A long time ago, people would carry important “papers” around with them in small suitcases called briefcases. You would put these papers, sometimes in something called a manila file folder, something that strongly resembles the folder icon used in Windows.
Why did we carry papers around in suitcases? Because we didn’t have storage. Let’s go back to 1985. Computers were expensive and many didn’t have hard drives. We spent a lot of time working on hardcopies because softcopies were inconvenient. We didn’t have email, so if we were sending edits back and forth on a document, we had to print out the document, and send it on something called a “fax machine.”
There were “portable computers” but they were too big for briefcases. They came in their own case. We used the briefcase to carry the floppy disks with data and applications we needed to run the computers. That’s right, we needed two hands to carry our portable computers around. You know something else? In 1985, we didn’t have shoulder bags either. You really should read the MoPR Mobile Minute on portable computers to get the full idea. The bottom line, in 1985, mobile computing meant we schlepped around a lot of stuff, and it wasn’t always convenient.
But one entrepreneur saw real mobility looming on the horizon. Seeing that portable computers lacked portable peripherals, he created a self-contained printer that could fit inside a briefcase. His company was called Ergo Systems (of Menlo Park, California) and the printer was the groundbreaking Hush 80 – available in a parallel, serial and Commodore-compatible models.
When I say self contained, I mean aside from the power cord and printer cable, everything was inside, including a roll of thermal paper. The paper was treated with a chemical to make it heat-sensitive, turning the paper black on the area exposed to heat. A print head with seven heat-emitting dots would sweep back and forth across the paper creating characters in a 5 x 7 dot matrix. Each roll could print just over 100 pages and you never needed toner.
This printer was cool. Aesthetically, it matched the look of virtually every portable computer on the market. It was only 11 ½ inches long and less than three inches tall. Including 100 feet of paper, the printer weighed 36 oz. It was small enough to fit in a briefcase laden with papers and diskettes, and light enough to carry without adding tremendously to the already heavy (relative to today) portable computing load. In fact, the dimensions of the Hush 80 made it the only convenient element of a portable computer setup.
It printed the full 80 character lines. And because it was dot matrix, it also printed graphics.
You could either plug it in the wall or run it off rechargeable batteries – something new in the 1985 world of mobile computing.
The Hush 80 sold between $139 and $159. It’s only been recently that printers have fallen below that price point, and most printers today still cost more. Because the printer never needed toner, the cost of operation was also low.
The printer was well received by reviewers and it seemed that Ergo Systems was poised to launch into an early lead in the nascent mobile peripheral category. But it didn’t work out.
Well, one drawback was that the thermal paper came in rolls and the Hush 80 had no apparatus to cut pages in long documents. It drew a dashed line every 11 inches and users were required to cut their own pages, or crease them and tear them (which was rather easy, actually). Also, the thermal paper wasn’t the most user-friendly of papers. It curled, it smelled, and it would fade and discolor rather quickly. To preserve documents, people would have to make photocopies.
Although the price point was certainly attractive, it didn’t impact portable computing. The portable computers of the day cost more than $5,000 and were still a novelty in the business world. Today more notebook computers are sold to businesses than are desktops, and a sub $500 price point has spiked adoption of mobile computing in the consumer market. But in 1985, the number of portable computers shipped was still counted in the thousands.
Furthermore, the people laying out five grand for a computer were interested in different features than the Hush 80 possessed. The Hush 80 was quiet, inexpensive and portable. But power users of computers were seeking features like “near letter quality” instead. The 5 x 7 dot matrix Hush 80 had better-than-average print quality for its class, but was not close to letter quality.
The low price point was attractive to a market buying lower priced home and small office computers, but where the portability was of no use. Therefore there was no need to compromise the print longevity of the commonly used tractor-fed fanfold paper (is it too nerdy that I know about this stuff?) for the lighter, more portable but more inconvenient (in this context) roll of thermal paper.
But how many times have you been connected at a place like Starbucks, doing some sort of work and wishing you could print something out? Ergo Systems was a company ahead of its time. The founder and CEO of Ergo Systems was my dad, George Sidline. He understood more than 20 years ago – long before there was a mobility technology industry – that people will desire the ability through technology to have anything they want, anytime they want it, anywhere they are.
Mobile peripherals of course did catch on. Only today, most of these devices aren’t peripherals, they are built right into the computer.
And even though 20 years have elapsed, no one has yet made another high-quality portable printer. Nothing that will fit in my globebox anyway.
Did you have a Hush 80 printer from Ergo Systems? What were your earliest mobility technologies. We’d like to hear from you. Leave us a comment.
Reposted with permission © 2006 Mobility Public Relations