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Another Perspective


In the old days, to print a document you had to have driver software on your computer that matched an attached or nearby printer.  In offices with a diversity of computers and printers, this was a nightmare.  New applications, new types of documents, new clients, or new printers meant finding new paths through the thicket of operating systems, networks, drivers, and page description languages.  These days you can let your printer vendors deal with linkage.  You can even consider tossing out those persnickety PCs and riding out on the new frontier where the mobile clients range.

Some of the inspiration for this change in document processing came from the consumer market, where the companies that make digital cameras, photo printers, and particularly the ones that make both figured out that a little digital magic could give a big boost to family photography and its stimulating impact on the sale of gadgets and ink cartridges.  The only major player in this segment that really missed the big story, that the market opportunity in photo consumables had moved from film to ink, from photographic paper to photo printer paper, was late lamented Kodak.

Some of the big consumer electronics companies also make mobile phones and portable computers (some with keyboards, some with touchie-feelie).  So, extending the concept to include more gadgets that take pictures, make documents, and otherwise create a need for hard copy wasn't a very big leap.  The same evolutionary process added wireless connectivity to schemes that a few years ago involved hooking machines together with cables or moving flash memory cards from one socket to another.

This wildfire soon leapt from the home to the office, where business functions that involved photography, such as the work done by insurance adjusters, had already been moving from standalone digital cameras to the rapidly improving cameras built into smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and laptops.  There never was a big breakthrough.  Instead, during the past year or two the companies that make printers, and particularly the ones that concentrate on low end and departmental machines, saw that their printers increasingly lived on networks rather than as devices plugged into PCs or local servers.

Like just about everything else with a digital soul, printers, even low-end models, have whole computers in them.  These computers might be $10 systems-on-chip designs with only a modest amount of RAM or flash, but they are all smart enough to manage a network connection, support a baby Web server, and provide basic email functions.  These days a lightweight, pared-down version of Linux is probably running inside every printer in your office, every router on your network, and every cable or DSL modem you use.  The smartphones and tablets you see around you also run either the Android cousin of Linux or the iOS offspring of BSD and Darwin.  Windows figures in there somewhere, too, but the version that has to get modern in the way it talks to printers isn't so much the big, fat Windows Professional that powers office laptop and desktop machines, it is the Windows Embedded that rides on Intel Atom chips and other lightweights in the embedded X86 clan.  Windows Professional and the other rich versions of PC software include or have access to innumerable printer drives.  Windows is built to be in charge of documents from creation to gravure.  That's a nice thing and if you were on a high tech desert island, that's how you would want it.  But if you are trying to run a company or even an office full of different users with different computing needs and way too many different kinds of printers, what is a feast for the home office hotshot ends up resembling the kind of meal the French give their fat-liver geese.

So it's no wonder a lot of IT folk who, among other things, have to support a mob of end users, have been cheered up by the super friendly printing apps that first showed up on smartphones and now are becoming available for Windows, Mac OS and, if the dozing server vendors, which might be more than half of them, wake up, on Linux, Unix variants, and even proprietary operating systems like IBM i and the mainframe environments.

There are few themes in the new drivers-in-the-cloud scheme.  I think two will emerge as the most popular.  One of these requires a network printer programmed to talk to cloud servers as well as local client devices.  That means a new or recent model from a progressive vendor, but it doesn't necessarily mean an expensive machine.  In fact, the smarter and more versatile printers are just like the machines in the prior generation except for a little extra in the IQ department that turns out to add nothing to manufacturing cost.  Basically, a client, anything from a smartphone to a PC today and maybe anything at all, from a building's HVAC hub to a glass house server tomorrow, sends a document to a printer via a cloud server.  The cloud server knows the printer's email address and the printer is always checking its email so it can spot, download, and print anything that's thrown at it.

There's also software that provides a variation on this theme for road warriors.  Need an extra dozen hard copies of some report from the office? With the right app you can find a printing center that's part of some vendor's affiliate network, get a map to its front door, send your material securely, and set up a way to make sure you or your designated agent have exclusive access to the hard copy.  Pricing varies as this new service seeks a practical balance between the high value of convenience and the low value people want to pay for ink-smeared paper.

The second theme, a slightly simpler one than the first, involves two major conversations, one between the client machine and a cloud server, the other between the client machine and the target printer.  The client tells a cloud server all about the target printer, the thing to be rendered, and maybe also some extra info, such as how many copies to make.  The server figures out what printer driver to use and processes the document into a printer data stream that goes back to the sending client, which ships the stream to a special port on the network-attached printer.  In practice, the process is very quickly but the client has to be in touch with the printer until the whole job is done, which can be a drawback.  The only advantage this scheme offers over the first one is that it can work with a zillion network-attached printers sold and installed before the brainier method above made it to the marketplace.

A third scheme involves setting up a print server with a big inventory of printer drivers and some other user friendly printing applications.  This is a really old-style idea but it fits well in some settings because it does give the user organization a lot more privacy, security, and immunity from Internet connectivity issues.  It's not a dead or even a dying concept.  It's just not the thing that is grabbing huge mindshare right now.

And then there's always a means to hook a tablet or a smartphone to a PC on the same local network and then go out to that PC's printers using the drivers already on the PC.  This, however, is precisely the kind of thing that support personnel just plan hate, and it's a hate they learned from experience.

Somewhere in this region there's Google cloud printing, but so far it's been a nonstarter in business circles because it's sort of tied to Google 's Chrome browser and some other things that corporate computing folk simply find unattractive.  I think it's a dead app walking, but there are so many smart people inside Google that it's possible one of them gets put on this dreadful project.

Before I take a look at some of the apps being offered by printer vendors, it's probably important to say that there are apps for phones and tablets from outfits that don't make printers but do provide a printing or formatting service.  The apps are generally free, the services not too expensive, but the result for corporate users is not so good.  The versatility of these apps, a godsend for the sole practitioner or tiny office, is a support nightmare exactly like the one that comes from that Windows 7 PC with its bazillion printer drivers.  The issue is not that the problems that arise are so hard to solve.  For the most part, they aren't.  It's just that they can waste huge amounts of time just so somebody can get a hard copy that support people always suspect they didn't really need all that much in the first place.

Anyway, here's a little list of some of the apps that are good enough to become candidates for any IT group's recommended list.  They are listed in the order I stumbled across them.

Hewlett Packard is as prolific in field of mobile client and thin client print apps as it is in CEO replacement, which means plenty and maybe even too much.  The app that probably has the widest appeal is one called ePrint Home & Biz.  For mobile clients, there's an iOS version and an Android version.  HP was so far ahead of the pack on this item there's even a Symbian version! It's part of a constellation of software and support that is free, friendly, functional, and just plain good .  .  .  if it turns out HP printers are the ones on your local networks.  I have actually tested this stuff using a very skinny smartphone and a printer so old and so cheap you'd be ashamed to admit you had it in your office.  It worked just as well as the full-tilt Windows 7 driver we used to create a comparison copy in my test.  Sure, the Win 7 machine and its software gave me more options and choices, but the whole point of this exercise was to work with a PDF with its persistent appearance.

HP also has an app that helps you find HP-based printing outfits on a Google map if you need printing done while on the road.  This app is really for the mobile business user and it doesn't run on Symbian but does work with iOS, Android, and Blackberry clients.

HP is more conscious of desktop thin clients than most of its rivals.  Its Enterprise Server, Storage, and Networking group has to provide first class thin client support and a respectable collection of client processors.  As I've mentioned, HP is a fan of embedded Windows but prospective users of HP thin client devices will find that there are other choices, too.

HP's most intrepid rival in printing is probably Lexmark, which has a comparably rich and arguably more focused set of apps.  Lexmark might be the route True Blue shops take to cloud-assisted printing.  IBM may still have its logo on some printers, but it long since lost interest in that part of the computer business and for a company that is number one in so many aspects of computing, IBM has often given way to other vendors at the presentation level.  I haven't found a direct tie-in between Lexmark's very serious effort at cloud printing and IBM's Lotus brand client-oriented software.  Maybe there's some stuff lurking in the background, but I believe IBM systems customers can learn more about the future of printing from Lexmark than from Lotus or any other IBM software division.

Dell is always a contender in departmental computing and a wannabe in printers, but when it comes to cloud printing, Dell has a lot of catching up to do.  It does offer dedicated servers that let users consolidate the printing headaches, if that's the customer's preference.  But I could have missed something.  Dell's web, like IBM's, often manages to defeat the best efforts of the search engines.

Xerox, like Dell, is living in Fred Flintstone's computing cave, boasting that it has figured out how to let you talk to your PC's printer from your mobile phone.  I don't know how they went from PARC to South Park, but they did.

Canon, which makes great cameras and good printers, has a consumer offering that might have potential in the business world, but so far there's no sign of any serious effort to reach the office market.

Konica Minolta, like Canon a player in consumer electronics, has mobile printing apps, too, but not a very clear business focus.

Epson, yet another one of the low end printer companies, is keeping up with its rivals and keeping down with them, too.

I expected similar from Brother, whose low-end printers and all-in-ones have earned a reputation for solid performance, but I was surprised to see the company seems to be quite lively.  Its focus is on the consumer more than the office, but its apps seem to be industrial strength and its support for mobile Windows could give it an edge if Nokia and Microsoft find a success in the business end of the mobile phone market.

Ricoh, too, has begun to realize that it has an opportunity in business markets, probably a much better one than it can achieve in the consumer segment.  Its printing apps have been conceived to work on laptops and desktop machines as well as mobile clients.

Finally, the top volume smartphone maker, Samsung, has apps for Android and iOS and it makes printers, too.  But its logo doesn't usually show up on office printers, even in places where its well-regarded monitors have achieved penetration.

Most offices and corporate departments try to stick with one or two brands of printer, but few succeed.  And even the ones that are faithful to a single printer vendor probably have machines from different generations with radically different drivers and even different OS support.  Maybe PostScript lets these users overcome the differences among printers, but I think enterprises that have good control of their printers are few and far between.  But now that the printer makers, or at least some of them, have realized just how positive a marketing influence mobile printing apps can be, things will change.  Lots of offices will simply add a current HP or Lexmark printer, one with a love of cloud services, to their networks and advise people that this new printer is the recommended one for use with smartphones and tablets.

One that happens, some chance for unusual change might well arise.  That first cloud printing setup could be the Lassiter of your corporate computing culture, a disruptive force that opens minds and opportunities.

— Hesh Wiener April 2012

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