Printers are one of the less exciting PC peripherals going around, yet they are one device that most PC users own. While the “paperless office” was predicted as far back as the mid 70’s history has shown the reverse to be true, with PC’s making it easier than ever to produce hard copies of documents. In my (thankfully brief) time working in IT support for a medium-sized business, printer problems were by far the most common reason for calls for help and of these calls, printer drivers were often the culprit. Anyone who has had to set up a printer has likely also encountered problems with sourcing the right driver for the right system. In developing new web connected and cloud aware printers Hewlett Packard believes it has hit upon a solution that could see an end to driver hassles and give printers much wider functionality, including making printing from mobile devices such as smartphones possible without the need for a PC at all. HP has seen the future of printing and is convinced it lies in the cloud.
HP is pushing the technology strongly, calling it nothing less than a revolution. In fact, the company is so convinced of the advantages of hooking printers up to the web that within a year every HP printer priced over US$100 will boast Internet connectivity. In a series of regional launches around the globe this month the company provided more details about just what its web-enabled printers will mean for consumers. This follows a testing of the waters with the release of its Photosmart Premium TouchSmart Web printer last year. Like that printer the new models will support apps that can be downloaded directly onto the printer without the need for a PC. We’ll come back to apps a bit later, but it was the new ePrint functionality that is likely to have the bigger impact and be a bigger drawcard for those in the market for a new printer.
ePrintBy assigning each printer an email address users can now send a print job to that printer from anywhere in the world simply by emailing it. This allows smartphone and iPad users to cut out the PC middleman and print directly. JPEG images, PDFs and Office documents that are sent as an attachment to the email can also be printed, with HP saying it will add support for other formats based on customer demand. It is this functionality that will allow users to say goodbye to printer drivers forever – provided they have a stable Internet connection of course.
Giving printers an email address raises the obvious question of security. What’s to stop spammers bombarding your printer with bucket loads of spam that automatically print out, costing you a fortune in ink? To combat this HP has adopted three layers of protection.
- The first line of defence is the email address itself, which is a randomly generated sequence of letters and numbers that is quite long and therefore hard to guess – the downside being it is also very hard to remember. If some unwanted person does manage to get their hands on a printer’s address then it can be changed at any time.
The web-enabled printers are sure to be a target of hackers and spammers so whether these steps will be enough to protect your printer and its valuable ink supply remains to be seen. However, HP recognizes that security fears are utmost in people’s minds and has said it has made the security of its web-enabled printers a priority and will continue to do so.
There have also been reports that HP plans to use its printers to push ads to customers. Stephen Nigro, Senior Vice President, Inkjet and Web Services Business, Imaging and Printing Group, HP, said that the delivery of ads would operate on an opt-in basis and that the company would rely on customer feedback regarding if and how advertising would be sent to its printers.
One of the strengths of ePrint is its simplicity – think sending PC illiterate grandparents happy snaps of the grand kids that print out automatically – but this is also a weakness. At the moment there is no way to specify printer settings remotely so the desired print settings will need to be set on the printer prior to sending the email.
Although some of the assembled media at the press event reported longer delays, we managed to send a photo from an iPhone via email and it printed out in around a minute (less time than it took to type in the printer’s complicated email address).
AppsPerhaps envious of the revenue it has seen Apple generate from its App Store connecting its printer’s to the web has enabled HP to offer a similar service to provide printer related apps. Using the printer’s capacitive touch screen users can browse and download apps directly to the printer without a PC. So far HP has lined up around 40 partners, including Google, Crayola, Dreamworks, Yahoo, Snapfish and Tabbloid, to supply apps.
It’s hard to see print apps being a “killer app” for the new devices simply because so many of the things that were once printed out can now be accessed on a smartphone or iPad. Some apps show more promise than others such as the Sudoku app and the Google Maps app that allows users to type in a location or destination on the touch screen and print out a route line with directions. HP says that in customer trials apps aimed at keeping kids busy such as the Disney and Nickelodeon apps proved to be among the more popular.
Others like the Yahoo Daily Digest and the Tabbloid app compile stories in specified areas of interest (from Yahoo news sites and blogs) and print them out at a scheduled time – to read on the way to work for example. These seem less likely to appeal to a large number of users. HP is pushing this approach as a way to cut costs and save paper over a traditional newspaper by just providing the stories the user is interested in. But taking the cost of ink into account it won’t take many pages for newspapers to become the more economical option. Such offerings will also need to contend with the eBook and iPad revolution, which will continue eat away at the need for printing the daily news altogether.
Further indicating that most print apps will only find a niche market John Solomon, Senior Vice President, HP Imaging and Printing Group, Asia Pacific & Japan, said he expected apps developed for particular regions or groups will be the most popular. To this end the company will release an SDK and an open API to encourage the development of apps for its printers. HP will offer a mix of free and “premium” apps from which the company will take a 30 percent cut.
In our time with a web-enabled printer – the Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One model – we had no trouble browsing apps from the web and downloading them to the device.
ePrintCenterThe HP ePrintCenter is an online hub that users can access to register and configure their printer, view apps currently stored on their printer, browse and select new apps for download and reset the printer’s email address. It is also here that users can view and manage their print queue. Currently it is PC browser-based, but HP is looking at a reduced information mobile interface that would allow users to manage their print jobs remotely.
HP’s web-enabled printers currently run on a Linux-based OS and, although no one from the company would be drawn on the question, HP’s acquisition of Palm makes it practically a certainty they will adopt WebOS in the future.
And just because HP appears to be putting pretty much all its eggs in the web-connected printer basket don't be worried about your printer ceasing to function when your Internet connection goes down. Although the ePrint and app functionality will obviously be disabled, the printers can still be connected to a computer and act as your regular, non-connected printers of today. If Internet connectivity is lost when someone attempts to ePrint, the job will be queued in the ePrintCenter for the when the printer is back online.
ConclusionAlthough adding Internet connectivity probably won’t prompt a lot of people to throw their existing printer away and run out to buy one of HP’s new models, it is definitely likely to tempt those shopping for a new printer. This is particularly true of those increasing numbers of people who want to print from a smartphone or iPad. It’s hard to see the print apps having the same attraction for similar numbers of consumers, although there will no doubt be some that find an app that is perfectly suited to their needs that they will find they can’t live without.
It will be interesting to see if other manufacturers follow HP’s lead and start adding web-connectivity to their printers. Google and HP seem to be on the same wavelength with Google previously announcing its intention to develop a cloud printing service that will enable any app, be it web, desktop, or mobile, on any device to print to any printer in the world. Although HP printers will be able to access the “Google Cloud” directly to access Google Docs, Photos and Calendar, Google intends to provide the same capabilities to legacy printers. A proxy, a small piece of software on the PC to which the printer is connected, would register the printer with Google Cloud Print and await jobs from the service. So when two of the biggest information technology companies on the planet start telling us the future of printing is in the cloud it’s hard not to listen.
HP’s new web-connected models start with the Photosmart Wireless e-All-in-One with a 2.4-inch touchscreen that is available in the US now for US$99 (it will be available in Australia this month for AUD129). Next is the Photosmart Plus e-All-in-One with a larger 3.5-inch touchscreen that is expected to be available worldwide in August for US$149. The touchscreen size gets another boost to 4.3-inches with the Photosmart Premium e-All-in-One that should be available in September for US$199. Finally there is the Photosmart Premium Fax e-All-in-One that is also expected in September for US$299.
gizmag attended the Asia-Pacific press launch in Hong Kong this week as a guest of HP.