Computer Chronicles Revisited 93 — The LaserWriter Plus, LaserJet II, and LaserLine 6

Even as stock markets around the world crashed in October 1987, business owners could still take comfort in the fact that laser printers had finally broken the sub-$2,000 barrier. Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet II printer was now available from some retailers for just $1,795, a significant discount from the original $2,595 list price. And laser printers from smaller companies such as Epson could be had for as little as $1,400.

With that in mind, this next Computer Chronicles episode from November 1987 focused on the latest developments in laser printers. Stewart Cheifet opened the program by showing Gary Kildall some examples of printed documents. Normally you would have to go to a professional printer to get such documents, but these were all printed on a personal computer with a laser printer. Laser printers had become associated with desktop publishing. But was that the only reason to go out and buy one?

Kildall said that laser printers and high-resolution graphics went hand-in-hand. In the case of desktop publishing, the fonts themselves were the graphics. But laser printers were also good for creating presentation graphics like pie charts and bar graphs, which were useful when making overhead transparencies for business meetings. Other uses included technical documentation and engineering drawings that had a lot of fine lines to reproduce. Basically, any application where you needed to reproduce high-resolution graphics for hard copy, a laser printer was useful.

Filling a Gap in the High-End Market

Wendy Woods presented her first remote report from Laser Friendly, Inc., a Sunnyvale, California business. Woods said that the novelty of desktop publishing had worn off for most PC users who were by now familiar with the page-makeup software and laser-printer look of company newsletters. But laser technology had some distinct limitations. In terms of resolution, it had yet to approach the quality of professional typesetting.

Woods said that Printware, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based company, had found a way to break through the 300 dots-per-inch (DPI) barrier by using a radically different optical system–one that boosted resolution to 1200x600dpi. Laser Friendly, which developed high-end desktop publishing software, was one of Printware’s first customers.

Laser Friendly product manager Michael Moore–no, not that one–told Woods that their company came from a professional printing background, so they needed a higher-resolution laser printer to use with their professional-grade software. But Woods noted the Printware machine wasn’t cheap. Equipped with a PostScript interpreter and 2MB of memory, the Printware retailed for $16,000. On the other hand, its closest competitor ran about $30,000.

Moore said the Printware filled a gap in the market. For quite some time, professional typesetters were saying that laser printers were fine but they didn’t have the resolution necessary for a lot of applications. And there was an attitude among some that there would never be a laser printer that could meet professional standards. But now there was.

Apple’s LaserWriter Plus Offered a Complete Package

Jim Gable and Roy Perry joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio. Gable was the product manager for the LaserWriter Plus at Apple. Perry was the general manager at Letraset USA, which distributed the desktop publishing program Ready, Set, Go!

Noting the LaserWriter Plus on the desk, Kildall quipped to Gable that it looked more like a copier than a printer. What was going on inside the LaserWriter? Gable explained the actual printing engine was, in fact, a copier. And the reason that laser printers had become so popular and low-cost was that they were based on copier technology.

In terms of what was going on inside the LaserWriter, Gable explained that instead of having a glass plate with a document like a copier, there was a laser beam going back-and-forth as directed by the Macintosh. The computer decided where the LaserWriter’s 300 dots-per-inch would go. Gable noted the Macintosh was a highly integrated system and the LaserWriter Plus gave Mac users the flexibility they desired when it came to mixing text and graphics in their documents. The LaserWriter Plus had a number of built-in typefaces with no limits on size or orientation. The user therefore didn’t have to load in fronts from additional cards. Nor did they need to buy a new Mac, as the LaserWriter worked the same with every machine in the line.

Cheifet asked if there were any choices when buying a LaserWriter Plus. Gable said there were two models, the original LaserWriter and now the Plus. The only difference between the two were the number of built-in typefaces. Gable added that the term “fonts” had become a bit “squirrely” when it came to describing laser printers. For example, some printers might come with fonts like Times or Courier built-in, but if you wanted the same typeface in “bold” or a certain point-size, you had to buy a separate add-on card. And the manufacturer might advertise each variant as a separate font. But when the LaserWriter included a font like Times, it came with all of the styles and sizes standard. If Apple counted each as a separate font like the competition, Gable said the LaserWriter could claim to have hundreds of thousands of “fonts.”

Kildall asked Gable to show off what the LaserWriter Plus looked like inside. Gable opened the unit and reiterated that it worked much like a desktop copier. He pulled out the toner cartridge to show that it was removable. This meant that when a user ran out of toner they could just swap-in a new cartridge–they wouldn’t have to pour liquid toner into the machine and get it all over the office. Kildall asked how much the replacement toner cartridges cost. Gable said it was $100 and printed about 3,000 pages. He added that many of the parts that wear out in copiers were present in the toner cartridge. So one reason the LaserWriter was so reliable was that all of those parts were contained in the replaceable cartridge. The process also didn’t leave the printer’s internal drums exposed, so there was no risk of scratching them.

Turning to Perry, Cheifet asked if someone who used Ready, Set, Go!! (RSG) needed a LaserWriter Plus to make the software work. Perry said no. RSG worked with either the LaserWriter Plus or Apple’s dot matrix printer, the ImageWriter. The software also worked with any PostScript-compatible printer.

Cheifet asked Perry if his company was considering an MS-DOS version of RSG. Perry said they thought about everything. But Letraset’s objective was to be the leader in graphic design software for the Macintosh. They were pleased with the graphical interface offered by the Mac.

Perry next showed a sample document printed using RSG and the LaserJet Plus. Cheifet asked how the quality of this document differed from one printed on, say, the ImageWriter. Perry noted the LaserWriter printed at 300dpi. The ImageWriter could only print at 72dpi.

HP’s Improved LaserJet Provided Strong Software Support

Steve Simpson and John Dickinson joined Cheifet and Kildall for the next segment. Simpson was a group marketing manager with Hewlett-Packard (HP). Dickinson was an editor with PC Magazine and ran its PC Labs project.

Kildall noted there were only a few companies that built the engines that ran most laser printers. Both the LaserWriter Plus and HP’s LaserJet II ran off the Canon engine. So were users just buying the same engine in a different package? Simpson said no. Apple and HP both used the Canon CX print engine in their previous laser printers. The LaserJet II was based on the newer Canon SX engine. The SX engine allowed HP to make several improvements over the original LaserJet, including correct-order output (as opposed to reverse collation) and a much darker print capability.

Cheifet pushed for further details on how the LaserJet II improved over its predecessor. Simpson said HP learned it had to make the product as easy to use as possible. This meant providing software support by working with over 600 vendors. It also meant making the printer easier to setup, configure, and use even if a software package didn’t support it well. Simpson pointed out the front panel on the LaserJet II, which made it possible for the user to do all of the necessary configuration without having to use any DIP switches. The front panel was also used to select fonts if that feature was not supported by a particular software package.

Kildall asked what HP’s customers used laser printers for. Simpson said about 85 percent of LaserJets were connected to MS-DOS systems. So it was used primarily in office environments with applications like word processing, spreadsheets, et cetera. Only about 10 percent were being used with desktop publishing applications like Aldus’ PageMaker or Ventura Publisher.

Cheifet observed that the Apple LaserWriter was primarily a desktop publishing device while the LaserJet was “just” a business printer. Dickinson chimed in that “just a business printer” said a lot. The LaserJet was one important standard. But out of the 36 printers recently tested by PC Magazine, many were capable of emulating several other printers. In fact, 27 of those printers emulated the LaserJet and 22 of them emulated an old-style Diablo daisy wheel printer. So there was a lot of competition in this market, where businesses were looking for high speed, quiet printers that didn’t disrupt the office environment.

Kildall asked Dickinson to elaborate further on the different hardware and software standards for laser printers. Dickinson said just about every laser printer on the market would work with a PC. Most would also work with a Macintosh via PostScript emulation.

Turning back to Simpson, Cheifet asked for a sample output from the LaserJet II. Simpson printed a document from Microsoft Word. He also showed samples of desktop publishing and documentation printouts.

Cheifet noted there was a big difference in the price of an HP LaserJet and an Apple LaserWriter. What was the difference if you purchased the lower-cost HP model? Dickinson said you weren’t getting all the software and processing power needed to run PostScript. On the other hand, the LaserJet had a smaller engine that was less expensive to produce.

Would “Laser Parlors” Spread?

Wendy Woods returned for her second report, this time from a “laser parlor” in San Francisco. Woods explained this was a term used to describe desktop publishing service centers. This particular parlor, Krishna Copy Center in San Francisco, and its eight franchises throughout the country, were cashing in on the complexity and high cost of desktop publishing. These parlors offered DIY desktop publishing equipment, including high-quality typesetters.

Sanjay Sakhuja of Krishna Copy Center told Woods that people wanted to invest only $2,000 to $3,000 in a computer and expected it do everything. A place like his offered the “missing links” to provide access to more expensive equipment like laser printers. A customer could use Krishna’s printers as-needed and not have to buy their own.

Woods said that with a little help from qualified staff members, anyone could desktop publish and turn out professional-looking copy. (The B-roll footage showed Woods using Krishna’s services to produce a flier for an event she was hosting at the upcoming COMDEX show in Las Vegas.) The cost was roughly half of what a professional typesetter would charge. And there was obviously more control over the final product. But the big question was, “Would this idea catch on with the rest of America?” Sakhuja said it was only a matter of time for this to be seen as a critical business service. Woods said that until it did catch on, however, Krishna Copy Center would still mostly rely on the photocopying part of its business for its revenues.

Okidata Emphasized Competitive Pricing

Charlie Kapeghian joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio for the final segment. Kapeghian was director of product marketing with Okidata. John Dickinson also returned.

Kildall noted that Dickinson’s PC Magazine recently rated Okidata’s LaserLine 6 as one of its top low-cost laser printers. He asked Dickison what made the Okidata rate so highly? Dickinson said you had to understand the structure of the laser printer market. There were printers set up for desktop publishing and PostScript like the Apple LaserWriter. Then you had the high-end typesetting machines that printed out at resolutions of 1200dpi. There were also printers setup for large-scale network printing. Finally, there were the vast majority of printers like the Okidata used for work in an office environment. Most of these printers emulated the HP LaserJet. The Okidata rated high because it was highly effective at LaserJet emulation.

Cheifet turned to Kapeghian and asked him to demonstrate the LaserLine 6. Kapeghian said the printer was designed for both desktop publishing and desktop presentations. With respect to the latter, he said that users wanted the ability to merge text and graphics, multiple fonts, and large-type fonts, but couldn’t afford or learn the more complex desktop publishing packages. He noted something like Aldus’ PageMaker was designed for a very narrow segment of the market.

Kapeghian ran a self-test on a LaserLine 6 in the studio to demonstrate the printer’s capabilities. He noted the LaserLine had 15 built-in fonts, while most competing laser printers between 3 and 7. There was also an optional font cartridge. He then showed Cheifet and Kildall the self-test printout, which displayed all of the included fonts.

Next, Kapeghian showed off a giant three-port interface that attached to the LaserLine. This allowed up to three workstations to share one printer. Given the LaserLine retailed for $2,395, this made the “per user” cost around $800 each, which was competitive with the price of a dot matrix printer. He also showed a floppy disk containing drivers to ensure compatibility of the LaserLine with software originally developed for dot matrix and daisy wheel printers. This software was free with the purchase of the printer.

Kildall asked about the cost of additional typeface cartridges. Kapeghian said there were about 4 or 5 available cartridges. Each cost $149. Cheifet then pointed to another Okidata printer set up on the other side of the studio. This unit included a 550-sheet second tray.

Finally, Cheifet asked Dickinson where laser printer prices were heading in the future. Dickinson said we were under $2,000 and still going down for now.

HP’s LaserJet Marked Triumph of Boise Division

On June 8, 1973, Hewlett-Packard executive Ray Smelek told the local press in Boise, Idaho, that the Silicon Valley giant planned to build a “major manufacturing facility” in the city. The year before, HP established its Data Systems Division, which got the company into the business of selling general purpose minicomputers. And while HP typically designed and manufactured all of its own peripherals, it was buying printers from a third-party supplier to go with those minicomputers. So HP co-founder and president David Hewlett tasked Smelek with establishing a printer division somewhere outside of California. (Smelek selected Boise, in part, because it reminded him of his hometown of Pueblo, Colorado.)

The first printers to come off the Boise assembly line were of course dot matrix. But in late 1975, Hewlett called Smelek and told him to look at a new printer developed by the Japanese company Canon. Canon managed to adapt a photocopier engine into a laser printer capable of reproducing the thousands of Kanji characters used in the Japanese alphabet. At Hewlett’s urging, Smelek entered into a partnership between Canon and HP Boise to develop this technology for the U.S. market.

It took several years, but in December 1980 the partnership produced HP’s first laser printer, the HP 2608A. The new printer was quite fast for the time–outputting up to 45 pages per minute–and could print multiple fonts and graphics. Unfortunately, the 2608A cost $120,000 and only worked with the HP 3000 minicomputer. Still, HP managed to sell about 1,200 units over the 2608A’s 12-year life cycle.

When it came to its next laser printer, HP considered sticking with Canon. But Canon’s printer engine still relied on liquid toner. This posed a problem, HP Boise’s Jim Hall later recalled, because the toner coated the printed pages in flammable liquid, which made it unsuitable for use in computer rooms. So HP decided to license its next laser printer engine from another Japanese firm, Ricoh, which used a dry toner. The resulting printer, the HP 2687A, was slower and less reliable than the 2608A, but it managed to get the price down to just five figures at $12,800.

By 1983, Canon had developed the CX print engine, which was based on a dry toner cartridge. That was good enough to lure HP Boise back and the CX engine was used to design the HP LaserJet. HP formally announced the LaserJet at the May 1984 COMDEX show in Atlanta and started shipping the printers that June.

The LaserJet beat Apple’s LaserWriter–also based on the CX engine–to market by almost a year. HP initially sold the LaserJet for $3,495. But after the first 1,000 units sold, the company lowered the price to $2,995. That may still sound like an exorbitant sum, but as Ray Smelek later recounted in his memoir, it actually undercut the the more popular daisy wheel printers on the market at the time, which sold for around $3,200.

HP followed up the Laserjet with the LaserJet+ in September 1985, the LaserJet D+ in 1986, and then the LaserJet II–officially the LaserJet Series II–featured in this episode during the spring of 1987. HP set the list price of the LaserJet II at $2,495, but in practice it regularly sold at or under $2,000, thanks in no small part to price competition from machines like the Okidata LaserLine 6, which was compatible with the HP Printer Command Language.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and first aired during the week of November 4, 1987.
  • Michael Moore remained with Laser Friendly until 1988, when he left to take a position with Ricoh. He later had a stint at Apple before moving to Tektronix in 1997. Xerox acquired Tektronix’s printer division in 2000, and Moore remained with Xerox in a management role until 2010. After spending several years as a consultant, Moore launched SenseMaker Studio, a content creation business, in 2022.
  • Laser Friendly itself did not appear to last long. According to California state records, the business incorporated in August 1987 and was defunct by November 1988.
  • Donald Mager, a former Sperry Corporation executive, started Printware Inc. in 1985. He actually licensed the technology for high-resolution laser printing from 3M, which had abandoned its own efforts to make such a printer. 3M took 20 percent of Printware in exchange for the license. A private equity firm acquired most of Printware’s assets in 2000 for $2.8 million and spun it off into a separate entity, Printware, LLC, which is still in business as of this writing.
  • Jim Gable eventually rose through the ranks at Apple to become vice president of software marketing. He left Cupertino in 1988 to co-found Kerbango, an Internet radio startup. After selling that company to 3Com in 2002, he briefly served as a vice president there. In 2017, Gable joined Anametric, a quantum computing startup, as its president.
  • John Dickinson also appeared in the previous Computer Chronicles episode dedicated to laser printers , which aired in September 1985.
  • Ready, Set, Go! was also featured in an October 1986 Computer Chronicles episode on desktop publishing. As I discussed in my review of that episode, Manhattan Graphics Corporation was the original developer ot RSG. It then sold the publishing rights to LetraSet USA, a division of Essette Letraset, which continued marketing the program until around 1992.
  • Paul Schindler’s software review for this episode was Smart Alarms (Imagine Software, $50), a Macintosh accessory for setting reminders.
  • There was an odd error during the “Random Access” segment, which came from a June 1988 rerun of this episode. Stewart Cheifet reported that the recent release of Dragon Quest III for the Nintendo Entertainment System sold out its entire run of one million copies on release day and caused what one industry publication declared “the single biggest day of school truancy in the history of American schools.” In fact, this happened in Nintendo’s home country of Japan, not the United States. Dragon Quest III was not even released in the United States until 1992, where it was called Dragon Warrior III.