Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why Printers Get no Respect

The Wall Street Journal

Daniel Blackman loves gadgets. The 47-year-old chief operating officer of Howcast Media Inc., a New York Internet video company, has already replaced his iPad with an iPad 3G. He also has a Canon DSLR camera, a Sony handicam and a high-definition home theater projector. One item that he hasn't tried to upgrade to the newest, latest, best: a printer.

Fussy and prone to paper jams, the printer has been trying tempers in offices and homes since the dot-matrix days when paper came in perforated accordion stacks. As other gadgets, from flat-screen monitors to wireless mice, have sprinted ahead toward gasp-inducing irresistibility, one electronic has failed to thrill.

"It's kind of like a toaster," says Jeffery Lauria of iCorps Technologies, a Boston-based information technology provider.

The problem, sometimes, isn't the printer. It's the people printing, printer manufacturers say. Rough handling and mistreatment often upset sensitive machinery. "With computers, people don't want to mess with it. But with a printer, everyone thinks he's a mechanic," says George Lemus, senior manager of ABC Computer Services, a New York repair company where 40% of the business is fixing printers.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the leading maker of printers, said this month that its new printers would come with email addresses, so users can print from smartphones or any other Web-enabled device. It also has laser printers that automatically detect the location of a paper jam and show users where to find it on the screen. H-P says its inkjets failed 25% less often in 2009 compared to 2006, and laser printers improved 20%. The company declined to say how often the machines still misbehave.

Topping the list of common customer complaints are paper jams and problems connecting to a printer. In inkjet printers, the ink often dries out or gets clogged. In laser printers, the culprit is often the fuser, the part that presses the toner to the page and can cause some elements, such as stickers or labels, to melt.

Xerox Corp. makes what it calls "self-healing" machines that monitor their components to anticipate problems and adjust automatically. For example, the printers, starting at $399, can sense internal temperature and humidity and recalibrate their performance accordingly to maintain a consistent print quality. Xerox printers can also automatically notify Xerox when they need new parts or service.

The only people happy about printers? The technicians who repair them. They prefer fixing printers to computers because printers' simpler function means fewer things can go wrong, and there's no shortage of times when they do.

One recent afternoon, ABC Computer Services, the printer repair company, received an "emergency" call from the Somme Institute, a cosmetics maker.

"People say that all the time," said ABC Computer Services technician Roland Chen. "It's just a jam," he predicted.

At the Somme Institute office, Mr. Chen found an HP LaserJet 3390 churning out pages marked with eight circular bruises.

Edward Fallas, a Somme Institute spokesman, told Mr. Chen that he was printing labels. They must have come off inside the printer because now each page bore their imprint.

Mr. Chen suspected the fuser had melted the stickers. It would be impossible to clean off the adhesive gunk, so the fuser would have to be replaced—a $200 cost on a year-old $1,000 machine, plus $85 for Mr. Chen's visit.

"It was a major disruption," Mr. Fallas said later.

Donald Barthelemy, 26, has been a Paramus, N.J.-based technician with Best Buy Co.'s Geek Squad for six years. He makes four to five daily service calls to homes and businesses, and three to four of them involve printer-related problems. (Geek Squad declined to say how much of its business company-wide comes from printers.) Often, Mr. Barthelemy says, the machines show signs of neglect (dried-up ink cartridges) or abuse (broken parts).

The worst call came about six months ago at a now-defunct trucking company in Paramus he declines to name. It was Friday—pay day—and the firm needed the printer to print the paychecks. The printer wouldn't align correctly, rendering the checks either unreadable or made out for the wrong amount. Some employees walked out, Mr. Barthelemy says.

"They wanted to bash that printer in because it was the reason they weren't getting paid that day," Mr. Barthelemy says. He determined the printer couldn't be fixed and needed to be replaced.

Man-on-printer violence is a burgeoning YouTube subgenre. Many videos pay homage to the 1999 cult classic film "Office Space," in which the heroes abscond with their employer's printer, take it to an empty field and beat it with a baseball bat.

One video was posted by Taylor Fox, a 23-year-old MBA student at the University of Missouri. He made the 23-second clip, in which he throws his Dell printer against a dumpster and stamps on it, three years ago when he was moving from Arizona State University to Missouri and was deciding what to bring.

Fed up with the cost of ink cartridges, he says, "the printer didn't make the cut."

About 10,000 electronic customer feedback forms are processed by Lexmark International Inc. every month. The printer maker and service provider sorts them by common issues, which it calls "pain points."

Printer manufacturers compete fiercely on price. Many home models cost less than $100. In general, the profit margin is higher on ink refills than on printers themselves. H-P now sells cartridges for as little as $10, and Lexmark for as low as $5.

More companies are urging people to cut down on printing not just to save paper but also to save money. Printer supplies and maintenance are typically the largest cost for IT departments, accounting for up to 40% of their budgets, which can be up to 5% of a company's revenue, says Robert Sethre, a Warwick, N.Y.-based partner at research firm Photizo Group LLC. Many companies in recent years have shifted to having employees share a few heavy-duty machines on a network instead of having small printers at every desk.

Those small desktop printers, "they're pieces of junk," says Larry Frydman, owner of Computer Professionals USA, a New York network and printer maintenance company. "They work as long as they work, and when they don't work, they're meant to be throwaways."