(Bloomberg View) -- Two years ago, my family bought a new iMac and a $149.95 Epson printer-scanner to go along with it. After about a year, the printer started depositing splotches of ink where none was needed and leaving blank spots where the ink was supposed to be. For a while, running the printer’s various maintenance routines was enough to clean things up, but over the past few months it had become impossible to print anything presentable.
So we started looking for a replacement. Taking the old printer in to get fixed never really crossed our minds, given that one can buy a new one that does more for less money. We got an HP Envy 7640 from Best Buy for $124.99 (plus $11.09 sales tax, but with free shipping). It arrived at our apartment the day after I ordered it online. It was easy to set up, and it prints beautifully -- so far, at least.
When I tried scanning something, though, it didn’t work. The computer and the scanner could not seem to find a way to connect. I found some troubleshooting suggestions on HP’s website, which involved turning things off and turning them back on again, uninstalling software and reinstalling it, and downloading some new software. I did all those things. Still no luck.
There was one workaround: Like every self-respecting printer-scanner these days, this one has its own e-mail address. So I can scan things and e-mail them to myself. But that’s less than optimal.
In search of a better solution, I went online, where I learned that lots of people have been having problems with the connections between their Apple computers and HP scanners since Apple rolled out its Sierra operating system in September. On one epic discussion thread on the HP support site I learned that some people were successful using the workarounds suggested by HP, but many reported continued frustration. One wrote of a long phone conversation with an HP support person that boiled down to, “Hey, I can’t fix it. It’s Apple’s fault.” Others who had talked to Apple indicated that the company was aware of the problem and might be working on a fix.
One poster suggested downloading something called VueScan, from the father-son business Hamrick Software. I did, and the free version worked immediately, curing my computer and scanner of all their communication difficulties. To get scans that aren’t covered with watermarks you -- understandably -- have to pay. There’s a limited version of the software available for $49.95. But the one that I want, with perpetual updates to ensure that problems like this don’t recur, is $89.95. That’s about two-thirds of the (after-tax) cost of the printer! I guess I’ll wait and see if MacOS Sierra 10.12.2 fixes the problem (update: It did! See below) before I go out and spend that kind of money.
What have I learned from all this? I remember that as the personal computer began to go mainstream in the 1990s, its extreme unreliability was seen as one of the big barriers to its eventual acceptance. In one sense that’s been fixed -- operating-system software has gotten a lot more stable, and PCs don’t crash much. But getting them to work with all the other devices with which they are associated remains a seemingly never-ending struggle.
During its resurgence in the early 2000s Apple Inc. set out to fix this, with an integrated package of Mac software and devices. But now that it gets almost two-thirds of its revenue from the iPhone and only about 11 percent from the Mac, Apple is understandably less focused on that -- as evidenced by its decision to shutter its wireless router division over the past year.
In general, making PCs and the devices that go with them is becoming an ever-more-commoditized, less-glamorous business. When Hewlett-Packard split up last year, the chief executive officer and most of the market value went to Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., which sells hardware, software and services to businesses. The surviving printer-and-laptop company, HP Inc., is being run mostly as a cash machine, with 72 percent of free cash flow paid out to shareholders in the fiscal year that ended in October -- a fact mentioned in the fourth-quarter earnings statement before anything about the company’s actual products. There clearly aren’t a lot of resources going into fixing software glitches with already sold printers.
Yes, it does feel a little petty to complain about this. Both our computer and our printer are great improvements over the products of a decade ago, and they cost less. Also, third-party providers such as Hamrick Software have sprung up to fix the usability problems that the big tech companies won’t. Still, this could be one reason productivity growth has slowed -- we’re all spending way too much time trying to figure out why our scanners (or Wi-Fi connections, or speakers, or printers) have stopped working.
This may just be, as Benedict Evans of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz wrote last year, evidence of the transition from a PC-based ecosystem to a mobile one that is now sucking up all the investment and generating all the innovation. You still need PCs to get most real work done, but Evans argues that “‘real work’ changes with new tools -- first the tools fit the work, and then the work changes to fit the tools.” Will these tools actually all work together? I’ll believe it when I see it.
UPDATE: The evening after this was published, the MacOS Sierra 10.12.2 update showed up in Apple's App Store. I installed it (which took awhile, this seems to have been a pretty major update), restarted the computer and ... the scanner worked. So that problem is solved -- at least until the next major Apple operating system upgrade.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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