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The Electronic Typewriter: Don't Write It Off Just Yet

ON ``Secretaries' Day'' in April 1991, workers at a Portland, Maine, radio station held a contest resembling the shot put. But instead of hurling a heavy metal ball for distance, the employees flung that symbol of their love-hate relationship with the office -

the typewriter.

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Mark Twain may have called it ``a curiosity-breeding little joker,'' but this good, old-fashioned printing machine has steadfastly served millions of Americans for decades. Though it may seem a bit dated in this fast-moving computer age, typewriter industry experts say: ``Don't write it off just yet.''

The electronic typewriter still survives among consumers - who like its lower price and relative simplicity - and office workers, who use it as an application-specific companion to the personal computer. But, clearly, its popularity has waned (see chart) - due chiefly to the rise of the PC.

``[The typewriter market] is a changing market that has its own dynamics,'' says Pat Cornell, investor relations director for the New Canaan, Conn.-based Smith Corona Corporation, the leading United States maker of consumer typewriters. ``But as long as we see a need to have a written communication, there will be a need for the typewriter. It's startling to see what a typewriter can do when you haven't looked lately.''

Indeed, the marketplace is cluttered with typewriters that offer word-processing functions and other advanced features. ``You have a tiered product line - like the Cadillac and all the way down, and priced accordingly,'' Ms. Cornell says.

In the consumer market, typewriter factory revenue by US manufacturers (including exports outside the US and imports for US sales) totaled $292 million in 1984, reports Linda Della Volpe, service director at Venture Development Corporation, an industry research firm in Natick, Mass.

By 1986, the advent of the word processor helped boost consumer market (typewriter and word processor) sales to $428 million. By 1990, the total was $496 million; the typewriter had begun to decline, but the word processor was on the rise. But by 1993, as factory revenue dropped to $441 million, the word processor's growth had slowed while the typewriter continued to lose sales.

A Smith Corona survey conducted last year found that the buyer of the consumer typewriter - a woman, 70 percent of the time - is, by and large, older and less affluent than the buyer of the word processor or PC.

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The poll found that the median household income for most typewriter buyers was about $31,500. It was $37,500 for the word processor buyer, and $47,500 for the PC purchaser. Most typewriter users are over 35; they use the machine for nonoffice work at home. By comparison, the word processor user is generally under 35, and uses it largely for school work. The median age of the PC user is 35; he or she uses the computer at home for office work, according to Cornell.

In the office market, the PC has severely impacted typewriter sales.

In 1991, almost 60 years after International Business Machines Corporation entered the office typewriter business, and 30 years after it unveiled the standard-bearer ``Selectric,'' the company got out of the typewriter-making business. IBM now holds a 10 percent share in Lexmark International Inc., an independent company in Lexington, Ky., that makes typewriters under the IBM name.

Ten years after Xerox Corporation started making office typewriters, it, too, announced in 1991 that it would make no more. Two years earlier, store shelves carried 12 Xerox models. ``The buying preference was moving into PCs,'' explains Carl Langsenkamp, a Xerox spokesman. ``This was the biggest reason for shifting away.''

In the office market, typewriter factory revenue by US makers (including exports outside the US and imports for US sales) increased from $614 million in 1984 to its 1986 peak of $827 million. Then revenues fell sharply, to a low of $150 million last year, Ms. Della Volpe says.

``The US leads the world in industry trends. We believe in all likelihood that the drop-off in world [typewriter] numbers corresponds with the drop-off in US numbers,'' says Paul Wheaton, public relations manager at Dataquest Inc., an industry research firm in San Jose, Calif.

By comparison, US factory revenue alone for PCs has soared from $11 billion in 1984 to $27 billion last year, Mr. Wheaton says.

For Lexmark, the typewriter maker, the key to retaining more than one-half of all US office typewriter sales lies in focusing on the machine's lower-end, complementary role to the PC, says Anne Bolton, worldwide market manager for typewriters at Lexmark.

This is exemplified by last year's ``Diamond Series'' of ``Wheelwriter'' typewriters, which enable users to, among other things, address envelopes and complete Federal Express and medical claim forms.

And because many PC users have become so attached to memory capabilities, Lexmark has incorporated storage of about 86 pages of text into its top-of-the-line typewriter.

``[Typewriter] usage has gone down, so we have to see it as a shared device'' with the PC, Ms. Bolton explains.

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