Why Apple got out of the laser printer business

The same thing with LaserWriters. Steve Jobs tried his very best to convince the desktop printer manufacturers to build home and small business laser printers that could handle Macs as well as PostScript fonts, but had zero takers. Without desktop printers that would work with Macs, 1984 would have been just like 1984. Same-o with Cinema Displays.

Airport was pretty much the first Apple friendly router in the business that made wireless networking safe, reasonably priced, and so easy it was just about foolproof at a time when manufacturers thought nobody, including PC users, would want a wireless home network. Like iPhone, iPod, iTunes, etc., the world thought Apple was crazy and nobody would buy it.


Was it? It seems like printers have advanced very little relative to the rest of the tech industry.

I bought a laser printer which prints more than 15 pages a minute, is wireless, can print duplex, can scan, can copy, and even supports the ancient technology called “fax” – all for well under $200. Replacement toner carts cost about $10/each, less if I buy a 4-pack.The most expensive part of that printer is the paper my wife feeds it.

So yes, I wold say the problem was solved.

Yep, I agree with @kreme. My laser printer, likely a bigger model than his, could easily deal with a small corporate division, a toner cartridge while 200 bucks lasts three years in our usage… and my Epson photo printer delivers quality archival prints with color persistence in the hundreds of years. Extraordinary quality, far exceeding the capabilities existing with analogue technology.

I’m with Josh on this one. While what you say is also true about my HP LaserJet (and I like that printer!), it’s a mediocre level of progress compared to where things were in the late 80s and what other parts of the tech industry have accomplished. I still wait ~10 s for the sheet to come out. Wireless works, but its finicky. The Ethernet version of the printer still costs ~ $200 more. Toner cartridges cost $80 rather than $5, and of course that’s b/w, not color. That’s my trouble with it. Compare that to a 2.5" $250 SSD pushing 600 MB/s today vs. the late 80s 5 MB HDD for $5000 the size of a cake box.

I recently bought a Brother HL-L2350DW, and it’s a fine laser printer (I finally have AirPrint!), but other than wireless connectivity and cost, it’s not much different or better than any laser printer I’ve used over the past 20 years. I can’t help but wonder how much more advanced printers might be if Apple hadn’t given up on them.

I was in the battlefield in print media back in the day, and I’m thinking about the epic Steve Jobs vs. Jean Louis Gasse and John Skully wars were what ultimately what caused the demise of the LaserWriter. After he convinced The founder of Adobe to license PostScript software for use on Macs, Jobs invested a lot of time, energy and creativity attempting to convince at least one printer manufacturer to make a desktop laser printer that would run PostScript language that would reside on the printer. The printer manufacturers thought this was one of the dumbest things they had ever heard and Jobs had no takers.

Jobs was pretty much forced to have Apple develop PS printers on their own. He also had the vision to foresee how important good typography would be to small and large businesses as well as to individuals and families, and how important type and design was to creative businesses, so he developed Apple Talk (or whatever else the networking was called) so printers could be shared, which was something manufacturers of small business and home printers weren’t doing at the time. They thought they would continue going gangbusters with daisy wheels.

Macs were the Trojan Horse that brought LaserWriters into businesses and households. Unfortunately, a few years later Apple’s profits started to tank. Windows was evolving enough to have Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark, etc. run on it, though it still couldn’t handle PS fonts or manage the necessary quality level for high quality imagesetting. It still doesn’t.

Scully and Gasse both ended up hating Jobs and didn’t just want him fired. They want every trace of him eliminated from Apple, and maybe even from the face of the earth. This probably included the lock he established for Apple with PS and high end design. I can’t remember whether it was both or either one of the Jobs rival schools that decided to team up with Microsoft to develop TrueType fonts and make TT the standard on Macs, but that was the first big blow to LaserWriter. Homes and small businesses no longer needed a LaserWriter to create nice looking letters, address envelopes, make invitations, newsletters, flyers, etc.

Even Adobe thought they didn’t need Apple anymore. Once other font companies started pricing TT versions of fonts less expensively than PS, they started going along. They started issuing Photoshop versions a year before the Mac. They initially developed Dreamweaver for Macs first, then they said they were going to stop Mac development, and also said they would release After Effects for PC but not Mac. Avid said they would release a PC version but not a Mac version.

So Steve Jobs returned to Apple in full combat mode. And it turned out that TT fonts didn’t work well for high end printing (and to this day they still don’t), and Quark, etc.The few printers that did accept them would charge extra for the necessary prepress work. Adobe was pretty much forced to develop OpenType that would run on both Macs and PCs. And Apple caused major damage with relatively cheap-o Final Cut Pro, as well as ultimately free iPhoto, etc.

The success of LaserWriters convinced printer manufacturers that there was a huge market for reasonably priced laser printers. Design technology and computer memory advanced so much that they didn’t require separate memory for actual fonts to reside on the printers and low res screen fonts on Macs or PCs. Software became so sophisticated and apps more easy to develop and prevalent that PS language wasn’t such a big schlemiel anymore, and desktop printers could now emulate PPS beautifully. Businesses and individuals began communicating electronically and commercial and individual printing continues to fall off.

Printers got cheaper and cheaper and more and more capable. Apple almost committed suicide when it began competing on price and licensing its technology. Once printers became what would have been a low or no profit margin item, it no longer made sense for Apple to manufacture them.


I looked up the Laserwriter. In 1985 it cost $7,000 (over $16,000 in 2018 dollars), weighed 77 pounds (30kg), had 2MB (not a typo) of memory, 1.5MB of which was for print jobs and 512K for the ROM. It drew about 800 watts of power. I can’t find out how much toner cost, but it was a lot. I printed 8 pages a minute, on a good day, and printed black only (no greyscale) in 300dpi.

The average price for a new car in 1985 was $6,500 and the average income was $12,700.

(My Brother prints in 1200dpi IIRC)

Is it easy to find reasonably priced 1200x1200 lasers these days? I know I was looking a few years ago and I gave up. Although, I did want color too.

I had an Xante Accel-a-writer that one of my old jobs was ready to throw away. I used it until an OS update took it out (maybe 5 years ago), but I still have it. That was a hard printer to beat. It did print slow but by the time I got it, the toners were pretty cheap (HP 4 toners I think).

All that said, it cost $5,000 new and the color laser I bought over the winter was $340


A few years after the release of the original LaserWriter was an interesting time. Apple was releasing much cheaper models and other companies were coming out with competing PostScript laser printers for less. We had a QMS-PS 410 that we were very fond of, and replaced only with an Apple LaserWriter Select 360 because the engine speed wasn’t fast enough to meet a deadline for submitting book pages.

Our late friend Cary Lu told us that laser printer technology was actually far beyond what we saw in those early laser printers, since they were trying to bring price and size down—one of the first IBM laser printers at the time was much faster (215 pages per minute at 240 dpi).


    May 10

I looked up the Laserwriter. In 1985 it cost $7,000 (over $16,000 in 2018 dollars), weighed 77 pounds (30kg), had 2MB (not a typo) of memory, 1.5MB of which was for print jobs and 512K for the ROM. It drew about 800 watts of power. I can’t find out how much toner cost, but it was a lot. I printed 8 pages a minute, on a good day, and printed black only (no greyscale) in 300dpi.

The average price for a new car in 1985 was $6,500 and the average income was $12,700.

LaserWriters were the first easily networkable, very high quality printers. At the time Macs were introduced I was working at a mid-sized publishing company with about 400+ employees. All the secretaries had top of the line IBM Selectrics that had a ball of type that had something just about resembling proportional type, and was not quite as bad as monospaced keys. The little memory that could store a few letters but did not have any database ability, so all mass mailings had to be individually addressed. Desktop printers and computers were still in the Paleolithic era and were pretty good at printing out financial statements and bills, and only the more expensive printers could do labels. Even the simplest chart or presentation had to be sent out to special designers and typesetters.

When Macs and LaserWriters were introduced, the whole scenario changed for small and large businesses. The ability to easily wire up at least 3-6 secretaries to one printer that could crank out beautiful letters, charts and presentations non-stop. It might have been slow, but it was like going from a bicycle to a supersonic jet when compared with churning out 50-100 customized letters on a Selectric or sending out charts and presentations to special printing companies. LaserWriters might have been stratospherically priced at the time, but for small and large business instantly realized how much more profitable, efficient and effective they could be for them. And for publishing companies, it was a lot more than killing two birds with one stone…the business, creative and production sides all benefitted from Mac and LaserWriter combos.

Back in the day, LaserWriter prices dropped quickly. But as I mentioned before, I’ve always thought they were the Trojan Horse that brought Macs into businesses and then into homes.


The big problem at the time wasn’t the laser technology, it was software. Steve Jobs, who audited calligraphy and typography classes at what was at that time a very respected university in graphic arts, had morphed into a computer nerd. He realized there really was no reason why desktop computers had to be all ASCII all the time, and that it would be possible to build an OS that could handle fontography, typography and line art if there could be a way to access more memory then desktops then had that could run it.

I don’t remember the dpi of desktop printers back then, but they could only do less than 100. That’s not nearly enough to handle finely honed curves or thinks and thins, or to even do much scaling necessary for anything resembling decent typography. The max desktop laser printers could do was 300, but didn’t then have the memory capacity to do Bézier curves, etc. either. Jobs had the idea to put an extra memory chip (or more) on laser printers, and went to Adobe to license PostScript and work with them to develop the combo printer/desktop language geared to typography and sophisticated printing. As persuasive a salesman as Jobs was, he couldn’t convince a printer company to build a desktop with enough memory to handle Macs. So LaserWriter was born.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs has a very detailed description of the development of the LaserWriter, though I don’t think he gives it quite enough weight as one of the factors for the success of the Mac. The analysis of the original love fest and match made in heaven with Adobe, and how the beautiful relationship deteriorated into intergalactic war is well worth reading.