Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Observations: Be Careful What You Wish For?


by Jim Lyons

The Hard Copy Observer, May 2006

Recent news reports have pointed out security issues with HP printing and imaging software—in one case via a Microsoft security patch and in the other via vulnerabilities in HP’s software. Jim Lyons, a 25-year veteran of the printing and imaging industry and an HP printer user, delves further into these issues in this month’s column. He also tests the reported workarounds and contemplates the connection between printers and the Internet.

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An online news item caught my attention the other day for several reasons. Although it has become easy to ignore the seemingly endless stream of stories about PC software security flaws and their corresponding fixes, the title of an April 17 story in PC World Online made me want to read more.

The article, “Critical Windows Security Patch Butts Heads With HP Software,” was about an automatic Windows XP update conflicting with an HP (NYSE HPQ) printing and imaging application called “Share-to-Web.” According to the report, this conflict could potentially lead to “lock-ups” in Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office Suite applications, and the good news was that “a workaround exists.”

The reasons this piece piqued my attention were as follows. First, I had experienced some mysterious software problems. I run Windows XP with automatic updates, and my installed HP printer software includes Share-to-Web. Second, the title was similar to one I had seen two weeks previously (“HP Warns of Printer Software Risks,” ZDNet News, April 5, 2006). Finally, I was on the scene when the “year of the LAN” finally came to pass and network printers were “invented.” But then the Internet and its bigger challenges loomed, and we in the printing industry dreamed—and eventually made real—the role of printers in that revolution, thus enabling them to become full-fledged citizens of the Web.

My initial reaction was that I needed to repair the problem immediately on my home-office PC. It is a fairly new and powerful HP Media Center model that has been rock-solid for the year I’ve been using it, but it had been exhibiting some strange hiccups of late. In the last year, I have transitioned from the luxurious position of having a large corporate PC support staff to maintain my office PC to actually being the support staff for my home-office PC. Nevertheless, I swallowed hard, pushed up my sleeves, did what felt like major surgery on my Windows registry per the PC World article, and got the fix in place. The result? The computer now hums along just the way it used to. Oh, what a feeling! (It was only in reflection that I identified my recent “lock-ups” as occurring while using Firefox, Quicktime, and Picasa—not Internet Explorer or Office, but close enough?)

Having tested my home IT skills as a result of the second article, I became more curious about the first. Initially, I was only mildly interested in the article on ZDNet News warning that the Toolbox software for certain HP printers can interact with Windows to open a security hole that could potentially give hackers access to the PC user’s files. Although I do have a Color LaserJet 2500 and run the HP Toolbox, I had not taken any immediate action. Now that I had the Windows/Share-to-Web issue resolved, I went online and quickly and easily performed the upgrade to solve the Toolbox issue. By the way, I use the Toolbox software all the time, unlike Share-to-Web, to monitor my printer’s supplies levels from my Web browser.

On a grander scale, these experiences made me reflect: just when did so much Web functionality become associated with printers? In the mid-1990s, the printing and imaging industry struggled to avoid being left behind in the Internet age. After creating a whole new category of network printers based on sharing and managing printers via local area networks, the fit between printers and the Internet and World Wide Web did not seem quite as obvious. Only a few die-hard true believers were proactive in establishing printing and imaging products as part of the “Internet tornado.”

The satisfaction of millions of users proves that we succeeded in this task. While I’m not a user of Share-to-Web, I publish photos and other files on the Internet all the time—today, there are so many ways to do it! (Share-to-Web is a tool that HP first introduced with its scanners, long before the ubiquity of digital still cameras, as a way for customers to upload scanned images to Web sites.) Once just a dream, printer management and monitoring from the comfort and ease of a Web browser (often from your adjacent desktop PC but if needed from anywhere in the world) is something that many printer buyers have come to expect. Consumers have also come to expect instantaneous and automated printer software and firmware updates. (Did we really used to depend on floppies and CDs for updates?)

A profound technology leader used to say, “The true measure of an innovation’s adoption is when it becomes conspicuous only by its absence.” This quotation certainly applies to today’s situation with printers and the Internet. I added a question mark to the cliché that serves as this column’s title because the warning “be careful what you wish for” has always seemed to me to be much too pessimistic. Sure, having printers and printing and imaging software as integral to the Web can lead to occasional issues, but the gains in convenience, ease of use, and productivity are enormous.

1 comment:

Jim Lyons said...

Further discussion and background on these software issues can be found at the following links:


http://blogs.pcworld.com/tipsandtweaks/archives/001873.html

http://blogs.pcworld.com/techlog/archives/001868.html

http://www.homeandoffice.hp.com/hho/cache/1027-0-0-225-121.html

http://h20000.www2.hp.com/bizsupport/TechSupport/Document.jsp?objectID=c00634759&printver=true