A flaming printer, out of order (image: Tina Tiller)
(image: Tina Tiller)

BusinessMay 8, 2023

Hear me out: There is not a printer in the world that ‘just works’

A flaming printer, out of order (image: Tina Tiller)
(image: Tina Tiller)

A recent commercial touts a new range of printers, declaring confidently that ‘it just works’. Based on the entire history of printers, this cannot possibly be true.

It opens with a few quick shots of young, cool-looking people, all deeply engaged with technology, yet also relying on crisp, beautifully rendered printouts. They tap buttons, they point at screens, they hongi, all while holding pristine plans and PDFs, effortlessly procured from their friendly, accessible printing device. 

The voiceover, though, takes you someplace else. “This printer won’t come up with the next big thing, or make you a creative genius. It won’t get you to space… All of that is up to you,” the friendly narrator intones. Finally all this negativity about the printer resolves into its tagline: “It just works”.

There is only one thing wrong with this advertisement, and that’s the complete and utter impossibility of it being true. The audacity of it is something to behold – if there’s one thing printers are notorious for, it’s working only when they damn well please. They’re our most capricious appliance, as reliable as Wellington’s trains or Auckland’s buses.

“It just works”. The phrase taunted me, largely because it works better applied to almost any other device. Toasters “just work”. Microwaves “just work”. Even smartphones somehow “just work”. Contraception and indoor plumbing, too. Printers, by contrast, work for a while, then jam, then run mysteriously low in some obscure ink, then fade, then are offline. 

The Spinoff’s CTO, Ben Gracewood, explains why. “The interface between the pure, accurate world of electronics and the messy real world of damp paper, dry ink and the occasional angry fist creates a result where minor issues that would not usually cause a problem combine together to effectively guarantee failure. 

“Additionally, given there are several thousand different types of computers with dozens of different operating systems talking to several thousand different types of printers, you end up with millions of variations of computer-printer connection. If just one of those variations has a problem, then millions of people end up seeing PC LOAD LETTER and tearing their hair out.”

What he’s saying is that it’s hardly their fault. Printers exist as a bridge between the digital and the analogue – taking the magic of code and turning it into something you can hold in your hands. We expect physical objects to break relatively often, but be plausibly repairable. Digital products should break seldom, but be essentially irreparable to the average user. Printers somehow combine the worst properties of each – constantly breaking, impossible to reliably fix.

As if to prove a point, on the morning I arrived to pitch this important contribution to New Zealand journalism, I went to print out a simple PDF. I gingerly hit command+P, and was within seconds greeted with a red exclamation mark stuck fast to the little printer in my MacBook dock. This digital alarm only exists within the printer application. Everything else “just works”. The printer is alone within the constellation of marvels that is the modern laptop, the one piece of technology which is allowed to persistently cease to function.

I wearily walked to the big beige box, and attempted to resolve the issue. It was a paper jam, in drawer A, so the machine told me. I opened the door, and removed a piece of paper which looked perfectly fine. It did nothing to resolve the issue. Within minutes I was back at my desk, hand-transcribing my notes, like it was 1439 and Johannes Gutenberg had yet to gift/curse us with his big idea. 

By the following day, just as mysteriously, the printer had started working again. It even printed out my PDF – though it was of no use to me by then. I stared down at the wasted paper (B&W, single-side), reminded again that printers do many odd and unpredictable things, but have never “just worked” – and likely never will.

Keep going!