margins remain under pressure as consumers look for lower-cost ink, with new services such as Costco’s on-site inkjet cartridge refill service emerging to put even more of a squeeze on printer manufacturers.

Even if you want to ignore those problems, you’d still face the dozens of extra parts Apple would have to add, stock, and track for supplying and servicing any printers it made. Apple’s retail stores would need additional repair space and staffing. And printers introduce a large class of technical support problems that Apple currently avoids. And after all that, unless Apple made the print engine, it wouldn’t make the ink, and that’s where all the money is.

There are hundreds of printers available to today’s Mac users at no cost to Apple, and no money to be made by competing with them. Unless Apple has a game-changing printing technology hidden in its labs somewhere—and there’s no indication that it does—then printing is a game Apple can’t beat. The only winning move is not to play.

[Matt Deatherage is the publisher of MDJ and MWJ, journals for serious Macintosh users. He saw the innards of the classic Mac OS “printing manager” in a previous life and has yet to fully recover.]

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