For almost two years, HP has been shipping printers that support "wireless printing." What does that mean, exactly, and what does it allow you to do?
For the most part, wireless printers offer what the name implies: You don't need a USB cable connection to a PC to print a file anymore. You can send a file to the printer from a conference room or from the lunchroom. But the wireless capabilities only begin with away-from-your-desk printing. Now it's possible to print a file to the company printer from your smartphone or your laptop while off the network or from your home, using your device’s wireless or 3G connection to the Internet.
For example, if you're working remotely, you can send a file to the printer without waiting until you get back to the office. Telecommuters can print documents to the office printer without visiting headquarters (“Hey boss, you’ll find that report waiting for you!”). Also, and perhaps more convenient than useful, you can send pictures from a smartphone to a photo printer while you're out. And all of this can be done securely so only intended recipients retrieve the printed information.
Wireless printing has evolved from basic document printing from PCs to supporting many document formats and a variety of devices, such as smartphones. The challenge was to make it as seamless as hitting Print on your PC, even though you're printing to a device possibly hundreds of miles away on a secured network.
The first thing HP needed was predictable connectivity, which required more than simply putting a Wi-Fi antenna in the printer and adding a little code. An 802.11g and Ethernet port are definitely key ingredients but not the only ingredients.
When you first set up a wireless printer, you point it to the wireless network, or plug it into the router via Ethernet. Traditionally, these printers are not discoverable by Wi-Fi sniffers since they do not identify themselves or communicate with anything other than the access point or router. Your printer does not broadcast an SSID, a recommended security step for wireless networks, so no one can find the printer by scanning for wireless IDs.
Building the Infrastructure
The e-mail address architecture isn't going away, it's just being hidden. HP will continue to use it since other devices out there won't have the Home and Business App.
Even though wireless Internet access has been around for years, it took a while for the underlying technologies and standards to be developed and put in place in the printers, says Brian Schmidt, director of future product marketing at HP's printing group.
Every HP LaserJet and InkJet that supports wireless printing has a mini-server built into it and has its own e-mail address. Initially, wireless printing involved mailing an attached file to the printer’s unique e-mail address.
Printer configurations determine who can send it mail. You can tell the printer to accept mail from anyone or from only certain names on a whitelist. It could be one whole domain or just one person. This prevents unauthorized use, should the e-mail address be compromised.
Once the sender is authorized and approved, the e-mail file attachment is downloaded to the printer, rendered in the appropriate format (Word, Excel, an image, etc.) and then printed.
Lately, the job has gotten a lot more seamless. Life is getting easier for Windows users thanks to a new Mobile Windows driver for ePrint. With this driver installed on a Windows 7 system, you won't have to mail file attachments. Printing to a wireless printer would be handled like with a printer already connected to the PC via a USB cable. Just select Print in your application; the document is handled invisibly in the background.
HP also launched a set of mobile print apps for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Symbian O/S. The ePrint Home and Business app helps you discover your printer rather than sending the file to an e-mail address as in the earlier method. Once you have set your printer, HP takes care of connectivity and document rendering entirely in the background.
Securing the Printer
If the idea of permitting anyone to send files to your company printer gives you the willies, don’t worry; security is a top concern for everyone. Standing between your device and your printer is HP’s cloud printing service, which acts as a firewall and security gateway to protect users. For starters, the cloud printing service enforces the whitelist, with various levels of fine-grain access control. You can configure the printer to only accept e-mail from a single e-mail address, a single domain, or from anyone and everyone.
Likewise, the cloud service detects spambots by only allowing printing from one e-mail address. Spambots work by sending out their spam to hundreds of thousands of addresses, but they all have one originating address. If HP's cloud printing service notices that a single e-mail address is trying to send attachments to dozens of printer addresses, it is blocked immediately.
"We had to sort out how that will all work. That took quite a bit of effort," says Schmidt.
While files are encrypted before they are sent from the remote device to the HP cloud service and remain encrypted when sent to the printer, some firms insist on keeping the data entirely within their domain. As a result, an enterprise version of ePrint can keep corporate data within the firewall with an internal print server. The device, while outside the office, might be on a VPN or some other secure connection. This keeps the file inside the company's firewall for the entire process.
HP has also added printing to secured networks through what can be described as "guest mode printing." This is ideal for emerging countries or small offices with no LAN. Anyone can print to the wireless printer by simply connecting to that printer's network. They can't change any settings, just print, according to HP.
Multiple Device Support
Computers were the only devices that mattered to printers – until recently. Now, printers have to support any device with an IP address: tablets, smartphones, and digital cameras. "Recently we're seeing devices like smartphones replacing notebooks and netbooks. So printing becomes a part of the equation," says Schmidt. "Upwards of 85% of smartphone users want the ability to print wirelessly."
That means printers need to support just desktop and server operating systems. This is more than specialized drivers for Windows (and eventually the Mac; Linux is on the wish list). It means printing from iOS, Android, and BlackBerry OS at the very least. Schmidt says most of HP's work now is on the client side, not the server.
HP is aiming for the same level of simplicity it has now with AirPrint, an Apple iOS 4.2 feature that allows for wireless printing. In the case of the iPhone and iPad, printing is entirely seamless. All the user does is ensure they are connected to the same wireless network of the printer, than they can discover and select the printer by name. HP has 25 ePrint-capable printers that support AirPrint, with more coming out. So HP's next major effort is to bring this level of simplicity to other major mobile operating systems, such as Android and BlackBerry.
ePrint is still a work in progress for HP, so businesses can expect to see a stream of enhancements. The Android/BlackBerry support is one of several projects HP is working on.
So HP wants to add the ability to print whatever is on your screen and not just be limited to printing attached files.
Printer discovery is also being improved. HP wants to enable printer discovery through proximity. For example, support for discovery and print in public locations might start with places like hotel lobbies and FedEx Office stores. The company has formed partnerships with the mobile phone vendors to provide BlackBerry, iOS and Android discovery and printing support in these locations. In the case of BlackBerry, it requires Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) on the back-end for the printer provider.
Also up for enhancement is picture printing. Currently, it's possible to take a picture and send it to your PhotoSmart printer, but that's about all you can do. In the future, HP wants to add finer job control, such as brightening or darkening the picture, cropping, and choosing the size of the image to print. iOS has more fine-grain printing control than its counterparts, so again, HP has the challenge of bringing all of the competitor platforms into parity.
Schmidt expects the bulk of HP's printer lineup will be ePrint-enabled before long, except for some very low-end, less expensive printers. He also says that Palm's webOS, which powers the Palm Pre phones, will eventually become a part of HP printing devices. HP has a Palm-related announcement coming up in February, which is widely believed to be a tablet device, but there is no clear plan for anything printer-related.
HP hopes that within two to three years, wireless printing from any device and from any location will be as seamless, simple and functional as it is to print now to a device connected to your PC with a USB cable.
[Article updated in September, 2011 to include recent product announcements.—Ed.]