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Apple AirPrint and iOS printing alternatives: An IT overview

Getting a document from a mobile device to paper is a hassle, but there are many options to help with iOS printing, including Apple AirPrint.

Even in the increasingly digital world, there are still cases where there is no substitute for a paper copy of...

a document -- but printing from the iPhone or iPad is not for the faint of heart.

Printing from iOS devices can be a daunting task fraught with limited functionality and compatibility problems. As Apple AirPrint matures and printer manufacturers deploy more AirPrint-capable printers, iOS printing should become less of an issue. In the meantime, there are ways to help iOS users print their documents.

AirPrint, Apple's printing technology, allows iOS applications and devices to print without print drivers or much configuration. Users don't have to know specific network information to connect to a printer. AirPrint operates on a subset of full printer-driver functionality, and as such users can only control the number of copies to be printed, duplexing and page orientation.

AirPrint itself has been around since the release of iOS 4.2, but there aren't many printers that support it. Many of the printers with native AirPrint support are aimed at consumers and are not business-class printers. This makes it much trickier for the IT department to provide iOS printing options. For AirPrint to work, the printer must be attached to the same network as the iOS device that's sending the print request. If IT has things set up so mobile device users connect to a guest wireless LAN and the printer itself is on a different network, users won't be able to print. AirPrint is also incapable of printing to a USB printer.

Apple AirPrint alternatives

Many printer and copier manufacturers, such as Brother, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Epson, Canon, Lexmark, Konica Minolta and Ricoh have authored their own applications to allow iOS devices to print to their respective printers. But these vendor-specific mobile printing options have some drawbacks. Because they're not part of iOS, they have no hooks into other iOS applications.

For example, printing from the iOS Mail app to an HP printer involves first registering the printer in question with HP's ePrintCenter website, which gives each printer a unique email address that ePrint uses to receive the print request from the iOS device. This makes printing much more than a one-step process.

Another alternative is Google CloudPrint, and there are a few different ways iOS device users can take advantage of it. CloudPrint-enabled printers allow direct connections from iOS devices, but printing only works from Google applications, such as Gmail.

Using CloudPrint on other printers requires Google Chrome running on a PC or Mac, and the printer must be configured to use CloudPrint through Chrome. In the Google app on the iOS device, the user selects which printer to use, and the job goes from the device to Google's cloud. CloudPrint then routes the job to the selected printer via Chrome on the PC or Mac.

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HP ePrint printers also support CloudPrint printers as destinations.

FedEx Office locations support printing through CloudPrint, and FedEx also has a print application for iOS. The FedEx Office app can print documents from cloud storage providers Google Drive, Box and Dropbox.

Collobos' FingerPrint bypasses the cloud to provide printer service through Apple AirPrint with the help of a PC- or Mac-based agent. The agent, which uses Apple's Bonjour zero configuration networking service, permits the iOS user to print to any printer that a PC or Mac is mapped to. FingerPrint includes a handy feature to send iOS print output directly to a PDF file on the host machine instead of printing it out on paper.

Print server veteran Lantronix provides hardware for the home or office that removes the need for a PC, Mac or cloud service to be available to act as a gateway for AirPrint. This option may appeal to IT departments that need to provide AirPrint capability for an entire office without deploying software or requiring a cloud printing service.

Dig Deeper on Apple iOS in the enterprise