Mobile won't deliver on the dream of the paperless office, as I argued earlier this week. We'll read more on our tablets and even smartphones, for sure. But the ability to access and read those files on our devices also whets our appetite to print them, too.
According to a February 2011 InfoTrends survey, the biggest reasons why people didn't print from their mobile devices were 1) lack of access to a printer (48%) and 2) lack of support from a mobile device (32%). No need to print was third, at just 29%.
There are a lot of products that can make mobile printing smooth and easy. But there's a significant gulf between what's more suited for a home or small business, and what works best in a big organization or enterprise.
AirPrint is a great solution at home or for smaller offices that are standardized on Apple, have recently purchased a wireless printer, and aren't concerned about a lack of control over print quality.
But Holly Muscolino, an IDC analyst, says that AirPrint's impact in the greater business world "has been minimal. Peer-to-peer local-type printing is not the same thing as enabling you to print from anywhere to anywhere. It's limited."
There are also third-party apps like the $20 PrintBureau and software like the donationware handyPrint (formerly AirPrintHacktivator) running on a Mac that is connected to a printer (any will do), to enable wireless printing via iPad or iPhone. You can also use the $20 FingerPrint, which runs on Mac and Windows PCs and which CNET loves.
There have also been clumsy attempts to directly integrate tablets with printers. Like this short-lived attempt by HP, the PhotoSmart eStation, which mated an Android tablet with an inkjet fax/printer/scanner:
While some of these solutions can connect to a larger pool of printers or more types of mobile devices than AirPrint, they still suffer a major limitation - incompatibility with the sophisticated networks that are typical inside any medium-to-large-sized company.
Let's take two common scenarios - an employee with a BYOD device, or a tablet-toting salesperson or field representative visiting another organization. Any network administrator worth his salt will confine those devices to the guest network for security reasons.
But guest networks rarely have their own printers. And devices logged into them are blocked from accessing anything on the corporate network. Like printers.
If mobile devices DO get onto the corporate network, they may find still find it difficult to print, due to:
- confusing networks with multiple subnets that make it hard to find the printer you want;
- group policies that parcel out access only to select devices in order to track costs and cut down on waste.
One attempt to sidestep the network issue is via public cloud-based print services. They include Google's free Cloud Print and Hewlett-Packard's ePrint. ePrint lets users print by sending an e-mail with a document attached.
ePrint is free. But you need an HP-branded, Web-enabled printer to use ePrint. And apart from being able to lock printers to accept e-mails only from registered e-mail addresses, there is little control for IT managers. As a result, ePrint has gained only some enterprise acceptance.
The great strength of Google's Cloud Print is its cross-platform ability. It can work with any brand of printer and any device type (provided they are running Google Docs or the Chrome Web browser).
On the other hand, Google Cloud Print gives users little control over how their print output looks. Only two choices are fully supported for all printers - single or double-sided print, and black and white or color pages. Printing booklets or using special paper sizes is not supported.
The bigger issue is that Cloud Print doesn't allow IT administrators to set policies such as black-and-white only printing (to save on expensive color ink), usage quotas, or encrypted printing. Nor does it allow IT administrators to control what and how much guest or BYOD devices are allowed to print.
For large organizations that need such features, ease of use and manageability - and are willing to pay - there are several enterprise-class solutions. There's the cloud-based Breezy. There's also PrinterOn, which comes as a public cloud service or internal server software. And there is PrintMe Mobile from EFI, which come as software installable on Windows or Linux servers.
EFI says it is the only vendor that can 100% solve the vexing problem mentioned above: enabling mobile devices on the guest Wi-Fi network to securely print to printers inside the firewall located on the corporate network. That would help visiting dignitaries, salespeople, partners and customers.
"Our solution is as easy as hitting File and Print," says Tom Offutt, director of business development for EFI.
IDC's Muscolino warns that the market is still maturing, and that some solutions that promise to enable high-quality printing from any device to any printer may still fall short.
Nevertheless, she predicts that this mobile printing market will grow at a "hockey-stick-like" 71.2% Compound Annual Growth Rate to $1 billion in 2015.