by Raegen Pietrucha
What do 3-D TV and mobile printing have in common? Neither began to be part of the mainstream discussion until technology — either tangential or directly related — caught up, making it more appealing to users. Some early mobile printing solutions, for instance, were a bit complicated, as they were proxy-based, requiring the use of a PC as the middleman that would communicate with the printer on behalf of the mobile device to get output, explained Robert Shibata, marketing director at Thinxtream.
Although mobile printing solutions have existed for about a decade, mobile printing hasn’t been discussed much prior to the last two or three years — mostly due to a previously unrelated technology: the cellphone. “There were a lot of real niche or custom solutions for mobile printing that (have) been out there for years,” Shibata said, “(but) I think that the popularity started with the Apple iPhone. I think as the smartphones became much more powerful, at that point, there was a consumer base that was interested in trying to get prints on the go.” In addition to this, tablets came onto the scene, began outselling laptops and are used more and more every day as productivity tools (or primary computing platforms) in the workplace, said John Henze, VP of marketing for Fiery at EFI — further fueling the mobile printing market. Document manipulation became easier as both smartphone and tablet technologies improved, and “with the ability to actually manipulate the documents on your tablet and on your smartphone, in many cases, that really drives (mobile printing),” said Alex Kinsella, product manager of RIM’s App World.
At the end of the day, consumers also expect the same experience from a mobile printing solution as they have when printing from a desktop.
Once the interest in printing from now highly capable portable devices was recognized, everyone from OEMs to software startups, Internet-infrastructure-type companies and independent application developers jumped on the bandwagon to come up with new and/or revamped mobile printing solutions. But there is much to consider when creating the ideal solution for the two main groups of consumers — the enterprise segment, which tends to print business documents such as Microsoft Office files and PDFs, and the general public, which tends to print photos and Web content — especially when their behavior is changing at such a rapid rate.
What users want
First and foremost, reading between the lines, research from InfoTrends points to an easily understandable and operable solution as the No. 1 requirement users have with regard to mobile printing. Assuming they have no use for mobile printing because they’re content viewing documents on screen, there seems to be a lot of confusion around current capabilities, though about 70 percent appear to be interested in mobile printing. A significant percentage of consumers believe their devices don’t support the function or that they don’t have access to capable printers, which is a clear misunderstanding of the technology on the market today. Nearly 20 percent admit to not knowing how to print mobilely, and the remainder complain about it being too complicated, slow or inaccurate on the page. “(What’s) hugely important … to the end user is simplicity,” Henze said. “‘Don’t make me load drivers. Don’t make me go to a different app on my mobile device. … Don’t make me do any of that stuff. If you do, I’m not going to use it.’”
But having options is paramount to consumers too, since everybody wants to print on the go in a way that’s comfortable to them. People want mobile printing to be simple, and they want to be able to do it several ways. Some want to print directly from a smartphone or tablet to a printer. Others want to send a document to the cloud, receive a printing PIN for added security and print it out later. Others want to forward it to a printer via email. And some want it all. Flexibility isn’t only important when it comes to methods of printing, either. Henze and Shibata emphasized how critical choice is with respect to the devices involved in mobile printing as well — from smartphones to tablets to printers. Brand and device agnosticism are mandatory, Henze said; “if you fall short of those, you’re basically playing to a niche market.”
And at the end of the day, consumers also expect the same experience from a mobile printing solution as they have when printing from a desktop. Swiftness is one such element that they not only want but expect, considering the desktop counterpart’s speed. “Whether they’re printing from a PC or mobile device, I don’t think that they’re expecting to wait a huge amount of time,” Shibata said. “They don’t want to have to sit and wait five to 10 minutes for a three-page printout to come out.”
Consumers want to be able to print both inside and outside of firewalls too, which raises security concerns never faced before — and an enterprise’s IT department certainly doesn’t want life to get harder just because printing got easier. If IT wants to host the service, manage it, or monitor or control printing, it also wants its own version of ease of use. Henze elaborated: “A lot of very clear feedback we received in our interviews with the enterprise IT side is, ‘Needs to tie into my security policy, needs to tie into my networking policy, needs to tie into my email solution and policy. I can’t have something else that I have to manage and worry about. As long as it ties into what I’m already doing and have in place, then that’s great; we’re good to go.’” Quick and easy installation, Henze noted, is also essential.
When it comes to the relationship between consumers and mobile printing, “the user — whether it’s a corporate user or a standard consumer — only wants to print,” Shibata said. Both he and Henze feel the details and workarounds are the business of mobile printing solution developers, not the users. “If it isn’t easy, if it isn’t simple, if it doesn’t just work without thinking about it across any device, any printer, it isn’t going to make it long-term,” Henze said.
A simple solution, a complicated development
Considering the intended primary benefit of mobile printing is convenience, what hurdles have developers had to overcome to meet the myriad specifications set forth by users? Shibata outlined five major elements that needed to be considered: the mobile device, its application and its operating system (OS); data transform (where data is turned into printer content); printer discovery; printer description language (PDL) support; and the print device itself.
Capabilities of smartphones and tablets vary — especially with respect to “horsepower” and CPU speed — and though it’s a challenging task, many mobile printing solutions have been optimized to accommodate for the diversity, Shibata said. However, device improvements certainly help the cause. “What we’re finding is that the faster the CPU, the more memory that’s available on the hardware side, in some cases the more robust the operating system is, the easier it is from the application perspective to support printing,” he noted, which is good news for mobile print solution developers, since these devices continue to be upgraded to this end.
Shibata also acknowledged the benefits of the cloud with regard to mobile printing, as it supports several file formats, provides the level of accuracy on printouts that consumers have come to expect from mobile printing solutions as well as enables printing across many different applications and platforms. Both Thinxtream and EFI solutions leverage the cloud to deliver these perks and win consumers over.
Kinsella thinks that the printer discovery component — pairing devices for printing — is the biggest challenge in mobile printing. However, technologies such as Wi-Fi and NFC (near-field communication) have opened up the options for locating compatible printers. “Bluetooth is kind of fading out,” Kinsella said. “It’s a little more intensive, especially for a consumer. You need a PIN for one device to pair it up together. I see a lot of potential in NFC; it’s an amazing technology. … The ability to just go up to a printer, physically tap the two devices together and that pairs them … removes the roadblocks to actual printing.”
As mobile printing grows more popular, MPS dealers will have to incorporate some type of related component within their offerings.
Speaking of roadblocks, OEMs typically complicate mobile printing through their IP, and this element had to be addressed as well. “Many of the OEMs have their own proprietary PDL, so as you start supporting those, there’s obviously more work involved,” Shibata said. However, some mobile printing solutions support all the major PDLs, spanning wide ranges of devices and brands to make the maximum number of interactions possible. And as far as printers go, the price points for Wi-Fi-enabled ones are reasonable now for the average consumer and company. “I think the consumers are winning here,” Shibata said. “The consumers are getting their printing devices that have more features, which luckily, in this case, enables mobile printing. … There are solutions that … enable them to print directly from that tablet or that smartphone to a more cost-effective printer.”
A whole new — and mobile — world
As all the puzzle pieces for mobile printing continue to fall into place — affordable, high-quality printers; powerful smartphones and tablets; and agnostic, easy-to-use solutions — Henze, Shibata and Kinsella all see the offering gaining momentum. “This ability to hook up to a printer in any location — your home, your office — and have that easy access to generate physical reproductions of photography, of your documents — I see a greater driver in that now as we talk to partners,” Kinsella said. Shibata agreed in spite of some conflicting printing trends today. “With the newer generations, they tend to print a little less than the older generations over time, but I think — especially based on certain applications — there’s still a need for printing,” he said, and making it mobile will only add to the appeal.
The way consumers use mobile devices and to what end will evolve alongside the technologies as well. “Smartphones are still going to be much more pervasive than tablets — at least for the foreseeable future — but in terms of the need to print, … it’s even greater for tablets,” Henze said. “If you look at mobile Internet as the next computing cycle, it’s going to dwarf the previous computing cycles, and we see tablets being a pretty integral piece to that.” Shibata feels this current trend of tablets replacing laptops will continue to fuel an already growing market for mobile printing, since the devices themselves are mobile, allowing more and more business to be conducted out of the office or home on the fly. And Henze thinks that as people grow more aware of and accustomed to mobile printing on tablets, the more they’ll begin to transfer that behavior to smart phones as well. “Once people start printing from tablets, then I see actually utilizing that capability on smartphones,” he said. “Probably the biggest reason people aren’t printing from the smartphones is they don’t know that they can.”
What are some of the implications of increasingly used mobile printing solutions, particularly for the MPS industry? For one thing, as mobile printing grows more popular, MPS dealers will have to incorporate some type of related component within their offerings. “(As) the MPS provider, … (if you) can solve all the wired printing needs, but (you) can’t solve the wireless printing needs for mobile devices, it seems like (you’re) missing a chunk out of that service offering, so I absolutely see the ability to provide mobile printing as becoming a more important piece of an overall MPS offering,” Henze said. “Certainly isn’t going to be needed for everyone, … but it’s going to (be used) more and more over time.”
Henze and Shibata both believe significant benefits can be gleaned from implementing mobile printing solutions in MPS programs. “There (are) certain tools that mobile applications can provide to enable more accurate or better MPS solutions, … (and) we’re starting to see some of the MPS providers just recently enable mobile devices with their applications,” Shibata said. “There’s the ability to track printing … from a print device, … (and) our solution has the ability to tie into an MPS software. The MPS provider would then have the same access to what’s being printed from a mobile device versus there in the office.”
The newly tapped mobile printing market is small but holds much promise. Although some feel it will always remain relatively niche, Shibata thinks it will grow quite a bit — particularly with respect to mainstream printing applications as people shift from using primarily desktops and laptops to tablets. “If you have a tablet that has all the applications and the horsepower that’s available on a traditional PC or laptop, why do you need that PC or laptop?” he said; printing would naturally transfer to the tablet device being used instead. Kinsella believes mobile printing will eventually eclipse standard printing. “I think (mobile printing will) become the dominant thing,” he said. “Physically connected printing is … really on its way out, especially if you take the modern home now with multiple devices. … The idea of having to physically go connect up to a printer is archaic at this point.” As far as printing goes, if devices and the consumer behavior associated with them continue to shift in this wireless, mobile direction, the sky could very well be the limit.