Tip

Creating a 'paper trail' with mobile solutions

Like most mobile workers, we here at Shoreline Research usually travel with a boatload of relatively small technology. We have notebook computers that range from a very light and limited WinCE-based device (good for quick note-taking and terrific on battery life) to desktop-class IBM ThinkPads. We also have a variety of handheld computers (including the usual assortment of Palm- and Pocket PC-based units), as well as a Blackberry or two that are indispensable for quick access to email and messages. Finally, there is our cell phone, which this week is a Nokia color phone that has the ability to tap into the Internet and open a very small window into our Outlook e-mail program.

However, no matter how much computing power we pack in our briefcase and suitcases (after all, we have to carry all the necessary power cables and charges for these so-called "mobile" devices), there is still a productivity roadblock when it comes to on-the-road work abilities: Inevitably, there is a need to print out an itinerary, a quick note, or an agenda while traveling, and the last thing we want to pack is a bulky printer.

Years ago, we carried a small battery-operated Diconix 150 ink-jet printer (a company that was subsequently acquired By Eastman Kodak), which allowed us to print out short manuscripts and notes. This unit weighed about five pounds, and functioned flawlessly when we had to create hardcopy at 2am for a conference early that same morning. Prior to

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this, we would print out our necessary documents by faxing them to the hotel business center where we were staying, and then pick them up as we ran out the door to meetings that morning.

When lugging along this small printer became a problem (especially on international trips), we started searching for hotels that provided printers directly in your room, or offered access to a printer on business-class floors. However, this was not always a reliable alternative, and it became too expensive as we tried to cut costs and stay at more reasonable temporary digs. We then discovered and used such outsourced printing services as Printer-On, which offers access to print kiosks and stations at airports and hotels for a fee. But, these services are not available at every hotel, and were not always the best route when working in the wee hours of the morning.

Prints charming
Fortunately, a number of vendors have discovered that business travelers do have an increasing need to create quick hard copy from their PDAs and notebook PCs, and have developed technology that lets you pack along a printing capability without undue fuss or excess weight. These solutions aren't good for printing out long reports or letters, but are perfect for quick notes and reminders that can be stuffed into your pocket or passed along with a business card.

One of the cleverest solutions we have seen in a long time comes from Brother International Corp., called the MPrint MW-100. This unit weighs about 11 ounces and is about the size of a very slim paperback book (6.3 inches x 3.9 inches). It has a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery (so you can leave the very compact charging unit at home or in the office, if you like). It prints out on small slips of special thermal paper (3.9 inches x 2.7 inches in size), at a rate of about 15 seconds per page, so it is definitely not acceptable for reproducing your college thesis. The printing resolution is also very basic (300 x 300 dpi), so it is not even good for reproducing digital photos of yourself at your next meeting.

The MW-100 is, however, a perfect solution for printing out an address, directions to your next meeting, or even some brief thoughts that can be attached to your laser-printed proposal. Connections to your computing device are made via infrared (IrDA), or via USB cable (the small printer has a single port). Software included with the unit includes the necessary drivers, a screen image capture program and SpotSnap image editing software. The unit is priced just under $300, and can be enhanced with a number of options, including a small folding wire stand, a paper guide, and a nifty little carrying case. But, we survived just fine by tucking the MW-100 into our passport case during a recent trip to Mexico, and using it to print out quick notes and reminders as we hopped from one airport waiting are to the next during our sojourn.

More information, as well as a software development kit (SDK) for solution providers is available at www.brother.com/usa/mprint/developers.

One other small solution and very unique solution to the mobile printing problem (which we have not yet had a chance to test) comes from a Swedish company with the ethereal name of PrintDreams. This Swedish firm has demonstrated a prototype of a compact printer, called PrintBrush, which is about the size and weight of a mobile phone and utilizes random movement printing technology (RMPT) to transfer images to a variety of media as the unit is literally swept across a page. As the user passes the unit across a page, the content (text, images, and other information) is transferred behind the sweeps. The system is reportedly programmed to account for all types of hand movements and gyrations, and actually paints a complete picture of the target image seemingly by magic. The result, company execs promise us, is a copy that is very much like the original computer-stored original.

CEBIT Sneak-Peek
The first PrintBrush prototype was first shown and demonstrated at the massive CEBIT compute trade show held earlier this year in Hannover, Germany. Connection to host computers is achieved via USB, or by wireless Bluetooth, which allows a link within a 10-meter communications bubble. The company's RMPT technology is also in the process of being enhanced with the addition of optical sensors, which are said to improve the performance and the print quality. No word yet on when the small device will be commercially available, or marketed within the U.S., although the company is actively looking for solutions partners. Company execs are promoting this as the first in a series of RMPT technology-based devices, though, and they are targeting 2005 as the year when a lot of these systems will hit the market.

Obviously, we can't wait until then to fulfill our mobile printing needs, so we will survive quite nicely with the Canon MPrint and the other small printing solutions that will inevitably follow to create the necessary paper trails for mobile road warriors. If all else fails, we still have the old and reliable self-faxing technique to create hardcopy. If that fails, we can always slip into one of those airport business centers, or talk a sleepy hotel desk clerk into letting us plug into his reservations printer for a quick output fix as we take one more step on the paper trail.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.


This was first published in July 2003

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