Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Observations: Printing from the Web—Are We Reaching the End Point?

In last month’s “Observations” column, I wrote about the development of Internet-based printer management over the last 10 years. This month, spurred on by a small part of a major introduction by Lexmark International (NYSE: LXK), I’m taking a look at the past, present, and future of the other important aspect of printers and their coexistence with the World Wide Web—printing Web content.

The Present: Lexmark’s Web Toolbar

The new Lexmark product that inspired this article is the Lexmark Web Toolbar. I have downloaded it and given it a run for its money, and I am pretty impressed, even though monochrome and color HP (NYSE: HPQ) LaserJet printers are my primary output tools these days.

Lexmark’s Web Toolbar is a Microsoft Internet Explorer add-in and focuses on four (and only four) tasks: scaling Web pages to print without cutting off text or images; printing Web content in text-only format, thereby eliminating images (read “ads”); printing in monochrome only “using the black cartridge”; and enabling “easy Web photo printing using the included Lexmark Fast Pics software.”

For Web support, Lexmark offers one page of FAQs, a grand total of seven problems with recommended solutions. Given that the Web Toolbar is so clean and simple in its approach and appearance, it is probably appropriate for its single Web help page to be spare as well. One of the “big seven” questions, the last one in fact, is quite interesting, suggesting that problems with non-Lexmark printers can be expected, given that the product is designed with the company’s products in mind, and “results may vary” with other vendors’ printers.

My results have been fine using the Web Toolbar with HP LaserJet printers, but it does give one pause—why, after all these years, are we still hassling with chopped-off Web pages and that seemingly ever-present nearly blank last page that is printed? For me, anyway, those are my only real pain points with Web printing—I can deal with my text-only and photo-only needs in a variety of existing ways. For that matter, the pervasiveness of “print-friendly” versions of pages has been the biggest aid to printing everything from recipes to news items, although I find it ironic that often I use “print-friendly” pages to construct a nicely formatted e-mail that may never be printed!

For completeness’ sake, before leaving the “present” section, I should mention that Oki announced a similar solution earlier this year (Observer, 3/06), an Internet Explorer “plug-in,” using the old-school vernacular rather than a term such as Lexmark’s “toolbar.” Oki’s WebPrint tackles a few more Web printing problems and features, such as margins and frames, but I have not had a chance to try it.

The Past

The history of printing from the Web is an interesting one, with a well-documented lack of association between the Internet and printing in the early days (mid-1990s). Following these pioneer days, the industry realized that the Web was the eagerly anticipated manifestation of the “distribute and print” model and that, to avoid being stuck in the “print and distribute” past, printers and printer vendors had darned well better embrace the Web.

True sticklers will tell you Bookmaker’s Surf’n’Print was technically the first such Web-enabled product (Observer, 3/96). In my opinion, however, the first significant announcement along these lines was documented in a February 1997 article in The Hard Copy Observer called “Canon Computer Launches New ‘Photo-Ready’ Ink Jets.” Canon announced WebRecord as part of a larger ink jet printer announcement, and the Observer described it as “a utility that stores and formats Web pages for later viewing and printing.” The article concluded with the company’s rationale for the development and introduction of WebRecord: “Canon hopes that WebRecord will encourage people to print off the Web, something … that they don’t do much now.” In addition to bundling this utility with its printers, Canon even attempted to sell a retail version of the product for a time, for use with all printers, not just Canon models.

Later, HP leveraged assets acquired via an acquisition of (you guessed it) Bookmaker and introduced Web PrintSmart (Observer, 6/98). The Observer story on Web PrintSmart highlighted the strategic importance of this product as a tool “designed to suck pages away from competing print technologies onto HP office and home printers.” HP’s software package, which was available bundled with new printers and via free download, was designed to meet a perceived user need to print Web “selections and collections,” and it actually survived through a 2.0 version. As is the case with any HP bundled software, millions of customers ultimately acquired PrintSmart. User adoption was another matter, though.

In retrospect, these were important products from both Canon and HP, measured not by their longevity (relatively short) nor by their revenue or profit production (none) but as statements of strategic direction by these two industry leaders.

Where the products went off base, especially HP’s Web PrintSmart (and maybe even more so its later “Instant Delivery” software), was in their attempt to understand and to ultimately modify the behavior of Web information seekers. The idea of automatically scheduling “harvesting” of Web content, to be pushed to end users’ printers, could be positioned as a great convenience for busy knowledge workers, but in reality, many users saw the process as a complicated hassle resulting in stacks of unread printouts. Basic printing improvements were crushed under the weight of these behavior-modifying (and supplies-business-building) “features.”

This misunderstanding was not unique to printer vendors, however. As the Internet bubble swelled, the entire Internet industry was enamored with “push” technologies. Early push technologies such as PointCast and others met their demise when the Internet bubble burst. Of course, instances of the general idea of push technologies thrive today, including e-mail and spam, the latter of which has proven cockroach-like in its ability to thrive despite a variety of legal and technological countermeasures. More favorably viewed subscription concepts such as RSS and podcasting are also alive and well.

The Future

Even in some of the earliest coverage I could find about printing from the Web, Canon and HP acknowledged that getting the browsers to enable better and easier printing was key. Browser-based printing has continued to improve, and almost all browsers have long offered enhancements such as “print preview” and improved frame printing.

Much of the media coverage of Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer version 7, available as a beta 2 version this spring, has focused on Google’s problems with the software’s built-in preferences for embedded search engine MSN. Less widely detailed is Internet Explorer 7’s inclusion of print-friendly features such as “Shrink to Fit.” In fact, Microsoft’s own Web site lists “Advanced Printing” as one of the key feature areas of the new Internet Explorer. Its new browser automatically scales a printout of a Web page “so that it’s not wider than the paper it will be printed on.” Internet Explorer 7 also includes a multipage print preview with live margins, resizes text to avoid document clipping, and includes an option to print only selected text.

As Internet Explorer 7 becomes used more widely, the end of the road may be near. I have been a dedicated Mozilla Firefox user for some time for almost all of my Web browsing—for non-print-related reasons, I might add. But maybe I will use Internet Explorer more often if its print capabilities have improved significantly. (When it comes to new technology, I’m anything but risk-averse, but beta versions make me a little nervous. That said, I will be playing with this new browser.) And if the much-maligned Internet Explorer leaps ahead on printing, watch Firefox and the others fight to catch up!


Jim Lyons said...

Lexmark's Print Tool gets some pub:


Unknown said...

Thanks for this insightful overview. I have another one for you: OKI has a tool called 'webprint utility'.
What I didn't quite get was what you think of printing web pages from Firefox. I'm quite satisfied actually. Aren't you?