My colleague Ben Woods nipped over to Istanbul this week to check out HP's ePrint, the company's new scheme to mediate printing via the Web - or, if you wish, in that ever-loving cloud.
The idea's reasonably simple. You plug your printer into the Internet, it establishes itself with HP's servers, and when you want to print you send your output to HP first as an email. Or you can set up drivers, or use apps that are pre-programmed to use the system. It may seem a bit odd at first, but it bypasses a lot of printer driver hassles and lets you send stuff from a wide variety of devices that have typically been difficult to connect to paper.
But, he reports, there's one small drawback. You can't actually print web pages. The best you can do is send an email with a screenshot of the page, which is rarely what you actually want.
That got me thinking. Printing web pages always fails - not sometimes, not mostly, but always. You never get what you want, and you frequently end up with reams of wasted paper, stuff formatted in an entertaining variety of unreadable ways, or just plain garbage. To bypass this, you have to faff around with cut and paste and word processors (how often does that go wrong?) - and, seeing as it's now 2010 and our entire lives are Web-based, this is just plain unacceptable.
But there is one way to display web pages properly - use a web browser. These days, Web browsers are frighteningly complex beasts, but a number of them have one big advantage: they're open source. There's another big advantage out there: embedded processors are both powerful and cheap.
So, why not build a browsing platform into a printer and just send the printer the URL of the thing you want to churn out? HP already bundles an Android tablet with its PhotoSmart e-Station, which has all the gubbins: there's no need for the display and user interface, as if you're sending off a web page you're already in your own browser and the printer can communicate with you through that. The printer can then render the web page to be printed directly to its own engine, a few smarts can let you select important parameters, such as not printing the thirty pages of enraged comments at the foot of the story you're outputting, and off we all go.