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Should Printer Makers Fear the iPad?

Let me get my feelings about the matter out of the way first, so you know where I’m coming from. You see, I’m very old fashioned about my printed materials. I buy lots of real books and magazines. A large portion of my reading diet is served by the Internet, but I’m most comfortable printing lengthy documents for later review.

What this means is that I keep my printers running fairly consistently, and have to regularly feed them a diet of ink cartridges, and, for the Xerox Phaser 8560DN, solid ink sticks. While I’ve worked much harder to preserve resources of late, it’s not that the printers can be left completely idle.

I’m sure that this situation is mirrored to a large degree around the world, people having to spend boatloads of money for consumables. As you know, printers are routinely sold fairly cheaply, as the manufacturers expect to make up the difference by selling you ink and toner and extremely high prices. It’s the famous “Gillette Razor” effect. One estimate spoke of ink costing as much as $8,000 per gallon! Maybe you should give up your gold investments and select printer ink instead!

Well, the long and short of it is that the iPad, after the original Amazon Kindle, makes e-book reading come into its own. You’ll be able to read more and more documents comfortably on a portable device, which will, I expect, reduce the need for hard copy except for critical financial and legal documents where such things are required. And, of course, to satisfy old habits.

It’s clear to me that Apple is seriously downplaying printing capability in the iPad. It’s not even mentioned, although there are existing iPhone apps that will network a print job to your Mac or PC and let them do the heavy lifting, and they should work pretty much the same on the iPad. Since iWork and other apps will provide traditional productivity tools with the iPad, you’d think some sort of native printing capability would be a given, and I suppose there will be, since Apple can’t realistically expect people to give it up completely.

Now one of the reasons I might buy an iPad — and it’s by no means definite — is as a money saver. If I use it to read more material I’d otherwise print, I don’t need to feed those hungry printers. Considering the high cost of consumables, not to mention the chronic need for paper, it won’t be very long before I have covered the cost of the iPad, regardless of configuration. After that, it’s all gravy.

As far as the printer industry is concerned, I’ve always believed they severely overcharge for consumables. That’s the reason there’s a busy industry providing third-party alternatives, even if print quality and print head longevity might suffer. After all, even if a printer’s lifetime is shortened somewhat, all the money you save from buying cheaper ink might actually pay for a replacement or two.

On the long haul, perhaps printer makers will come to realize that they can’t live large forever, and they are already suffering due to the economic downturn. In fact, boasting of cheaper ink may be a good thing. That’s what Kodak is doing with their printer lineup, although it’s fair to suggest that their concept of cheap isn’t cheap enough, at least not yet.

You also have to wonder whether it may just be better for printer makers on the long haul to sell their hardware for a higher price, reduce the cost of consumables and be assured of getting more total revenue from the latter. How so? By reducing sales to third-party vendors. Or just get out of the business altogether and license their proprietary technology to third parties and collect royalties. Under these circumstances, they’d be able to evaluate licensed product to make sure it meets specs.

Regardless, I don’t see the iPad sharply reducing the need for paper by its owners right away. But as more and more publications move online, with versions for the iPad and other tablet computers, and people become more comfortable reading content on an electronic device rather than the printed version, I do see a valid reason why printer makers may be forced to seriously change their marketing approach.

As for me, there is still something romantic in the tactile experience of reading a real printed book. Besides, it’s just not so easy to pack an iPad in my back pocket, and the iPhone’s display is much too tiny for extended and intense reading sessions — at least to me.

But I can see where my need for printed materials may be sharply reduced were I to buy an iPad, so I will have to sit back, do the calculations and see if it makes sense. Of course if such decisions extend to millions upon millions of people, and printers are not used near as frequently as they are now, I can see where some manufacturers are going to have to rethink their marketing strategies. Or just get into the e-book business.