I've recently come across a rant about printers. The rant mixes in a number of complaints ranging from technology (e.g. paper jamming) to economics (e.g. the cost of ink cartridges). Since it's a rant, it should probably not be considered too serious, but it does raise some interesting points that I'd like to discuss. Of course, I'm going to skip on the obviously ridiculous complaints (such as the need to get out of bed), and go straight to the ones worth answering.

Let's start easy.

The first complaint is about all the stuff that has to be done before you can actually get to printing, such as having to plug the printer into the laptop and wait for startup times and handshakes and stuff like that.

This is actually an easy matter to solve, and that has been addressed by people that replied to the rant: get a network printer. The printer we have at home is not networked, but we have a small server, and the printer is plugged there and shared to all computers our small home network.

The paper jam complaint also doesn't carry much weight. As far as I know, even professional printing equipment jams from time to time, although of course miniaturized mechanisms such as the ones found on desktop printers are bound to jam more easily. The frequency of jams could probably be reduced by using better materials, but I doubt they could be eliminated altogether.

The biggest complain is, obviously, about ink cartridges and their cost (which the author of the rant hyperbolicly, but not even that much, states as being ten times more than diesel fuel). The author of the rant also remarks (correctly) that this is

how Epson, Lexmark, Canon, Brother et al. make money: They make shitty low-end printers the break easily so they need to be regularly replaced and make the ink cost ten times more than diesel fuel (a hyperbole that is close to accurate, btw) so they can have a steady flow of cash from those printers that do work.

Except that printer manufacturers don't make shitty low-end printers only; they also have mid-range and high-end products. So one would be taken to wonder, if the author of the rant is aware of this, why doesn't he invest a little more money in getting a better product that is going to give him less problems?

Getting a complex piece of hardware like a printer for less than 50€ (including the famous “initial cartridges”) and expecting it to last forever, with cheap consumables to go with it, is naive at best: the cheap printers are obviously sold at a loss, with money recouped by the sale of consumables. It's up to the buyer to be aware (and wary) of the mechanism, and choose accordingly, because there are alternatives; of course, they do require a higher initial investment.

The author of the rant goes on to compare the printer matter with video rental:

It’s bullshit the way Blockbuster was bullshit with late fees and poor customer service and high rental prices and yearly membership fees. Remember how Netflix and it’s similar services worldwide practically destroyed them? I really want some hipster engineer at Apple or Microsoft or anywhere to make a printer that Netflixes the fuck out of the consumer printing market.

The comparison, I'm afraid, is quite invalid. I'm not going to discuss the Blockbuster vs Netflix thing in detail, although I will mention that the Blockbuster model was not ‘bullshit’ (remember, you have to compare renting a DVD with buying a movie or going to the cinema; also, at least in my country Blockbuster had no membership fees, although the late fees were outrageous): it has been, however, obsoleted by the Netflix model.

The chief difference between the Blockbuster and Netflix models? The difference is that Blockbuster was on demand, while Netflix is a subscription. But is a subscription model intrinsically superior to an on-demand model?

The answer is, I'm afraid, no. The convenience (for the user) of one model over the other is entirely related to the cost ratio of the two services compared to the amount of service ‘use’ they get. If I only watch a movie once every two or three months, I'm much better off renting stuff one-shot when needed and then forget about shelling any money for the rest of my time. (Of course, most people watch way more movies per month, hence a subscription is usually better.)

Now let's think about this for a moment: the way Netflix disrupted Blockbuster was by offering a subscription service that was more convenient than the on-demand service offered by Blockbuster, for a lot of people.

The question is: would such a model really be applicable to printing? How would it even work? For 10 bucks a month you get a new (used) printer delivered to your door?

In fact, I really think that the current cheap printing business is the closest you can get to a subscription model, considering the enormous differences that exist between simple content distribution (which is what Blockbuster and Netflix do) and the production of complex devices such as printers.

In other words, the “Netflix revolution” has already happened in the printing business, except that it went in totally the opposite way for the consumer, while still being extremely profitable for the provider (as most subscription models are).

So what the author of the rant should probably aim at is to break out of the subscription model and go back to something more on demand. Can this be achieved?

There are many ways to work in that direction.

The cheaper way is to make heavy use of the various DIY cartridges refill kits, or referring to the knock-off or ‘regenerated’ cartridges instead of buying the official ones. However, most people probably know by experience that the quality of prints degrades in this case, something which in my opinion shows how there is actually a reason why ink cartridges are expensive, regardless of how overcharged they are.

Another, possibly smarter but more expensive (especially in the short run) solution has already been mentioned: don't buy a 30€ printer every six months; buy a mid-range printer and save in the long run. You can get professional or semi-professional color laser networked multifunction (including fax/scan capability) printers for around 500€. If you're willing to sacrifice on wireless and fax, even less than that. The toner cartridges aren't that more expensive than the ink ones (esp. in terms of price/pages), and they are much more durable (no more throwing away a cartridge because you didn't use the printer for a month and the ink dried up).

And finally, Print On Demand. You send them the file, they mail you the printed stuff. I've always been curious about this particular kind of service, and I see it making a lot of sense for some very specific cases. But I doubt the domestic use cases the author of the rants probably based his rant on would fit in this.