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Killing trees with lasers isn’t cool, says Epson. So why are inkjets any better?

Imagine there's no printer drivers. It's easy if you can...

Long-term dot matrix printer maker Epson has just announced it is ending its 35 year long experiment in selling laser-powered printer hardware. From 2026, the company says it'll be inkjet only – although it will probably still sell you a new dot-matrix if you ask nicely.

Epson just means printers to most people, so extinguishing lasers seems particularly portentous. To be fair, the company tried harder than most to compete with laser printers rather than just fall into line, using micro-positioning piezoelectrics to create higher resolution impact inkjet printers, but the market wasn't having it, and in 1987, Epson caved and moved to lasers.

Laser printers have always been the long-trousered output device of choice, the fast, reliable, high-quality workhorses of business. If even Epson is jumping ship, the temptation is to write off not just the technology, but printers in general. Is the paperless office, long derided as about as probable as the paperless toilet, finally nigh?

It may seem paradoxical that laser printers and the concept of the paperless office both came about at the same time, in the early 1970s, but both were birthed by the bitmap. Semiconductor memory and integrated logic got good and cheap enough that terminals capable of decent font and graphics rendering became viable for larger corporations.

Ten years later, Apple fused the Macintosh, PageMaker, a laser engine, PDF and local area networking to make affordable desktop publishing a reality for many more. Laser printing had arrived, but without good enough mobile tech, paper was going to stay the best way to distribute the results.

Visionaries still hopped up and down and said paper's days were numbered: those who took more water with it knew that hard copy would be hard to beat for decades. Forty years on, that race may finally be run.

Let's pause to poke fun at Epson's claims to be led by environmental concerns. The company continues to be an eager participant in filling landfills with expensive empty cartridges and bricked printers, and far less concerned with prolonging device life and consumer repair options. The claimed power and carbon advantages of inkjet over laser may be true, but there's no way of telling from the "up to 58 percent lower" style claims.

Epson isn't uniquely bad among companies, but that's not a high bar. If lasers were still profitable for Epson, Epson would still be selling lasers. Prove us wrong, Epson. Show the laser division's projected profits up to that 2026 cut-off point.

Epson can't sell lasers any more. That could be because businesses don't buy Epson in particular, or it could be because businesses are spending a lot less on office printing. It doesn't really matter.

The paperless office is here – it's just unevenly distributed. Most of us got a sneak preview during the Great Work From Home; there were no handouts at meetings, no quick 10-pagers lazily spewing from the Laserjet to read on the train home. Printing is a habit that is easily lost now connectivity, screen tech and all-day devices can take the place of dead wood. How many of us haven't even turned on our home printer for months? And how can we persuade our parents to do the same?

Inky-fingered humanity is still chewing through trillions of sheets a year, but the trend is clear and the great gulp that Covid took out of the office supplies market is as spiky as you'd like.

We all know the arguments for the paperless office are sound. There are huge savings in equipment, consumables, and the management of physical documents. Paper isn't searchable. Paper is dead data, and dead data is as useless as a dead horse.

Epson HX-20 small

From 1981: the World's first UMPC

From the Archives

Now we know we can do without it. We know what it means not having an entire class of peripheral, an entire supply chain dependent on mining, logging, refining, transport and disposal. And we know a life without printers is a life without one of the monumental, enduring and feather-spittingly bad pains in the ass that the gods of IT have ever dumped on the poor bloody infantry at the end of the support line. Imagine no more printer drivers. Imagine no more massively bloated printer management utilities. No cartridge DRM.

We can be free and this is the moment to claim that freedom. We don't need office printers. The planet doesn't need office printers. Epson baling on lasers isn't the end, but it's a mighty sign that all our preconceptions about this particular technology are out of date, and a better world awaits. IT workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your reams. ®

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