This website is now archived. To find out what BERG did next, go to

My printer, my social letterbox

One of the trends Jack and I discuss a lot is the internet sensibility hitting the world of plastic products. What happens when stuff is conceived of not as tools, but as participants in our own creative, social, connected lives?

I was talking about this with Nat the other week and spinning up concrete examples. One was what this new wave of product would mean to a fairly traditional technology device, like the printer. So here’s my first off-the-top-of-my-head product idea:

If my desktop printer understood the lessons of social software and Web 2.0, it wouldn’t be attached just to my computer or local network. It’d be accessible by my closest family and friends, too, regardless of where they lived. These people are my primary network, the folks for whom I’d put my neck on the line, and of course I’d let them use my paper and toner, just as I’d happily leave them with my house keys.

But what would this remote printing be used for?

My family would print me photos–currently the 3 of us have a shared folder just for pictures, because it’s easy to use and totally private, but an image landing in a folder doesn’t mirror its social importance to me.

My mum, instead of scanning newspaper clippings and emailing them to me (happily, her scanner has a single button that does that whole job), she would print them straight into my house.

My close friends would send me sketches, or print out long articles that I really must read. Yes, we can do this by email–but everyone in the world can send me articles by email. I have a much closer relationship with these people, so why doesn’t my computer support that?

It’s the desktop printer meets social software meets the fax machine, but in everyday life rather than the office. The printer is no longer a printer, it’s my social letterbox.

Jack drew what it would look like:

Social letterbox (distressed)

The social letterbox printer sits on the wall so that when it’s finished printing, the paper falls to the desk with a satisfying thump. It prints slowly, because it’s often going to be working when I’m not there and there’s no hurry. The paper is probably cheap, perhaps thermal paper.

This is because the new social interactions around the printer now influence its form.

And now we have this letterbox, what else would we see? Perhaps magazines, subscribed to like podcasts, sent as PDFs, that my computer picks up and prints overnight, ready for me to read in the morning–just like iTunes downloading shows for me to listen to on my iPod. I’d love a zine that collated the best of my friend’s essays in their blogs. We’ve got the technology, so why not? We might send sketches – napkin doodles – or hand-written notes more often, knowing they could end up pinned to a wall. For some people, the social letterbox might be the only way they like to receive messages and mails from their family.

All of this points to a very different product from the present-day desktop printer. It could be done today–printer manufactures could bundle social letterbox software with their devices, just as digital camera manufacturers bundle photo management applications. But I think that’d be missing the point: the social interactions change the physical device itself.

As well as having a fast laser printer on the floor, I’d have a smaller, cheaper, slower social letterbox on my desk. I’d buy two printers! And we’ve doubled the size of the printer market, at a stroke.

18 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Tom said on 6 October 2006...

    I wonder, 20 years ago did people talk about fax machines like this?

    Fax machines came from an era where the phone book was a reliable way of finding out someone’s number. Mobile phones have changed this expectation (it’s rare to find a mobile number without asking for it) so now our mobile contacts represent a reasonably tight social network and there’s a need/desire to project that network back onto a printing device… ?

    Don’t you just need a fax printer on your mobile? :)

  • 2. tom a said on 6 October 2006...

    Magazines – well, you could possibly catch the pages as they drop out, quickly bind them with some thermal gunk, and then drop the bound thing on the table. Heavy thud (single sheets of thermal paper might be a bit quiet on their own).

    I say this because what I really like doing – mainly at work, where I don’t pay for it – is when I have a big chunk of stuff to read, often off a wiki, I print the lot and then staple it. Some form of page-collation would be useful, and have the side-effect of making the “thunk” as it hits the table more noticeable. (I also really prefer sharing print-outs to sharing URLs, because the physical object provides more obligation to read).

    Re: printer on your mobile: Nintendo did a Gameboy printer years back, for people to print out pages/stickers of stuff they did with the Gameboy camera. Now that the two major handheld consoles have wifi, the hard-copy options become more interesting again.

  • 3. Adrian McEwen said on 6 October 2006...

    Or make the printer completely self-contained, with computing power and networking built-in. Then we could stick one in my great-aunt’s house and the family could email her photos and they’d just get printed out automatically for her.

  • 4. robertogreco said on 6 October 2006...

    It’s not quite what you describe, but have you seen HP’s Presto?

  • 5. Matt said on 7 October 2006...

    Fax machines are the future. And giving remote control of household devices to my family and friends is too. But yes, it shouldn’t need to have a computer attached.

    robertogreco: The link to Presto got eaten somehow, and I can’t find a good reference online! What does it do?

  • 6. robertogreco said on 7 October 2006...

    The more I looked into Presto, the more it seems to fit your bill – minus the “satisfying thump” (love that) and thermal paper. I’m not sure what to make of the layouts they offer for framing the images and messages or how articles could be sent through the service. It’s a good start though.

    A simple should work to get there. Here’s a quote from their “What is Presto?” page.

    “Presto is a combination of the Presto Service and HP Printing Mailbox

    “It allows you to send email, photos, and content to people who don’t have a computer or internet connection. You can send email just like you do today and the Presto Service automatically transforms it into beautiful layouts for printing. Then, the HP Printing Mailbox prints out messages automatically.”

    According to Popular Science, it should be available soon for $150 and a $10 monthly fee. It requires a regular phone line and occasionally dials in to retrieve new messages, although I’m not sure how often.

    CNET also has a short videoon Presto. I’ll send along the link by email in case this one gets eaten. (Am I doing something wrong? There should be several links in this comment.)

    Your post also got me thinking about another I saw yesterday at Rogue Semiotics in reaction to Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters, a novel which will be published by Penguin in weekly installments. He goes on to describe a web service which encourages delayed gratification:

    “You pay in a modest monthly fee (say twenty pounds) and progressively select from all over the place Nice Things that you spot: books, CDs, gadgets, stationery, trinkets, all kinds of gewgaws and folderol that it would please you to have, but which you can’t really justify splashing out for while there’s real life to worry about. Every six weeks or so, the service sends you something from your wish list, only you don’t know what it will be or when it will arrive. Of course, the idea is that over the months you’ll build up a surplus in your account and at some point — but who knows when? — it will send you a really large treat you wanted but couldn’t ever justify buying.”

    Another great idea.

  • 7. nick s said on 8 October 2006...

    Oh, this is a ‘talk to Tom Standage’ thing. Consider the London post in the late 1800s, when you could send a letter in the morning and receive a reply by dinnertime, ideally proffered by a butler on a silver tray, m’lud. It could be wrapped up with a GTD sensibility, so that you receive ‘post’ three times a day, and ‘telegrams’ for urgent communications. But the tropes of late Victorian communication, of technology emerging and being formalised, might just be your cue. Especially if it came in a wrought iron model.

  • 8. pilgrim said on 8 October 2006...

    I can see why sellers of print consumables might think this a terrific wheeze, but no.
    No, no, no. Absolutely not.
    I like that my workspace is (almost) paperless. There is a printer on my desk, but I almost never make hard copy of anything. I always ask myself whether I need a permanent physical copy of (whatever), and the answer is nearly always no.
    Also, the idea of giving over control of my printer to friends and family is faintly appalling to me. While I would certainly trust them with my house keys, I wouldn’t rely on them to make the kind of evaluations I’ve indicated above. I am seeing reams of lame jokes, pointless photos, viral bullshit. No thanks.
    Oh, and thermal paper is *horrible*. I had some images printed with the Gameboy printer, about eight years ago. I don’t have them anymore; I have, or had, after a fairly short period of time, a bunch of scraps of useless paper, the images faded to nothing. If something is worth making hard copy of at all, then it’s worth making hard copy that’s going to last. Otherwise, no.
    Getting information out of paper reproduction and into bits was an enormous step forward. Why the holy screaming fuck would you want to go back to hard copy – on thermal paper, yet?
    For a “satisfying thump”? Hell, you can digitise those, too…

  • 9. omg said on 18 October 2006...

    Is this just a joke or is the author seriously oblivious to just how backwards of an idea this really is?
    (and did Matt at really say this was brilliant?!)

    think of the tremendous waste of paper and ink to print out meaningless shit
    think of tying down your digital communications to a specific location
    think of not being able to pick up your friend’s note because you’re out of town
    think of your printer bursting into a noisey print job next to you while you’re trying to watch a movie.
    think of how much stuff your friends email you that you just you look at only once
    think e paper is around the corner
    think digital photo frame with web connection
    think the social printer is a really bad idea

  • 10. Ben said on 18 October 2006...

    Those mock-ups are a hilarious example of what happens when you let your ink salesperson design what you will be printing. $150 + $10/mo for ISP + $100/mo for ink.

    I do think this sounds like a halfway decent idea, but it will not be useful or cost effective while it’s being designed by HP’s marketing department.

  • 11. paul said on 18 October 2006...

    This smells like another blogger attempting to coin a meaningless catchphrase. *cough* micropatron *cough*

  • 12. Billy said on 18 October 2006...

    This totally blew me away. I was having trouble printing from a remote server and I installed this on our hosted server and it transformed our printing. We have a tiny company and we all work remotely so any help with network printing was a bonus but was more than I could hope for.

    I think that it is what people are wobbling on about here. Printing to other peoples printers without the networking and server BS.

  • 13. John Handelaar said on 18 October 2006...

    I like it.

    But it wouldn’t work. I’d forgotten why over the last ten years, but then went to the in-laws’ place last Xmas to replace the ink in the fax machine… and then dump 91 pages of spam into the recycling bin.

  • 14. Claytron said on 19 October 2006...

    That was posted on gizmodo today. Sounds very much like what you’re talking about, though obviously not exactly.

  • 15. steve said on 19 October 2006...

    How about a system exactly like this, but instead of hooked to a printer that wastes paper, link it to one of those little digital photo frames? Friends/family could project images to your desk, but without all that annoying paper – and you could easily shut it off if it was a distraction.

  • 16. ingrid said on 19 October 2006...

    check out these folks are working on something similar to your idea.

  • 17. Thibaut said on 19 October 2006...

    Man, you’ve just designed the Hummer of communication devices, I’ll second omg on this idea.
    The ecological footprint of this tree cutter would be more than big. You should have a look of what is happening to canadian forests thanks to the paper industry. Seriously.
    This one and only reason makes your idea backward.
    But the good point you highlighted is on “I have a much closer relationship with these people, so why doesn’t my computer support that?”
    That’s right, we should be able to have other ways to deal with people closer to us, ways that are different from this kind of coroporate alike interfaces.

  • 18. Stacy said on 26 October 2006...

    Hey Matt have you seen the Hammer Shlemmecher ( totally butchered the spelling ) catalog item which appears to be exactly what you are describing?

Comments for this post are now closed.

Recent entries from
Matt Webb

Popular Tags