Predicting the future of scanners

Ed Hamrick

I’m often asked what I think of the future of scanners. It’s tricky to predict the future, but having been a programmer for more than 50 years, I have some thoughts about this you might find interesting. I’ve been working on VueScan for 21 years, David has been working on it for more than 10 years, and Beverley for 15 years. We all have different perspectives based on our experiences.

I grew up in Seattle, where we always said that the weatherman had the world’s easiest job – it was either raining or it would rain soon. Some predictions like this are easy, yet some things are impossible to predict.

My grandfather was born in a farmhouse in the Basque country in Spain (I saw it for the first time last year), he rode a horse working as a shepherd and he lived to enjoy his pickup truck. David’s grandfather remembers living in New York when the streets were filled with horses and all the horses were replaced by cars by the time he was 18. For both of them, they never could have predicted what life would be like when they retired.

The rate of change my life, David’s life and Beverley’s life has been much slower. The cars, houses and general lifestyle haven’t changed much since our youth. The main thing that’s changed has been technology. Nobody uses landlines for phones any more, everybody has a camera and GPS in their phone, nobody uses CD’s or DVD’s any more, most people haven’t seen a CRT in a decade, most people watch Netflix and don’t watch TV any more, everybody uses the internet and most people seldom touch cash. And yet, scanners from 20 years ago are still useful. I’ll get to that.

I was chatting with David yesterday, and he mentioned that he was reading “The Soul of a New Machine”, by Tracy Kidder. I told him that I worked at a supercomputer company run by Steve Wallach (a key character in this book), and met him a few times. I recall that we could never predict what the future of computing would be, and sure enough, supercomputers were obsolete a few years later. David also mentioned to me that he recently read an article by Alan Kay about the future of browsers, and David was surprised when I told him I took a class from Alan Kay when I was at CalTech. Alan Kay took our class to a secret lab at Xerox to see the Xerox Alto and the connection to the first 6 computers on the internet. I could have never predicted the future of the internet, and I suspect Alan Kay couldn’t have either.

So why is it easy to predict the future of scanners? For the same reason that we can easily predict that buildings will still be made of concrete, steel will still be useful, windows will be made of glass, lights will be electric, etc. Some things are useful and continue to be refined, but not replaced.

A scanner is useful for producing digital images from paper and film. The geometry of a digital image is rectangular, just like the paper and film, and the lighting needs to be uniform over the paper and film. I recall telling David and Beverley about 10 years ago that I predicted that as soon as digital cameras in phones had a bit more resolution, they would replace scanners. But this didn’t happen – something I didn’t predict – but why? Because when you take a picture of a piece of paper, it’s not flat, it has wrinkles, the light is non-uniform, and it’s hard to make it look as good as a scanned paper (a scanner flattens paper when scanning). When you take a picture of a piece of film, there are dust spots that make the image look ugly – you need an infrared light source to automatically clean the film. When you want to scan a stack of papers, printed on two sides, it’s a huge hassle to manually take a picture of each paper.

So what do I think is the future of scanners? First, SCSI scanners are obsolete – it’s harder and harder to find a SCSI interface for new computers. Second, old USB scanners will continue to be usable for another 20 years – they work fine on new computers (even the Mac with the M1 chip) and just don’t wear out. Third, new scanners won’t have higher resolution – they’ll have higher scan speeds, and new scanners will have better and faster document feeders. Lastly, no company will release a new film scanner, and more and more people will use VueScan to scan their slide collections with used film scanners (it’s a fast-growing part of our business).

The two main uses for scanners in the future will be document scanners which take stacks of paper and rapidly produce PDF files, and film scanners that take lots of slides and produce JPEG files.

The core of our business with VueScan is USB 2.0 scanners from the past 20 years that we can make work even better than when they were brand new. It’s easy to find a used scanner on for a very low price that will work very well. An example of this is used Epson Perfection scanners (some of the best ever made), used Nikon film scanners (very high quality film scans), used Canon LiDE scanners (also great scanners, lightweight and portable), used Fujitsu document scanners (very fast), used Plustek OpticFilm film scanners (fast and reliable) and used PIE Primefilm film scanners (also good film scanners). Scanners just don’t easily wear out - you need to scan tens of thousands of pages or tens of thousands of slides before they wear out.

Our business in 2020 was the highest in 20 years, so I think we can safely predict that scanners (and VueScan) will be around for a long time.