Hot new printing devices sure seem familiar . . .


August 02, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Lexmark International last week introduced a generation of peripheral printing devices that make it astonishingly easy to address envelopes and to fill in the blank areas on forms.

Lexmark describes the new devices as perfect office companions for personal computers. Besides processing envelopes and forms with ease, the new machines can print multipart forms, including overnight courier labels, packing slips and insurance forms. Such tasks are impossible on laser printers.

Unlike some personal computer printers, these peripherals are rugged -- able to withstand coffee spills, sprinklings of eraser detritus and other common office traumas. They are simple to operate ("plug and play," in computerese) and require minimal training, and replacement parts are widely available.

Yes, we're talking here about the typewriter, specifically Lexmark's new line of IBM Wheelwriter electronic typewriters.

Executives at Lexmark, a former division of the International Business Machines Corp. that is by far the leading maker of electronic office typewriters, say 90 percent of its typewriter customers also own one or more personal computers.

Sales of typewriters are clearly on the wane, however, which makes it surprising that Lexmark made a substantial investment in research and development to create its new generation of typewriters. Perhaps it was sentimental: This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first typewriter patents, and the 60th anniversary of IBM's first typewriter.

"The typewriter industry is declining about 17 percent a year in revenue," said Linda DellaVolpe, an analyst with the Venture Development Corp., a market research company in Natick, Mass. "Still, it's about a $350 million industry, and Lexmark continues to be the only player in the industry to increase revenues from year to year."

Raymond Boggs, a research director for BIS Strategic Research in Norwell, Mass., who confesses to using a typewriter for envelopes and some Federal Express labels, seemed able to suppress his enthusiasm at the news of Lexmark's new products. "A third of a billion dollars is not chump change, but it's not a growing or robust market," he said.

Mr. Boggs said he decided not to include typewriters in his speech about office equipment at this week's convention of the National Office Machine Dealers Association in Las Vegas, Nev. "There's simply a decreasing interest in the category," he said, describing the decrease as fairly sharp, at about 9 percent a year in terms of units sold.

"Typewriters are the 21st century pencil," Mr. Boggs said. "Thoreau made pencils 100 years ago. Companies still make pencils today, and we still use them, but of course we don't use them the same way as we did then. Not a lot of novelists are creating books with a pencil these days."

Lexmark, Brother, Canon and Panasonic are among the companies making typewriters today, and most offices still use them. But, just as with Mr. Boggs' pencil analogy, typewriters are not used the same way they were 20 years ago. Writing and editing, for the most part, are done on personal computers, where they are called word processing.

But there are still many people collectively willing to pay $350 million a year for the simplicity of typewriters. A few are technophobes, a few are cantankerous, a few simply like the clack of metal on paper, but most, as Lexmark's marketing studies suggest, have discovered that a typewriter is more productive for those niggling jobs that choke a powerful PC, like printing on a Rolodex card or putting an address on a single mailing label.

While they are simple in contrast to a computer, typewriters today are much more complex than they were even a decade ago. "There are more electronics in today's typewriter than you had in the early PCs," Mr. Boggs notes.

The IBM Wheelwriter 2000 typewriter, made by Lexmark, is a case in point. The Wheelwriter 2000 has 32 kilobytes of memory, the equivalent of about 15 pages of typewritten text. It's the same type of memory used in personal computers, except that there's less of it. Even so, 32KB is sufficient for storing a few form letters, some boilerplate paragraphs and other textual odds and ends.

For those with a moderate technical interest, the memory can be programmed to store a few simple, commonly used business forms. A battery backup feature ensures that anything left in memory will remain there even if someone pulls the power plug.

The typewriter comes with a 50,000-word spelling checker, which should annoy the curmudgeons who believe that people, not machines, should learn to spell. On some models, the checker has a 120,000-word vocabulary.

An automatic correction feature allows the user to erase the last 4,000 bytes (roughly 4,000 characters) that have been typed. The process is much more laborious than with a PC, which can vaporize any amount of text in a flash (and often does so by accident, to the delight of the curmudgeons).

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