Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Observations: Lexmark 4019—Happy Birthday to You!

Observations: Lexmark 4019—Happy Birthday to You!

As the end of the first decade of the 21st century nears, the world economy is attempting to slowly pick itself up from one of the meanest slumps in several generations. And the printer business is licking its wounds, counting on a reversal in a downturn in printer shipments and print volumes exacerbated by the slowdown in economic activities. But as it turns out, 2009 is a year to celebrate anniversaries in the printing and imaging industry.

Earlier this year, HP trumpeted the original HP LaserJet printer's 25th birthday (see "Happy 25th Anniversary HP LaserJet"), and last week, Lexmark touted the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the venerable IBM 4019. As pointed out in an excellent piece on the history of the product’s development effort by Scott Sloan in the Lexington Herald-Leader and online at Kentucky.com, and first noted in this blog in last week's "Happy 20th Anniversary, Lexmark", the 4019 was IBM’s first grounds-up laser printer design and used the combined skills of IBM people in the printer division in Boulder, CO and those in Lexington, KY, historically IBM’s typewriter facility. The headline of Sloan’s piece captures the even greater significance of the printer: “Laser printer project in ‘80s led to Lexmark.” The spinoff of IBM’s printer group and the creation of Lexmark (NYSE LXK) International occurred in 1991, coming on the back of the success of the 4019, and was a huge step in the industry. But I think it is also worthwhile to look back a little more at the product itself, its development, and the state of the laser printer business in the late 1980s.

Like stories about the original HP (NYSE HPQ) LaserJet and Apple LaserWriter, this one goes even beyond the reach of The Hard Copy Observer archives, which begin in October 1991. Fortunately, PC Magazine and its annual printer issue was there to record the emergence of the 4019, though interestingly, in the “6th annual Printer Issue” dated November 18, 1989 (see photo of cover), the product is only referred to as the IBM LaserPrinter, with nary a mention of “4019”—the name change would come later.

The 1989 PC Magazine printer issue's cover featured a "better than a LaserJet" blurb (mid-left) in a reference to the 4019, but in a warning of the competition marching on, HP's "$1,000 laser" also appears (mid-right). The IBM LaserPrinter review appears on Page 156 of the issue (incredibly, less than one-third of the way through the mammoth printer issue of 1989) and is written by M. David Stone, who 20 years later is still actively penning PC Magazine printer pieces, by the way. The printer is also highlighted with a “Better Than LaserJet—from IBM” teaser on the front cover and shares space in the Laser Printer category’s “Editor’s Choice” summation with two models each from Brother and HP and single models from QMS and Varityper. The laser printer category in the magazine included 35 models that year, representing still-present manufacturers such as Canon and Ricoh as well as LaserMaster, Printronix, Talaris, and Unisys, which are either no longer in the printer industry or no longer around period.

Publishing lead times being what they were back then may explain why the issue contains no advertisement for the IBM LaserPrinter. A two-page spread for the IBM Personal Page Printer II appears however (the firm’s previous effort aimed at the higher-end desktop publishing market), as does a similar spread for the ubiquitous (at the time) IBM Proprinter dot matrix model.

However, I personally remember TV commercials for the 4019 showing up during Monday Night Football in that same time frame, which was a sure sign that IBM was taking laser printing, and its competition with HP, very seriously. The grounds-up effort represented in the 4019 was clearly motivating IBM in the marketing end of things. And with the company's strong association and leadership in the personal computer space, going back to the original PC in 1981, many assumed that IBM had built-in advantages with many customers, given the right product offering.

Not Just (Pure) Nostalgia


Sloan’s current-day article relies on interviews featuring thoughts from Lexmark employees Paul Curlander (back then, 4019 product manager and currently CEO), Harry Cooper (then, software and firmware development manager and today, director of digital imaging systems), and Gregory Ream (originally senior engineer of electrophotographic technology development and now Lexmark Laureate in laser technology). According to these interviews, IBM was attempting to improve upon reducing product size, correct-order output, and the ability to print envelopes, vis-à-vis the HP LaserJet.

During the IBM development process beginning in 1986, which led to the new product’s introduction in the fall of 1989, HP was not standing still, of course. The LaserJet II made a huge market splash in 1987, bringing numerous improvements to the category that HP was already leading, though remaining an 8 ppm machine. By 1989, HP had extended the new platform, with an improved-paper-handling product (LaserJet IID) and the industry’s first sub-$1,000 laser printer, the compact (and slower) LaserJet IIP. However, the fact that HP could make so much progress but still leave so much room for improvement is testimony to the potential and immaturity of the laser printer market twenty years ago. In summarizing the LaserPrinter’s virtues, quoting from Stone’s summary review, “The IBM LaserPrinter is certainly a challenge to the HP LaserJet. About 20 percent faster and 40 percent smaller than the LaserJet, this IBM-designed and –manufactured laser printer features quality output. It also offers superb paper handling: it’s the first laser printer that can handle envelopes without jamming. Of course, it’s only a LaserJet clone, but it’s a clone from a highly reliable source.” Even that clone comment was a virtue, as explained in the longer review, as it assured compatibility with existing software solutions for prospective buyers.

The 4019 effort shows the success that can be achieved by deeply understanding the competition (Sloan’s article relates the story of Curlander packing the Lexington offices with multiple HP LaserJets, just for this purpose) and then going after that firm’s product deficiencies, but taking this approach against an existing market-leading product via a multi-year development effort is tricky. The development effort runs the risk of becoming an exercise in chasing old products with new product visions, and the incumbents are certainly aware of issues and working to improve their old products with efforts of their own.

While some may argue that the 4019 was at most the third biggest laser printer introduction of the 1980s, trailing the original HP LaserJet and Apple LaserWriter in significance in shaping the categories of general office printing and higher-end desktop publishing, in other ways it was the most important. Though never vaulting its parent company (old or new) to an outright lead in the business, the 4019 led to the establishment of a whole new printer company: Lexmark International. The idea of being part of a spun-off, standalone printer company without the “drag” of the larger parent (and also lacking the support during leaner times) was a very common vision among industry participants in those heady days. Former IBMers who became part of the new firm experienced the independence and the ultimately mixed blessing of which Apple and HP printer folks could only dream.

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