How XEROX Invented (and Killed) Printing

This article was originally published by me on the ezeep blog. Please note that ezeep, including it’s blog contents, has been acquired since then. Consequently this post might not appear on the ezeep blog anymore or might reference to a different author within ezeep’s new parent company.

Losing The Hackers

In the late 1970’s, Richard Stallman and his colleagues at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab were using one of the first XEROX Xerographic printers. The device was provided to the lab for free. Compared to current standards, the printer was extremely slow and constantly jammed. Additionally, print job transmission and caching were nowhere near to what it is today. Getting tired of the unreliability, Stallman decided to modify the printer’s software to send out a message to the person who tried to print whenever an error occurred, asking to fix the printer. This turned out to be a simple but effective method to reduce the number of issues and let everyone work more efficiently.

A few years later, Stallman and his colleagues received a new printer from XEROX. The device turned out to be much faster and much more reliable than the old one. It just came with one tiny flaw: The software for that printer only came in binary form and the source code was held under non-disclosure by XEROX. Now the AI Lab folks weren’t able to adapt the software to their needs. This is considered as Stallman’s key experience that made him believe that software should be freely available and open for everyone to modify.

While corporations dominate society and write the laws, each advance in technology is an opening for them to further restrict its users. -– Stallman’s Law

XEROX is only an example for the whole industry. Look at HP, Samsung etc. and you’ll see the same behavior all over the place. You can read the whole story about Richard Stallman’s eye opening printer experience here:

An Innovation-Free Zone

Stallman wrote his little paper jam notifier 30 years ago. Even today, printer status information for most devices is still notoriously unreliable. There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in printing since the early days. Because of its ‘cash-cow’ status, all major device manufacturers have kept most of their software and hardware designs behind closed doors. So they can continue selling overpriced parts, consumables and services in a locked-in, proprietary world. After some back and forth even Microsoft started supporting people hacking their Kinect controller. In printing (besides CUPS) pretty much nothing has been made publicly available.

After all, printing is still occupying a very large space in technology and sadly takes the bottom spot in innovation. Printing is a tool for exchanging, archiving, annotating and sharing information between people. External innovations like e-books or tablets solve parts of the same problem. Each of those deal with a particular issue, but don’t address the same wide scope printing does. Interestingly, there’s barely any innovation coming out of the printing space itself.

Breaking the Rules

At ezeep, we’re dealing with all the proprietary parts of printing every day and are in a constant battle to build an abstraction layer on top of those closed legacy systems. This turned out to be an incredibly hard challenge and made us think a lot about how we could contribute to improve the situation for everyone and start uncluttering the printing/printers industry.

We believe that open source, transparency and the free flow of information is the right way to spark and catalyze innovation. During the next few months we will start contributing first bits and pieces of code we’ve written and knowledge we’ve acquired to the community in the hope of kicking-off a new and open era of printing. But we can’t achieve this alone. We’ll need your support to turn the most closed and innovation-unfriendly technology into something open that actually improves people’s life and work.