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Print isn't dead, though printer woes make me wish it were

Forget smartphones. We need "smartprinters," ones that actually work to print things reliably.

Modern Family's Phil Dunphy meets his nemesis, a printer. ABC

Normally I try to provide thoughtful commentary in the Common Sense Tech column, with solutions to problems that I raise when I can find them. But indulge me in rant. Because, once again, I've had it with printers.

I hate printers. They never seem to work. I don't care the model. I don't care the operating system talking to them. I don't care if it's printing through wireless or USB. Printers don't work.

I print far less than I ever used to, but the odd occasion still comes up requiring it. Often it's that there's some form that requires an actual physical signature be written on it, because some bank, government agency, or other bureaucracy is still operating in the paper age.

With a sigh, I push print and hope that the form actually comes out of the printer. Sometimes it does, which leaves me in dread of the next step -- will I be able to scan it with my signature, in order to e-mail it back. Or worse, can I get the fax to work, if that's the only way to send it? Where's my phone cord again?

But often printing doesn't work. The computer can't see the printer. The computer can see the printer, but nothing in the print queue is emerging. Off I go to see if there are new drivers, or to try a reinstallation. Anything, anything that will just let me print. Please.

Please, Daddy, make it print
Then there are my kids. Believe me, when it comes to schools, print isn't dead. There's a constant stream of things that need to be printed. The pleas of my children echo through my head....

I need to print this for a poster.

I need to print this for a science project display.

I need to print this report.

Daddy, why isn't it working?

I don't know, kids. I don't know why it's not printing. I don't know why the printer has now decided to spit out page-after-page with nothing on it. I don't know why the wireless printer that your laptop could see and print to just a minute ago has now disappeared when you need to print something else. I don't know why that text that's supposed to be black is coming out all blue, even though there's plenty of black ink.

Can I join Printers Anonymous?
It's maddening. It can be so maddening that years ago, I even once threw a printer out of my window, I was so frustrated with it. Crazy, I know. But you know what? I told someone this story last year and he confessed to doing the same thing.

In fact, after doing a little searching, neither of us are alone at least in the feeling of wanting to do physical harm to a recalcitrant printer. 

Humorist Paul Johnson documented throwing his printer out of his window as "a warning to other printers." Here are three forum discussions started by people who wanted to see a printer fly. A recent review of two printers billed them as ones "you won't want to throw out the window" in the headline. Yes, that's now a feature of printers -- how likely are they to produce or reduce rage?

More signs of printer frustration
Yes, we have problems with our printers. Consider this:

Those are suggestions from Google that appear when you type "my printer" into the search box. The suggestions come from searches people actually do on Google. Google is parroting back the most popular related terms, which means for "my printer," many people continue typing to ask:

  • my printer won't print
  • my printer is not printing
  • my printer says offline

That's not encouraging about the current state of printing. Consider also this:

Those are the most popular suggestions for "i hate my" things that begin with the letter "p," with "I hate my printer" topping the list. "I hate my parents" comes second. Yes, more people have dysfunctional feelings toward their printers than their parents, it seems.

At least that's encouraging.

Printer problems even made it to ABC's "Modern Family" sitcom two years ago, when Phil Dunphy was thrilled to have his father-in-law Jay Pritchett ask for help in getting his printer to work. Then Phil is less thrilled when he's not able to immediately solve the problem. 

There's a short clip below of Phil's printer saga, but you owe it to yourself to watch the full episode. Yes, you'll have to buy it (options here), but the $2 to $3 is well worth it to know you're not alone in printer hell.

I just want my printing to work. Just work. Mac, Windows, particular printer brands. it doesn't seem to matter. Printing is a screwed-up mess, and that's even before you get to the high cost of ink.

Forget Apple and Android wars. The real winner in the technology space might be not someone who builds a great smartphone but a great "smartprinter." Because that's what we need.

In the meantime, if you're like me and can't escape the need to print, CNET has a printer buying guide worth reviewing along with along with a top five printers list. Good luck!