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HP LaserJet, History of Hewlett-Packard (and Others)
Laser Printer Development

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The Early Days

Many people wrongly believe that Hewlett-Packard invented the laser printer. In fact, President George Bush visited the HP printer division in Boise, Idaho in 1990 and gave a speech in which he congratulated HP engineers for inventing the laser printer. He told them they were setting an excellent example for how to keep America competitive. At the time of this writing (1994) HP has used Canon engines for all of its laser printer models except for one very early and unsuccessful model, the 2685A, that used a Ricoh engine. In 1993 and 1994 rumors abounded that HP would soon introduce printers entirely manufactured by itself. Perhaps President Bush's comments had something to do with inspiring such an effort.

Xerox started work on laser printers back in 1969. By 1977 Xerox was selling the 9700 (a 120 page-per-minute, full-duplex monster) for about $350,000. Canon brought out the first desktop laser printer, called the LBP-10 in or around 1982. In 1983 Canon started giving private showings of the LBP-CX to key companies in California such as Apple, Diablo and HP. Canon was looking for strong marketing partners who were in the computer business. Canon U.S.A. was very strong in cameras and office products, copiers for example, but didn't have the connections needed to sell effectively into the data processing world. Evidently, one of Canon's first stops was the Diablo Systems subsidiary of Xerox Corporation. Diablo was the logical partner because it had the largest market share for letter-quality daisywheel printers and the marketing managers had recently shown their willingness to put the Diablo name on products from other manufacturers. Diablo had just done several OEM deals with Honeywell for dot matrix printers and with Sharp for color ink jet printers. Canon really wanted Xerox as a partner, and Xerox was the first company offered the opportunity to market the CX engine with Canon's controller.

Xerox declined Canon's offers, as Xerox was developing what it wrongly believed to be a superior desktop laser printer with Fuji-Xerox in Japan. The Xerox machine became known as the 4045. It was both a copier and a laser printer, weighed about 120 pounds and cost about twice as much to make as the CX, but didn't have an all-in-one toner cartridge, and the print quality was poor. The HP LaserJet's smaller size, better print quality and lower cost of operation caused the 4045 to become a 120-pound bomb that dealers couldn't move without a fork lift. Former Diablo managers recall these early meetings with Canon as one of the many great opportunities Xerox let slip away in the early 1980's. The HP LaserJet could have been the Xerox LaserJet. The Canon engine was just one of the blockbuster products that Xerox could have combined to become the world's biggest company in computer-aided design and publishing. The brilliant people at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) invented the ideas of windows, icons, and mice that became the basis for modern computer operating systems. The inventors of PostScript, Ethernet and MS Word all once worked at Xerox.

When the people at Diablo declined Canon's offer, the Canon delegation left Fremont and went West a few miles to see HP in Palo Alto, and South to Apple Computer in Cupertino. Hewlett-Packard was a logical second choice, as HP was one of Diablo's best customers for daisywheel printers, and had an ever-expanding line of dot matrix and daisywheel printers that it was marketing horizontally to all parts of the computer business.

Sales of the HP LaserJet took off like a rocket. When the LaserJet line became the largest dollar-volume product line in HP's history it really began to change the minds of old timers at HP, who had previously been afflicted by the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome that held all non-HP products in disdain. By late 1985 it was estimated that HP had 83 percent market share in desktop laser printers. Reportedly, HP sold over 500,000 LaserJet, LaserJet Plus, and LaserJet 500 Plus printers before switching over to the SX engine for the LaserJet II in 1987.

HP hoped that LaserJet sales would be a foot in the door to expand its computer business systems sales. Many dealers signed up to carry the HP 150 and Vectra line just so they could have access to the incredibly popular LaserJet. Evidently, the selling of HP brand computers is still the easiest path to becoming authorized for HP printer sales.

HP Did (and Still Does) Everything Right

The story of how HP captured the largest market share in laser printers would make a good course for college business students. Basically, HP planned and executed extremely well to get and hold onto the huge market share it has. As time goes on, it is hard to imagine that HP will be able to continue the series of grand slams it has had with nearly every laser printer model introduced. At the time of this writing (1994), it seems HP is still on a roll. The LaserJet 4 seems to be the finest affordable desktop printer to date. Its beautiful print quality and price blow every other manufacturer away. At this time, we predict that the recently introduced 4SI, and the about-to-be-released 4L and 4ML, will be fabulously successful as well.

What did HP do that made the original LaserJet so successful?

First, HP had the right product for the market of that time (circa 1984–1985). People wanted faster, quieter, daisywheel type printers, with more consistent print quality. They wanted more typefaces, more symbols and characters on a page, and they wanted fonts of different sizes for headlines and footnotes. The largest market segment (business word processing) was not ready for desktop publishing and graphics, but they needed more than could be obtained from a daisywheel printer.

Second, PCL was easily adapted to the word processing programs of the day. It was a good half-step between word processing and page processing. The structure of HP PCL is very similar to that of any ASCII printer. The format is basically one of positioning the printhead and placing the character. As each character is placed, the printhead automatically advances to the next position. If the style or the size of the character is to be changed, then an "escape" sequence must be sent before the data is to be printed. Many utilities were created to allow existing software to access the new capabilities of PCL. Unfortunately, most of it was difficult for most users to understand and many people continued to use the LaserJet as if it were a quiet daisywheel printer.

Third, the competition stupidly thought that Diablo 630 emulation was important. Canon decided to keep the Diablo 630 emulation for itself, using it in the Canon brand CX-based printer, the LBP-8A1. Since it had Diablo 630 emulation, Canon wrongly thought it didn't really need to do much work to get software support, because all major programs already supported the Diablo 630 standard. There were so many people cloning the 630 that Cal Bauer, of Bauer Enterprises, created a healthy business testing printers for full Diablo 630 compatibility. Without significant extensions, Diablo 630 emulation just didn't give users all the benefits they expected from their new laser printers. HP PCL provided the extensions that Diablo 630 emulation lacked.

Fourth, and probably most important to the success of the LaserJet, HP got a lot of good software support for PCL early, before other PDLs had a chance—since HP didn't have Diablo 630 emulation, it was forced to get PCL supported. HP knew the printers wouldn't sell well without software support, so it generously provided development units to all software companies of any significance. This was the smartest thing that HP did in the early days. It planted the seeds for the HP LaserJet to become the best supported printer ever. Software companies recommended it to their customers and sales were phenomenal.

Fifth, HP listened to customers and made corrections as customers requested features and changes. Switching from RS-232 parallel only was one of the many customer-requested changes HP made. Like the HP version of the Diablo 630 (Model 2601A), the original LaserJet 2686A had only an RS-232 interface. The LaserJet interface also supported the faster RS-422, which worked on cables up to about 1,000 feet; but most computers didn't support RS-422, so its benefits were rarely known to the users. At first, HP engineers probably recommended to management that the RS-232 standard be promoted over parallel on the basis of fewer wires in the cable, lower cabling cost, greater transmission distances and greater noise immunity. But dealers and users hated the RS-232 interface, because most of them didn't understand how to make it work. Even for those who understood it, RS-232 posed an unwanted hassle. When a customer couldn't make it work, he'd bring it to the dealer for help. If the dealer didn't stock the right cable, he'd have to make one. If he made it wrong or didn't match Baud rates, word length and parity settings properly on the first try, then the dealer would look like an idiot in front of the customer. People also liked to share the expensive LaserJet printer with inexpensive mechanical switch boxes, and the +12 to -12 volt levels of RS-232 signals are more likely to generate high-voltage spikes caused by arcing across the contacts of the switch boxes than the 0 to 5 volt TTL signals of parallel ports. Therefore, LaserJets using RS-232 needed expensive repairs more often. Eventually, dealers and users insisted on Centronics parallel, because it always worked the first time and seemed more reliable. Just plug in the cable and go. No more fiddling with cabling, break-out boxes, null-modem cables, and tiny dip switches for baud rate, parity, stop bits or handshaking protocols like XON/XOFF and DTR. Because of this, the revised HP LaserJet Plus included more memory and a Centronics parallel interface, which was always on the board design but not implemented.

Sixth, HP built a distribution channel that moved product quickly with minimum mark-up. In the early days, it was fairly easy for most small computer dealers to become HP dealers. HP sold the product to the big chains as well, and soon HP LaserJets were readily available and almost over-distributed. Dealers complained they weren't making any money, and HP tried to constrain the channel. Low prices benefited the end users and HP. Dealers didn't like it, but if they dropped HP, nobody would come to their stores and look at any other type of laser printer.

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