Observations: All That Glitters...
by Jim Lyons
[November 30, 2010] As we begin to approach the last days of 2010, many of us are getting ready to write wrap-ups about the year’s activity, with recaps of industry developments in various categories. For me, these retrospectives include the use of social media and smartphones, or more broadly, mobile printing applications, many of which I have already covered. In addition to going back to my year’s worth of notes and articles, it is also a time to seek out those brief tickler file entries and scan the environment for new entries in these categories for solutions or products which I might have missed outright. It is a time to “make good” by including these unexplored or previously undiscovered items in their rightful place as important, or at least potentially important, to the printing and imaging industry.
These latter two categories (the previously uncovered or unexplored) include apps that carry “print,” “printer,” “paper” or the like as part of their names. Just as I have covered in some detail the companies behind “Print Central” and “Print Your Twitter” over the past year, I also have a newer, less-explored list of companies and apps like “paper.li,” “Instapaper,” and “ACTPrinter.” These names seem to imply an involvement in printing and imaging and perhaps represent an opportunity for our industry either in working directly with the companies involved or at least learning something about what these firms are doing. But, as the old saying goes, “All that glitters isn’t gold,” so what about these emerging upstarts?
The first target of my investigation is Houdah Software, and its product, ACTPrinter, which I have been using for a few months on my iPhone. In addition to being intrigued by the name of Houdah’s app, I was originally drawn to the firm’s iTunes entry and logo (see illustrations), the fact that Houdah offers Sudoku as well as printing software, and the interesting company name. This interest led me to a recent extended interview, first by e-mail and then by phone, with Pierre Bernard, founder of Houdah Software s.à r.l. of Luxembourg, where Bernard remains the company’s sole employee.
Screen-shot from iTunes App Store shows Houdah's range of apps.
JLO: Can you provide a quick description of ACTPrinter and the target users?
Bernard: ACTPrinter is best described as a virtual printer. Basically, anything that can be printed can be sent to ACTPrinter. ACTPrinter was created with electronic tickets (boarding passes, cinema tickets, etcetera) in mind. It seems quite a waste of paper to print such tickets only to discard them once you boarded the plane, entered the theater. Many airports already have machines capable of scanning bar codes off LCD displays. Their number is rapidly expanding as many airlines introduce their own digital boarding pass creators. But why have one app for each and every airline you plan on traveling with? ACTPrinter can carry the boarding passes of any airline.
Moreover ACTPrinter can hold your hotel room confirmation, printed maps, notes you made ahead of travel, etcetera.
JLO: How did Houdah get into this area? I notice your apps vary greatly—what triggered the interest in ACTPrinter? Do you have a printing or graphics/imaging background?
Bernard: Houdah Software is indeed quite unique in that I did not focus on a single area of interest. I try to create products I need myself. I either see a need or I see an existing solution that I feel I can improve upon. The first Houdah Software product was HoudahSpot: a file search tool. The next was HoudahGeo: a photo geocoding solution. On the iPhone, I started out with a Sudoku [program], a currency converter, and a tip calculator. These were followed shortly by ACTPrinter.
JLO: What are some specifics about you and Houdah ? Where are you located? How long have you been in business? How big is the company? What are your future visions/dreams?
Bernard: Houdah Software s.à r.l. is based in Luxembourg, Europe. It was founded in late 2005. It is a one-man company with some help from the family. (Although the Windows client for ACTPrinter was created by Joe Acklin of JTA Software.) [Editor’s note: the ACTPrinter software, much like many of the printing-oriented mobile apps, requires a companion app on either the user’s Mac or Windows machine, in this case for the actual rendering (virtual printing) of the ACTPrinter-readable files, and residing on the same LAN for file transfer.]
I am currently working on a Mac application, which will be sold through Apple's upcoming Mac App Store. Tembo is again a search tool based upon Apple's Spotlight engine. Its purpose is to make searching and finding both easier and faster.
JLO: Do you see ACTPrinter complementing or competing with actual printing? For example, HP's new ink jet printers feature a number of print applications (e.g. movie tickets, maps, etcetera) that would be replaced by "printing" to your smartphone and using it that way, without ever actually printing.
Bernard: ACTPrinter is surely meant to replace much of the casual / nonsense printing: tickets, will-call numbers, phone numbers, etcetera—the stuff that used to waste a full sheet of paper for only a word or two…or was used only once.
Feedback has shown that ACTPrinter went way beyond that. People save much more paper by printing all kinds of documents to ACTPrinter. What was meant as a traveler’s tool has grown into a business tool. Why waste paper to print an e-mail just so you can read it back home, during commute, etcetera?
The current HP approach to boarding passes is printing via dedicated apps - Houdah has different ideas.
JLO: Back to more on those customers. What is the feedback from your users? What else would you like to do with ACTPrinter in future versions, based on your vision and/or user feedback?
Bernard: ACTPrinter is our best-selling iOS application by a wide margin. Customer reception has been tremendous. ACTPrinter quickly outgrew its original purpose. Users use it to carry far more than the occasional e-ticket. ACTPrinter came to be the place to store all of one's travel documents.
Many users actually extend the use of ACTPrinter far beyond traveling. They print large documents to read on a commute.
ACTPrinter recently gained sections. These allow for the users to manage their documents. Newly printed documents start in the Inbox. From there one may file them to other sections (e.g. group documents by trip). One may also consider the Inbox as a list of unread documents. Upon reading one may file a printout to the "read" section or create an "action pending" section.
Folders were the most requested feature for a long time. I waited quite a long time to get moving on this. I wanted to get it exactly right. While the users were requesting folders, I always knew that creating file hierarchies as known from desktop computers would spell doom to the simplicity and ease of use of ACTPrinter. I believe collapsible sections are a good solution for mobile devices. All documents are a maximum of two taps away. The sections use up very little of the precious screen real estate.
I am surprised and delighted by the new uses our users keep discovering for ACTPrinter. Some actually get to push the limits of both the application and their devices. They try to print entire books. The thing is that iOS applications are limited in the amount of RAM they may use. Thus printing large documents may fail over the fact that ACTPrinter needs to briefly hold on to the document during printing, i.e. keep it in RAM. Once the printout is transferred, it is saved to "disk." That is only limited by how "big" the iPod/iPad is.
That is probably what is up next for ACTPrinter: find a way to break up printouts for segmented transfer, saving, and loading. Thus making it even more versatile.
JLO: Specifically, in terms of the very short-term future, what about the Apple iPhone/iPad operating system, iOS 4.2, and its feature set, including AirPrint of course?
Bernard: We are already taking advantage of the multi-tasking feature, and thinking ahead, perhaps with AirPrint, our app could work as a place for temporary document storage pending an available printer coming within the range of the smartphone or iPad.
JLO: You mention the success of ACTPrinter. Can you quantify this for us?
Bernard: The ACTPrinter software has been a great success and, including its days of being a free download [before its current pricing of $1.99], has had 92,600 downloads [as of the end of November 2010]. But the way to really measure active users is by upgrades, and since our latest version went up on the Apple App Store just a few days ago, we have had 30,000 upgrades.
JLO: And lastly, what about those names? Where do “ACTPrinter” and “Houdah” come from?
Bernard: “ACT” is an acronym for “All Cocoa Touch,” a reference to the original mobile app programming language. Houdah [pronounced How-da] is the Indian name for an elephant saddle and is in recognition of the Apple Safari Web browser and our initial Web-browsing-based product’s tie-in to that, i.e. a “comfortable” way to be on Safari.
The ACTPrinter customer approach is somewhat mindful of GreenPrint and its “eliminating the last useless page” of Web print-outs, which caught the attention of Walt Mossberg several years ago, and then caught mine (see "Making it to the Top of the PR Mountain"). And of course the conversion of “what would be printed” to something more ethereal shares a lot in common with the huge trend in eBooks and other viewing technology, which have been covered numerous times during the five years of this column.
Yes, it has been five years! This is my 60th monthly column for the Observer, and it has been a pleasure. I look forward to doing many more, my Lyra bosses willing that is, and after all, I still need to write about Instapaper and Paper.li!