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Typewriter Industry Hangs Tough in the Age of the iPad


Believe it or not, typewriters haven't disappeared in America. In fact, they're doing just fine, thank you.

More than 80 new tablets were introduced at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of headlines posed variations of the same question:

"Is ______'s _______ the first iPad (AAPL) killer?"

Would it be the Motorola (MOT) Xoom, running Google's (GOOG) Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS?

The BlackBerry (RIMM) PlayBook?

The Samsung Galaxy Tab LTE?

A valid question, but one that begs another -- does anybody use typewriters anymore?

"Of course they do," Ed Michael, General Manager of Sales at Moonachie, NJ-based Swintec, tells Minyanville.

As IBM (IBM) sold its Selectric division to Lexmark in 1990, Swintec is the last remaining dedicated typewriter company in the United States.

"Others have moved into different products, but we are first and foremost a typewriter company," he says.

In 1985, Swintec "earned [its] first sole source Typewriter Contract with the United States Federal Government and as a result, have been heavily involved with government sales ever since."

In fact, Swintec actually saw higher sales in 2009 than the year before, even as India officially phased out the use of typewriters in government offices (and removed them, along with pagers and sewing machines, from the inflation-measuring Wholesale Price Index) last June.

"The government is a good portion of our business," Michael says. "There are still a lot of documents that need to be typed; multipart forms, purchase orders, envelopes, memos.

Typewriter repairman Tom Furrier concurs.

"There are certain forms that still have to be typewritten and that are not computer-friendly, such as death and birth certificates," he says. "Every maternity ward has a typewriter, as well as funeral homes, which might seem strange in this day and age, but is good for me, of course."

Swintec Clear Cabinet Typewriter"Many police officers also still find it easier to type up their reports at the end of a shift," Michael notes.

But, while cops may choose to use typewriters, those on the other side of the law don't have a say in the matter.

"We have contracts with correctional facilities in 43 states to supply clear typewriters for inmates so they can't hide contraband inside them," Michael explains.

"We even make clear cassette ribbons for them," he says.

Swintec makes slightly different typewriters for different facilities, depending on an institution's specific regulations. The 2416DM CC models come in six versions, all with different memory capacities: 4K, 7K, 16K, 32K, 64K, and 128K, with 4K storing about 4,000 characters (the average business letter comes in at around 2,000).

New York State permits inmates 7K of memory, Washington State allows 64K, and Michigan lets prisoners have 128K machines. For the most restrictive institutions, Swintec manufactures typewriters with no memory at all.

So, what does the future hold for typewriters? Will the industry be able to hang on in the face of ever-more rapid technological change?

A fellow at New York City's Afax Office Machines who gave his name only as "Mariusz" thinks so.

"I don't think typewriters will ever disappear, I don't see them going out anytime soon," he said.

However, the first chink in the typewriter's armor may have now appeared, in the form of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS).

TRULINCS, which is currently being rolled out, lets inmates send and receive email (up to 13,000 characters) at dedicated kiosks without allowing them access to the Internet. It is expected to be fully up and running in all BOP facilities by June.

On the state level, Washington -- one of Swintec's customers -- is also experimenting with email, which prisons director Dan Pacholke asserts "reduces smuggling threats and costs less to process and read than paper mail."

"I would say that e-mail is more secure in the sense that we can translate it from a foreign language to English. You can read the handwriting. It doesn't lend itself to encryption. You can't use meth soaked paper. You can't put white powder in the envelope," he says.

A threat? Perhaps. Though, remember -- vinyl was once "dead" too.
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