Is paper history?

Lexmark announced that it is shutting down its consumer printing manufacturing business. And I just bought a Lexmark printer!

Back when the World Wide Web first became popular and PC use was growing rapidly, one of the comments often made was that we would soon see the “end of paper.” A 1975 article in Business Week was one of the first to argue that the paperless office was not far off. A study by consulting firm A.D. Little predicted in 1979 that all paper records would disappear by 1990. And IBM was among the most famous of companies predicting the end of paper in the office.

Rather than making paper obsolete, however, paper use exploded for a while. Why? In part because in those days you really had limited amounts of things you could really do on the Web other than surf and print what you found. There were no photo-sharing sites, no Facebook, no cloud storage or data sharing sites.

Further, PCs were frankly pretty lousy in terms of their screens and displays. It was hard to read documents on them. There were no digital cameras and most of what was sent via the Web/Internet was text-based information (i.e., emails with attachments, mostly documents/charts), things that are easy to print. Lap tops were just emerging in the late 1990s and they would eventually add new capabilities so people could see documents wherever they were. Over time, as these technologies developed, people had less need to print when they traveled.

Finally, so much today is cloud connected/focused and the devices so good at displaying everything (e.g., iPads) that printing is increasingly unnecessary. And with smartphones, people often share photos immediately and on Facebook with friends. They don’t need to print them. The new generation of users is frankly just not that reliant on printers as their usage patterns are so immediate and so different. iReaders make reading documents much easier and have high levels of functionality (e.g.., search capabilities, dictionaries that are integrated with the devices, the ability to add notes and store quotes and so on).

So has the amount of paper used in the U. S. actually declined at all in recent years? The answer is yes, paper usage in the U.S. has gone down. And Lexmark’s announcement demonstrates that printing at home is a declining business, as well.

But all of the factors I cited above demonstrate once again that predicting technology and the direction of the Internet ecosystem is impossible. Regulators can’t do it and even the industry can’t. It took years for the decline in paper use that was predicted but the futurists weren’t wrong. They just could not predict when or how all of the changes would occur that would make all of this happen. And they certainly could never have predicted that new devices like the iPad.