Office Evolution

How the humble office printer has persevered in a digitized world

Keep on keeping on.

Yellow printer on a yellow background.
80's Child / Shutterstock

As technology has gotten better, the ambiance in offices has changed as well. Computers have been reduced from large towers and boxy monitors to slim laptops and pocket-sized smartphones. These changes include the sounds of offices since those older computers required plenty of cooling and had more audible processes. Another sound missing from offices is the distinct hum of the office printer. (This one sounds like a techno song.)

Although the sounds of printers have quieted over the years, and there’s much less need to print documents in many professions, printers still persist in offices as a bridge between the physical and digitals worlds.

Can you Xerox that?

Modern printers trace their origins back to 1938, when Chester Carlson invented the xerographic process that was developed and commercialized by the Xerox Corporation.

“It's based on two natural phenomena: that materials of opposite electrical charges attract and that some materials become better conductors of electricity when exposed to light,” according to Xerox. (The company denied a request for comment.) “Carlson invented a six-step process to transfer an image from one surface to another using these phenomena.”

About 30 years later, Xerox engineer Gary Starkweather was challenged to improve the speed of an early fax machine and ended up inventing the laser printer, which uses a laser beam to build up static electricity that allows a piece of paper to attract toner. Xerox’s first commercial laser printer, the sectional couch-sized and reportedly very expensive 9700, gave rise to office printers.

“The Xerox 9700 helped usher in the wave of computer-driven automation in the 1970s that transformed offices, data centers, copy departments, and, ultimately, the printing industry around the world,” Jeff Hayes, founder and president of The Data Spa, said in a Xerox press release. “Much of how we communicate in hard copy today can be traced back to this remarkable product.”

Many other companies would introduce their own laser printers, including Epson, Brother, and HP, which in 1984 introduced the first desktop laser printer, the HP LaserJet, for $3,500. That same year, the company also debuted the $500 HP ThinkJet, the first thermal inkjet printer (which uses thermal energy to heat ink).


Prior to the proliferation of office printers, documents would have to be written by hand or typed out with typewriters. The 1980s brought significant change to the way we work, introducing personal computers, improved versions of word processing software, and more affordable office printers.

“Computers and printers used together completely changed the office environment,” Anneliese Olson, general manager and global head of the printing category at HP, tells Inverse. “Professionals were expected to utilize these new analysis, communication, and presentation tools, and roles such as secretaries or administration assistants changed dramatically. They were no longer needed for their typing, dictation, or filing skills, and evolved to become more like IT and program management professionals.”

This office environment still persists, with improvements to printers that made them cheaper, smaller, and quieter, adding copying and scanning capabilities. Of course, like any tool that is frequently used, frustrations were common. It’s likely every office worker has had a funny and/or frustrating printer experience, a point perfectly parodied in the 1999 classic Office Space, when the main characters “kidnap” their office’s regularly malfunctioning printer and smash it with a baseball bat.

“In the old days, people used to more frequently come across issues like paper jams, difficulty setting up print drivers, and more,” Olson said. “Over the years, we have done a great deal of work to really understand our customers’ pain points and eliminate these frustrations in the printing experience.”

The paperless office?

You’d think with the advent of laptops and smartphones that allow easy editing, reading, and sending of digital documents anywhere you go, that printing documents would have been confined to a minority of businesses. But that hasn’t been the case at all.

Despite all of the talk of paperless offices, printers are still found in most offices. Office printing volumes had actually been increasing in the mid 2010s, only starting to drop last year. Digitization did have an effect on printing — by making it easier. Printer makers were able to free devices from individual computers and centralize units in offices by making use of wifi and the cloud. But even with these innovations, many offices still put printers by individual desks or for clusters, both for convenience and security. Printers also now have the ability to only do a job once an employee inputs their ID.

“Some 40 years later, laser printers are still going strong.”

And judging by a 2018 survey of office workers across five countries, printing isn’t going away anytime soon. According to analyst group Quocirca, 65 percent of IT decision makers said they believed paper will still be important to the workplace by 2025. Surprisingly, 77 percent of surveyed millennial decision-makers said they believe print will still be important in 2025. Meanwhile, among all surveyed millennials, 69 percent said they think important documents should be printed and 63 percent consider printed documents to be more durable than their digital counterparts.

This later point — whether it’s true or not — is vital to understanding print’s staying power. For certain professions, particularly the medical and legal fields, print is the norm.

Legal paper

“The legal industry has a lot of documentation and has traditionally needed to print at really high volumes for a variety of needs,” said Stewart J. Guss, whose firm has seven offices across the US.

Guss’ law firm originally had commercial grade machines that printed, copied, and scanned for his team. But due to confusion over print jobs, heavy foot traffic in printer rooms, and the potential of power loss crippling operations, the firm switched to smaller laser printers for individuals and/or departments. During these past few months of remote work, the firm’s staff has been utilizing machines at home that had been previously purchased after Hurricane Harvey crippled its Houston headquarters.

“Although many law firms have pivoted into virtual capabilities and paper is becoming a thing of the past in many verticals,” Guss said, “we're still reliant on it, so I don't see the need for printing going away anytime soon.”

That’s not stopping startups from trying. One company, Outlaw, aims to replace the need for printing legal documents with its cloud-based, end-to-end contract management platform (similar to Docusign).

“It’s about efficiency,” said Ying Ying Lim, Outlaw’s marketing and sales operations manager. “At my last company we were dealing with multiple contracts. We would send it to legal for approval and it would go back and forth. After that process, we would print it for signing and then scan it and send it back. That’s a 10-step process. By implementing a digital solution that brings you start to finish, that will reduce 10 steps to a few steps.”

Interest in Outlaw’s solution is picking up. Lim said that inquiries from April to June have increased 31 percent compared to last year, and that the number of contracts signed on the platform increased 38 percent. But even with this success, the company knows it has an uphill battle in getting lawyers to give up their printers.

“The legal field tends to be risk averse, so tech adoption is slow,” said Jumi Cha, marketing director at Outlaw and a former paralegal who used to spend hours checking printed documents. “The legal field goes to what they know, which is printing and redlining. It's very familiar and that works.” Firms are tech averse due to the learning curve, not for security purposes, Cha said, and stay-at-home orders may be the wakeup call needed for the profession to change.

Ready to print

The legal profession comprises just one industry, but it shows the sticking power of these devices that put what appear on our screens onto paper. Even Starkweather, the laser printer’s inventor who died in December, had been impressed with its longevity.

“A real question was raised at the time about the future of paper and how the printer would survive into the future with people using novel displays and so on,” he said. “Some 40 years later, laser printers are still going strong.”

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