Saturday, November 17, 2007

Observations: Wi-Fi Printing -- Look Ma, No Cables

Wi-Fi Printing -- Look Ma, No Cables

Baby boomers like me might remember the original reference for my column title, which I believe is from a late 1950s/early 1960s Crest toothpaste television commercial featuring a kid riding a bike and showing off to his mother. But the phrase became adapted and re-used so many times that what may have seemed clever adaptations to the creators became tiresome to the listeners in a hurry. (Today’s variation, which is becoming equally tiresome, is (fill in the blank) 2.0).

But I am not just using that title phrase for nostalgia, although that is a factor. I am using it to point to a major question that I have had over the last year or so: Do the wireless interfaces that have become so prominent on new consumer printers really serve a legitimate and growing customer need, or is wireless merely the latest battleground in the "specsmanship" wars that also drive our industry, but in an ultimately less important way?

Let me go back a few years to the introduction of the HP (NYSE HPQ) LaserJet 5P and 5MP laser printers (see The Hard Copy Observer, 3/95). I was around for the conception of that product line and worked with the design team to come up with a feature set that would continue the HP LaserJet's legacy of innovation and customer satisfaction. The inclusion of a wireless interface, in this case infrared (IR), took advantage of HP’s investment in research and development in this area and served as a visionary lighthouse—a statement of direction towards a future where clumsy, space-limiting, unaesthetic, and otherwise troublesome wires would be rendered obsolete and replaced in a cable-free world with PCs and peripherals harmoniously getting along over the ether.

In reality, the adoption of infrared was hampered by a number of limitations: users had to acquire print drivers from a third-party developer, the maximum distance between the IR-equipped computer and the printer was limited to three feet, and the current version of Microsoft Windows did not support IR printing. As a result, very few end users at the time actually used wireless printing.

Fast forward to 2007. Broadband Wi-Fi networks abound, and millions of users around the world routinely gain Internet access by logging into Local Area Networks (LANs) based on 802.11 standards. These networks are in work environments and public places like airports and coffee shops and are today's technology of choice for millions and millions of home-based LANs. And the printer industry has taken notice.

I personally have had a Wi-Fi-equipped home office for four or five years using a variety of off-the-shelf technologies. In our home, like most, the primary motivation is sharing the Internet "pipe" that comes in to our home via a digital subscriber line (DSL) modem (but that could just as easily be a cable modem). Over time, my family and I have begun sharing other resources, like files and printers, but until recently, in a more traditional network-printing fashion.

Lexmark (NYSE LXK), while by no means having a lock on the Wi-Fi printer market, has been at the forefront in touting Wi-Fi compatibility for its printers. Despite recent financial woes (see "Lexmark Can't Match Apple Results"), Lexmark continues to be a strong industry player and, in fact, is known as an organization with long-standing expertise in pursuing printing's vertical markets, which is another way of saying that the firm identifies segment-specific user needs and designs products and solutions for those needs. So a look at Lexmark's approach to Wi-Fi printing seems appropriate. The company is so enamored with wireless printing that it has made the term part of its product names. For example, the product they made available to me for some light-duty testing is the Lexmark Wireless X6570 All-in-One. The firm’s positioning is realistic—they do not dispute that there is more than one way to print over a network—but enabling the printer to become a full-fledged citizen of the wireless LAN has some distinct advantages.

In the document "Understanding Your Wireless Printing Options" (available at http://marketing.pcworld.com/campaigns/lexmark/printing-options.html), Lexmark points to "wireless printing anywhere within your wireless network — giving you more mobility and reducing cable clutter" and "the freedom to place your printer almost anywhere in your home—you decide based on what suits your usage preferences and d├ęcor, with no worries about shackling it to your wireless router or computer." This is distinct from how I deploy another printer on my home LAN: tethered to one Windows XP machine via USB but available to other network clients. Another drawback of the wired-to-one solution is the requirement that the "one" computer remain powered on in order for printing to proceed from other network PCs. (This constraint goes away with wired network printers, of course.)

My experience installing the X6570 on my home LAN was virtually flawless. After removing packing tape, installing ink cartridges and the like, the PC-based installation steps on my Windows XP-based desktop were routine and remarkably the same as installing any printer. The "wireless ready" light on the front of the all-in-one had already turned green, and it wasn’t long until the machine successfully printed the test page. My next step was to print from my Windows Vista-based laptop. That process worked fine too, after I realized there was no auto-detect and that I had to do a CD-based install, unlike my experience with my other networked printer and the Vista laptop.

All in all, I think Lexmark (and by inference the rest of the industry) is on the right track in supplying easy-to-use wireless printing. There are certainly other ways to share a printer, but the placement flexibility offered by wireless is nice, and even saving a USB slot is worth something. As more home LANs spring up, the utility of wireless seems positive enough to make its presence in consumer printers a future standard, and only "conspicuous by its absence." The test on my home LAN will really come with the holidays, as our house fills up with laptop-toting late-teens and early-twenties family members. We will see what they think about the wireless machine. But oops, that’s right, they are in the age group that does not print…

As a brief footnote, this concludes my column's second full year—yes, that is 24 official Observations columns, plus a few extraneous ones—and I want to express my sincere thanks ('tis the season, after all) to Charley LeCompte, Ann Priede, and the rest of the Lyra and The Hard Copy Observer crew who have made me feel like part of a great extended family. What started with an inspiration for a one-shot retrospective guest editorial has turned into a regular column and blog that has forced me to stay current and on top of a dynamic industry that I love. With any luck, I will stick around! Look for year three of my Observations column starting with the December 2007 issue.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wireless printing - dream on!

I own 3 brandnew HP Color LaserJets that are supposed to work with a direct Ethernet connection from each one of my 4 computers.

I have been trying to get things to work for about six month now with Vista and XP computers and it has never printed more than once.

I then puchased a 10 feet USB cable that I run across the floor and keep plugging it into every machine I want to print from every time.

That worked perfectly until I was recommended to install the latest print drivers automatically - which I did - and which creates now a "no windows disk" error message every time I plug in a USB Memory stick. Out of frustration I completely reinstalled Vista Ultimate on my machine which then turned my Outlook inoperable.

I WANT PARALLEL CABLES BACK - at least they always worked.

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