Printing is broken.

In fact, as the ever-spot-on Oatmeal says: Printers were sent from Hell to make us miserable.

I own a printer. I’d rather not, and I run a mostly paper-free life, but there are still occasions when I need to print stuff – end of year stuff, the odd invoice, a letter or two.

Every single time I dust off my printer, these things happen:

  • The ink runs out. I go to Smiths, spend half an hour looking at a vast wall of different cartridges for printers with slightly different model numbers before realising that my exact model isn’t represented here and so I apparently need to order online instead
  • I go to Amazon and find an incredible array of possible inks – the official ones come in at about half the price of my printer. Let’s consider that again: my printer costs £45 new. The ink costs £25. This is like filling up a £5,000 car with £2,500 of petrol every time you want to use it.
  • I inevitably choose a dodgy non-HP ink and then suffer a deeply irritating “non compatible HP ink will DESTROY YOUR LIFE” message until that ink runs out too (normally only about 3 minutes, I grant you, but hey)
  • The printer crunks 15 sheets of paper with every print
  • The printer requires a 100 Tb driver download every time I’m in a hurry
  • If something breaks, I have absolutely no option but to bin the printer. I believe as an individual I have owned at least 5 inkjet printers in the last 10 years.

We all just accept this as the norm, and it’s obscene.

I refuse to believe that printers are SO complicated they need official inks, or can’t have replacement parts. I refuse to believe that in this year of our lord 2013, we can’t build a device that’ll print out one page of text without performing complicated origami techniques on the next 14 pages in the tray. I refuse to believe that I absolutely MUST download that fucking printer application, edit suite, Chrome toolbar, desktop helper and new OS in order to PRINT A FUCKING LETTER.

I’d much rather pay £100 upfront for a decent, open-sourced printer. One where I could buy spare parts and £5 replacement cartridges.

If it were on Kickstarter, I’d fund that shit.

Links in print

I’m working on the new Eduserv website right now – content inputting, structuring, trying to hang the whole thing together – and the question came up the other day about how best to deal with incoming links from printed materials. We do a fair amount of these at work: brochures, leaflets, case studies – that kind of thing. I’m also writing a book at the moment, and this’ll have a supporting website – so the same question is looming large in another part of my life too.

When I gave this some brain time, it struck me that there are several possible solutions, and also some obvious problems which come along with those solutions, so I thought I’d punt the ideas I came up with here and see if you clever people had any better or different ideas.

The problem that needs solving is obvious: URL’s tend to be fairly cumbersome, and frankly a PITA to type in. Getting people from print to web on the other hand seems to be something which has a fair amount of potential value in it, either from a marketing “measure the effectiveness of our campaign” perspective or purely (as is the case with my book) because the web gives you an opportunity to offer additional and more up-to-date material than the printed page.

The barrier is high, though. We’re almost (I think) past having to type the http:// bit. We’re also (I think) past having to type the www bit too (unless you’re talking many government institutions, that is..).

The obvious solution, and one which – if you flick through a newspaper or magazine – seems to be the most favoured is to simply use an aliased url of some description. So there will be or whatever. Easy enough, although there is some alias hackery required and needing to be maintained at some level. Also, the URL is still a bit of a mouthful, especially if your root domain is a bit chunky in the first place. So my old stomping ground has for example – fine, but a bit of an arse for a user to have to type.

The next obvious one is to URL shorten., tinyurl, – they’re all much of a muchness: immediate, short, measurable URLs, and if you fork out for “pro” versions of these services then you can get a similar(ish) domain to the one you originally started with. TechCrunch for example shortens to All good, but as per wider criticisms of URL shortening: not only does it kind of “break” the web, it also relies on a 3rd party. If you’re talking about printed material then the link potentially needs to be maintained and maintainable over a more extended period of time, so this becomes more of an issue than online maintenance. You can always create your own shortening service (there are a whole number of scripts out there that do it), which makes things a bit safer, but you still need to maintain a secondary shorter domain.

Next up, and potentially good but not yet widespread enough is QR coding. Instant links, but suffering from two main problems: 1) few people know what to do with a QR code or have the necessary hardware to deal with it and 2) typically you’ll scan with a mobile, which probably isn’t where you want to be experiencing the web content. There are ways round this: you could for example ask people for an email address on first scan, and send links to this address – but it’s all a bit clunky.

The final thing I can think of is to use a variation of the “big brand” approach you often see on TV: “Search the web for: ***”, but this time say something like “Search our site for: ****”. You could do this using some kind of magnifier icon to keep the words short.

I’ve got a suspicion that I’m over-thinking the problem, especially given that most brands – even companies who have a fair overlapping of offline and online presences – seem to do it using the obvious first method. But it also strikes me as a problem which could be better solved with a bit of clever lateral thinking. Any ideas?