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Printing outside your own network was a problem even before smartphones and tablets became everyday professional tools. Previously, laptop users were only able to get around the problem by storing files on a USB flash drive and giving it to someone who had access to a printer, like the front desk at a hotel. But the challenge of mobile printing has reached new levels with the "consumerisation of IT" and bring your own device (BYOD).
Printing on the go
Nearly all Fortune 500 companies have implemented iPads, yet printing from tablets and smartphones still presents a challenge for a lot of businesses. Usually people have to overcome several hurdles in order to print a document from their smartphone. These may include: installing the printer driver; uploading the file to the cloud; authenticating or registering oneself; securing access to a Wi-Fi network; locating a printer via Wi-Fi or via an email address; and installing an application. There is no perfect standard by which all these hurdles can be easily overcome. Rather, there are different approaches to solving the problem for different user groups.
Nowadays, nearly all printer manufacturers offer an email-based printing service. The first and most advanced service in use today is "ePrint" from HP. Other examples include "Email Print" from Epson or "Mobile Print" from Xerox. To use these, the network printers receive an email address through registration. If you send a file to this address, this will first be rendered in the cloud, then the print file will be sent to the printer.
Among other factors, cloud printing has the advantage that the printer drivers are stored there and the burden of rendering is also relieved from the device. Email provides a very simple and universal means to transport data, however the path across the cloud can take a while. Printer manufacturers have noticed that they aren't getting very far with companies by offering solutions that only work with their own printers. As such, they are increasingly trying to find ways to integrate printers from other manufacturers into their solutions, even if the range of features is limited.
Google and Apple
Smartphone heavyweights Google and Apple have very different approaches. The former is focused on the cloud with its "Google cloud print”. The device uses an app to send the file to the cloud via an HTTPS connection. From there, the service sends the print file either to a Google cloud-capable printer or a computer with Chrome, which serves as a print server and sends the file to print. In contrast to other cloud services, Google doesn't use thousands of print drivers, but one standard process. It doesn’t require any print drivers on the device and the user only needs a Google account. However, Android devices require their own printing app in order to use Google cloud print services. Only a very small number of apps, such as the Gallery, can use the service directly. However, the disadvantage is that only new printers support this standard.
The Google service is still only a beta version, but Apple has taken care of the issue, if somewhat late: they only offered AirPrint since iOS version 4.2, an OS-integrated protocol that doesn't require any downloads or drivers. The rendering is done directly on your Apple device and printed via a peer-to-peer connection on a Wi-Fi network. The advantage is that apps can print directly via the iOS menu and there’s no need to detour through the cloud.
Since AirPrint-enabled printers are not widely available, there are print server solutions available to make standard USB and network printers AirPrint-enabled. These devices connect printers to client computers over a network and they usually support a variety of industry-standard printers. There are a number of benefits to print servers for example you don’t need to buy a dedicated printer for each user, so you can save space, electricity and maintenance costs. In addition to this they are usually very quick to install.
Where will mobile printing establish itself?
Wi-Fi is everywhere and the ability for people to print directly from their device on the go will eventually become the norm, whether it’s in hotel lobbies, business centres or airports. It may even become a paid-for additional service in environments like cafés, schools or libraries, which could be used to make up a small proportion of the operating costs of wireless networks. Either way, let’s face it, the BYOD trend is here to stay and in order for it to be successful, IT teams have to tackle every aspect, head on, to ensure maximum benefit to everyone.