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Mobile printing options still aren't up to snuff

Mobile printing hasn't made progress in the enterprise the way other mobile apps have, and some question whether it ever will.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mobile users want to print, but mobile printing technology just isn't up to snuff yet.

Paper is still a mainstay of many corporate environments, and with more smartphones and tablets in the enterprise, employees don't want to be tethered to printing only from their PC. But according to recent IDC research, 35% of smartphone users and 34% of tablet users want to print but can't -- and nearly half are not satisfied with the printing options available.

Plenty of organizations rely heavily on printing for employees to get their work done, especially when interacting with clients. Sales and financial workers, for instance, often need clients to sign hard-copy contracts. And in industries with tight security, many documents simply can't be sent or signed by email.

"So many workflows are still old school, and they're that way for a reason," said Henning Volkmer, president and CEO of printing provider ThinPrint. "If printing is readily available, it's so much easier to be able to do it from your [mobile] device."

Smartphone and tablet users prefer reading documents on PCs instead of printing them, but when consuming a document on their mobile device, they would rather print it out (likely because of the small screen size), according to IDC. And that desire to print will only increase as these devices become more prevalent in the workplace. Users expect their share of printing from smartphones and tablets to increase from around 20% today to close to 30% in three years, the survey showed.

The problem is that much of the mobile printing technology available lacks the maturity, usability and ease of integration needed to get IT departments on board.

"[Vendors need to] make it very easy and very secure to be able to print not only in the workers' office but at other locations they work -- branch offices, customer sites, home," said Angèle Boyd, the group vice president and general manager for IDC Document Solutions.

It's especially difficult to develop printing capabilities for mobile devices because PCs come with a mechanism to connect the device to the printer, but that doesn't really exist on mobile devices or OSes, ThinPrint's Volkmer said.

Plus, many printing technologies lock IT into a vendor or mobile OS. Apple AirPrint, for instance, requires an AirPrint-capable printer to connect to, and it only supports printing from Apple iOS devices. Android printing has been a major pain for many organizations, because the OS relies on so many different handset vendors, tweaked apps and OS versions, and devices before Android's OS Kit Kat don't support mobile printing at all, said Steve Kim, mobile print solutions manager at HP.

Still, not all end users require mobile printing.

"It depends on the application and the industry," said Kevin Parenteau, a systems engineer at Austin Pain Associates in Austin, Texas. "In healthcare there is just no need for it when people can send something in a PDF."

Other technologies are outpacing mobile printing, and printing vendors must keep up if they want to maintain printing's relevance, he said.

"With digital signage, people sign contracts from iPads all the time," Parenteau said. "I can see [printing] dying off really quickly unless [vendors] come out with something really revolutionary."

Mobile print options need standards

The printing industry needs more standardization, Kim said.

"Largely today every single printer vendor has their own unique print services plug-in that the user must download," he said.

HP's ePrint Enterprise offering, for instance, only allows mobile printing to HP printers and others that support the company's PCL5 and PCL6 printer language protocols. To develop standard mobile printing services, a group of technology providers including HP, Samsung, Canon, Xerox and more, formed the Mopria Alliance; the group introduced the Mopria Print Service plug-in, which allows IT to offer mobile printing from Android devices to any certified printer hardware.

"Printer manufacturers and others are working together to try to simplify that fundamental enablement piece that's critical before anyone can start printing," Kim said. "We're trying to make it easier for the user with an industry effort."

There are numerous other offerings vying for attention in the mobile and virtual printing market – many of them on display here at VMworld.  

ThinPrint, for example, allows IT to provide mobile printing through an app where users simply select a printer from their office. On the back end, IT installs the connector software onto a print or other server in the data center to allow for publishing to any printers it selects. The agnostic tool works for any mobile OS, device and type of printer.

The company also recently acquired ezeep to enable printing from "co-working" places such as meeting rooms. Enabling secure printing for visitors such as contractors or customers is a key step in making mobile printing offerings more viable, IDC's Boyd said. With the acquisition, ThinPrint can allow visiting mobile users to print from IT's network without providing full network access or an Active Directory login.

A global law firm based in Boston provides mobile printing for visitors on conference room floors using a cloud printing capability built into the printers. But since these types of print features let users send the document to the printer as an email attachment, it's not that secure.

"It's probably as secure as sending any email," said the firm's managing director of IT. "Once you send the email, it's going to print and could be picked up by someone passing by."

To ease IT's security fears, some offerings such as HP's ePrint Enterprise can integrate with mobile device management (MDM) software, which offers IT more control over who accesses which printers and who can print what. It integrates with Good Technology and MobileIron MDM, and support for more MDM offerings is on the way, according to HP. 

HP also offers a variety of hardware devices that print from mobile devices without requiring access to the corporate network, including the JetDirect 2800w NFC/Wireless Direct Accessory and NFC/Wireless 1200w Mobile Print Accessory, which offer a touch-to-print capability for wireless mobile printing.

Alyssa Wood is managing editor for TechTarget’s End-User Computing Media Group. Email her at [email protected].

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