If you've ever tried to connect your tablet to a network printer either at work or in your home, chances are that you probably already realize that it's not a very intuitive or straightfoward process.
The exception is the emerging class of AirPrint-compatible printers, but these are built more for the personal needs of home usage than the multi-faceted demands of an enterprise environment.
To gain a little more insight into the problem as well as potential solutions, we spoke with Tom Offutt, director of business development at EFI. In November, this Silicon Valley digital print solutions company released PrintMe Mobile, an enterprise-oriented printing solution that allows direct printing from a tablet via a network connection as well as via email.
TabTimes: Why is it so hard to print from a tablet or other mobile device? We've tried to hook up both iPad and Honeycomb devices to network printers and were surprised at how laborious a process this is.
Unlike laptops and PCs, tablets and smartphones were not built with printing in mind. Print drivers are software utilities that reformat print data to the specifications of a printer or class of printers. Print drivers were originally created to isolate applications from the details of formatting the desired output to work with a specific printer or PDL (Printer Description Language).
Over time, tens of thousands of print drivers have been created, most unique to a specific operating system. When mobile operating systems were first developed, the hardware was – relative to today – very primitive. The CPU processing power required to run the print driver conversion process was high and printing was deemed to be a low priority task. Therefore most developers did not include the ability to print in their mobile operating system. This meant that printer manufacturers did not develop printer drivers for these operating systems.
So getting print data to a printer from a mobile device had to be handled in a different way – off the device, on a server or PC somewhere, or later in the cloud. Even though the mobile device processing power is significantly greater today, native print functionality is still missing from most all mobile devices except those from Apple. But that doesn’t mean that mobile users do not want to print…it’s just that they can’t print.
What are some of the trends that are driving the need for mobile printing? With tablets, printing feels less like less of a priority.
This is very much an emerging market. There are a number of industry reports supporting the fact that mobile printing is actually one of the next major issues IT will have to address in 2012.
The biggest trend pushing this is the growth of tablet/smartphone adoption. Gartner predicts that by 2013, 80% of businesses will support a workforce using tablets. More people are taking these to work with certain expectations. One expectation in particular is to be able to print from these devices.
While some surveys say that tablets are potentially a reason not to print—larger display, greener, etc., there’s also the opposite view that there will always be a need for printing some types of documents. Some tasks like detailed document review are often easier and more efficient in hard copy. If you work on a desktop or laptop and are used to having hard copy, you are expecting that same experience from your tablet, but that’s not possible today within a company.
In some industries, such as healthcare and legal, the ability to print is absolutely crucial and necessary to support their workflows and business processes. To the extent we can enable that, they will be able to use their mobile devices for these tasks and print the needed output.
So when you need to be able to print, you really need to be able to print. Do you have any telemetry or usage data from your PrintMe products that can give me some insight into tablet printers’ behaviors? What are they printing? How often are they printing relative to desktop users?
Data from tablet-originated printing is not yet available. Not only are tablets a relatively new phenomenon in the workplace, the ability to print from tablets is still severely limited. Until more IT managers adopt PrintMe Mobile or similar easy to use solutions, we believe there is latent, unmet demand for mobile printing in the office and at home.
From our more than 10 years of providing public cloud printing services to business travelers and students, we know that PDF and Microsoft Word documents are among the most popular files types being printed from laptops and mobile devices outside of the office, but this is may not be a true picture of mobile printing inside the enterprise.
How does the PrintMe Mobile solution work in multi-platform environments?
A Windows application sits on the network. The IT organization installs and publishes printers to mobile users. We don’t envision every printer being mobilized and accessible to mobile users. Companies need to pick the printers that mobile workers need to access to make it convenient for people to print where and when they need to.
There is no practical limit to the number of printers that can be attached to a given instance of PrintMe Mobile. There is no charge per user or no charge per pages printed, only a one-time fee for each printer.
From a network architecture point of view, how does a tablet submit its print requests to a print server using PrintMe Mobile? And how similar is this process to say, using Google Cloud print or an app-based client like PrintCentral Pro?
EFI PrintMe Mobile features three methods for end-users to submit jobs. The Direct to Print feature provides printing from supported mobile devices directly to networked printers and MFPs by sending the print job via Wi-Fi to the network.
For Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), users engage the operating system’s native print function – a user hits “print” and a list of supported printers is presented to the user. For Android and (soon) Blackberry devices, EFI offers a PrintMe Mobile app to print using the “Share” command or similar menu functions.
With the Email to Print feature, users send a file via e-mail to the desired printer’s unique e-mail address, as configured in the PrintMe Mobile server software. This eliminates the need to have a printer that supports an embedded e-mail print capability; any printer that offers a Windows print driver is supported.
With the Release to Print feature, the user sends a file via to a secure PrintMe e-mail address or uploads the document via the web, and the print job is held until the user releases the job at the printer, using a release code sent from the user’s mobile device. EFI PrintMe Mobile supports the use of QR codes to quickly identify supported printers and easily release held documents from a mobile device.
PrintMe Mobile is an on-premises server software solution so in that way it is very different from either a cloud-only solution like Google CloudPrint or a consumer app like PrintCentral Pro that requires the presence of a PC-based agent for printing. For most businesses, these types of consumer print solutions do not provide the flexibility to support the various ways in which users work, and especially do not meet the management and security requirements for corporate IT managers. No other application in the market today supports environments where there are multiple brands of printers and provides direct Wi-Fi printing across multiple subnets the way PrintMe Mobile does.
This category seems like one that will be under pressure by low-cost apps like PrintCentral Pro, and in smaller business environments, I can imagine IT just downloading these apps onto people’s devices and configuring them. How does PrintMe compete in this ecosystem? And just to be sure – I don’t see you listed in the App Store. Why is that?
Let’s take that last question first. We’re in the Android Market already [see link below]. However we’re not in iTunes because the beauty of the EFI solution is that we do not need an app to print directly from the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. EFI has created a unique feature that mirrors the functionality of AirPrint such that you tap on the screen, select print, and then choose a printer. It is the same workflow as on a desktop, Macintosh or PC. You are not loading an EFI application or getting out of what you’re doing and going somewhere else. We make printers look like they are AirPrint-compatible printers.
We agree that there are a lot of apps that might be appropriate for a business with one, maybe two printers of the same make and model in a business, or in someone’s home or office. That is not the problem we are trying to solve. We built EFI PrintMe Mobile to solve the mobile printing problem for businesses with many, many mobile users and tens or hundreds of printers across multiple locations. The complexity and configuration requirements of consumer Apps simply won’t work in medium and large organizations. So in the markets we are serving with PrintMe Mobile, we do not expect that the App-centric approach will work.
Editor's note: EFI's suggested retail price for a onetime perpetual license for unlimited use and users for a single printer is $500. A free 90-day trial can be downloaded at www.efi.com/printmemobile.