Printers have evolved from the uninspiring contraption at the other end of your PC’s parallel cable (how many of us still remember those?) into multi-functioned devices that are just about unrecognisable from the printers of only ten years ago. Today’s machines can scan documents as well as print them. They can send and receive faxes. They can photocopy. And that’s only the beginning.
The end objective, of course, is still the same: a paper document, admirably and appropriately printed. The many routes we can all take toward that goal, however, have changed and developed dramatically in recent years, as well as the ease of navigation we can all expect.
Here’s how it’s all happened:
In the beginning….
A printer was connected to a PC. And that was that. A computer with no printer couldn’t print. If you had a dozen computers scattered about and you wanted to print from any or all of them, well, you needed a dozen printers. There was no other way.
A lot of people still think this way. You can see them shuttling photographic images by some mechanism or another to the computer that’s connected to the inkjet printer because that’s the one that makes the best colour prints. If they want to print a forty-page report they shuttle that document over to the computer with the laser printer, because that’s the one that ‘s best for printing long documents. I’ve spent a lot of time doing this myself.
Enter the network
Networks were the first new improvement in the whole operation, and they changed everything. One printer could be accessed by any properly-configured network workstation, and suddenly all you needed was one laser printer and one inkjet, each connected to its own PC, and you could print anything you wanted to any connected printer, easily. Very nice.
Soon, though, some bright spark came up with the next innovation: the network-ready printer. This machine didn’t need to be connected to a PC. It sat, on its own, at the end of a length of cable, ready to print anything sent its way from a networked PC.
This, it turns out, would eventually become the most remarkable development of them all.
The connected world
Then networks went wireless, and soon after that families began installing wireless, Wi-Fi routers and networks at home. They were insecure, balky and unreliable at first but they quickly improved. They got easier to set up and maintain, too, until they reached the point where every bed-and-breakfast is backward if it doesn’t have a Wi-Fi server.
Then printers, too, went Wi-Fi. It became possible to print to a printer, anywhere in the house, from any PC – anywhere in the house. No cables in sight, anywhere. And no printer-controlling PC, either.
And that was only the beginning. Mobile devices like laptops, iPads and smartphones entered the fray and soon they all were capable of not only displaying and editing documents but printing them, too. All we needed was a Wi-Fi printer and a print app – and there are now dozens of these to choose from. The iPhone came first but very soon after came Blackberry and Android apps, and there is no reason to think the spread is going to stop there.
And now, finally: Remote Printing
This is where we have arrived today: we have printers – not PCs, printers – that can go online, receive email, browse websites and of course print any of it. They don’t need a PC at all, for anything.
The next step is, you don’t even need to be close to your printer to print. All you need is access to the Web. And just about everything, today, accesses the Web. Dishwashers and microwave ovens? It’s only a matter of time, if you ask me.
The leaders of this mass migration of technology appear to be HP and LexMark. Their approaches are a little different, but each is clearly a technological Moses, leading us all out of captivity. (OK, OK. No more biblical metaphor, I promise.)
Where these two are going to lead us, eventually, remains to be seen.
Today’s Lexmark printers come equipped with a big LCD panel on the control set, and you can use this to display the news, the weather, sports results, your Facebook and Twitter accounts – in fact anything that you can find on the Web. Your printer has become a media device.
The company’s “SmartSolutions” programmable apps can be configured to do everything from automating a series of tasks (such as scanning and e-mailing reports to a business associate) to transmitting documents into your Evernote account or getting an RSS feed from a news site.
Of all the printer manufacturers in the industry, HP is the one most actively embracing Web-based printing. HP’s Web-enabled printers can access an ever-growing collection of cloud-based apps, all developed by HP and focused on providing something for you to print.
HP’s apps address home needs covering greeting cards, wrapping paper, movie tickets, coupons, and even signage. For kids, the apps offer puzzles, activity pages, papercraft projects, and storybooks. You can print preselected article feeds from major sources such as MSNBC or USA Today, maps from Mapquest or Google Maps, or photos from popular sites such as Facebook and Picasa.
HP also offers a feature called ePrint, which lets you e-mail a print job directly to an ePrint-enabled printer, anywhere in the world as long as it’s reachable through the Internet. This works because every printer HP plans to make for the foreseeable future is going to have its own unique email address embedded in its firmware.
This promises to be just a sample of the innovations we’re going to see printer makers advance over the next few years. The printer, once a humble and utilitarian workplace tool, has become a partner for tablets, smartphones, laptops and even the desktop PCs it used to be tied to.
One thing all these new products will likely have in common is convenience. Wherever we print, and whatever we use to do it, creating physical copies of holiday snaps, work documents – or anything else we will want to put into print – has never been easier.