The Future of Imaging .... Part 3 .. The Impact Era

Ed Crowley, Virtulytix, Chief Thought Leader (CTO)

In the prior two blogs I sped through over 300 years of technology evolution from scribes and clerks through the typewriter era. While I remember (not too fondly) typing papers for College on my Brother typewriter, even by my graduation in 1984, with the advent of the IBM PC and word processing software, high speed 24-pin dot matrix printers were becoming standard office tools and displacing typewriters.  As early as the 1960’s, impact printers were pervasive in large computing centers. A number of technogies were available including line chain (IBM), drum (DataProducts), and line matrix (Printronix). These were the printers which used tractor fed ‘greenbar’ paper (if you know what that is, you are already dating yourself). Their little cousin, the desktop dot matrix printer didn’t really rise to prominence until the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Like the major office technology transitions before impact printers, the print technology was not necessarily the ‘driver’ of the transformation. Rather, demographic (led by a highly educated baby boomer work force), computing (the advent of real desktop PC’s such as the IBM PC and Apple), and software (for example WordPerfect – remember those fun <B> codes for formatting documents?) changes resulted in a need for low cost, digitally driven, desktop printing devices. Hence the rapid rise of the dot matrix printer.

However, compared to the scribe era and pre-electronic / typewriter era, the dot matrix era was actually rather short. The scribe era could arguably be defined as 300 years long. The Pre-electronic / typewriter era lasted 104 years. The dot matrix era lasted 25 years. The rate of change was clearly accelerating, and as we have seen, continues to accelerate today.

The change between eras became more dramatic and disruptive with each succeeding era. For example, the overlap between the Scribe and pre-electronic / typewriter era was lengthy and could be argued to have lasted at least 50 to 75 years. The overlap between when the impact era started and the pre-electronic – typewriter era ended was 35 years. However, the overlap between the end of the impact era (and by end I mean when they shifted from a leading technology to a rapidly declining technology) was only a few years. The first real desktop laser printer was the HP LaserJet, which was introduced in 1984. The same year that the leading printer product (in terms of unit volume) was the Toshiba P24 pin dot matrix printer. However, within two short years, dot matrix printer volumes were in a free-fall as laser technology become the standard.

Shortened ‘life cycle’ spans for technology eras, with less over-lap between the eras, and rapid demographics and complementary office technology changes has been the over-riding trend in the office as we journey from Scribes 300 years ago to the impact era 25 years ago.  And for the most part, with each transition between eras, the leaders in the office products space have changed. The dominant names in typewriters (IBM, Smith Corona) were not the leaders in the impact era. The leaders in the impact era (Toshiba, Centronics, and DataProducts) were not the leaders in the next era – the Page Era. The moral of the story is, when companies become more focused on protecting their existing technology / market leadership position than understanding the external market forces and dynamics shaping the office market – they are vulnerable to rapid and significant technological change.

So what is your company’s position? Are you protecting your existing ‘piece of the pie’? Or are you focused on what is happening externally to your firm and even to the industry? In the next blog I will discuss the Page Era, arguably the ‘golden age’ of the office imaging market when vendors were able to practically print money due to the rapid growth and high profitability of laser and inkjet printers.

 At the conclusion of this series of five blogs (each blog will cover a distinct era), I will be holding a complimentary webinar on how to thrive in the new Data Era, as well as provide access to a free white paper covering is critical topic. I encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions on the industry’s journey at on this blog, on the Virtulytix LinkedIn site or the LinkedIn discussion group at Imaging Industry Transformation.