ANALYSIS

HP ePrint: Web-Enabling Printing or Print-Enabling the Cloud?

Here’s what HP says its new Web-enabled ePrint all-in-one printers will allow people to do:

  • print from any email-enabled device;
  • print documents or files stored in the “Google Cloud” and similar environments without a local proxy PC or Web appliance;
  • transform printers into “publishing platforms” enhanced with customized apps; and
  • schedule timed printing of specific content, such as daily news feeds and after-school activities materials.

The new devices will support Microsoft Office documents, Adobe PDFs and JPEG image files, among others, and ePrint apps will be available from vendors such as Yahoo, msnbc.com, Facebook, Live Nation, Crayola, Reuters, DocStoc and Picasa Web Albums.

In addition, HP and partners, including Google, Box.net, Reuters, Portfolio.com, Daily Brief, DocStoc and Biztree, will begin offering printing apps and services tailored for business customers. Finally, HP said ePrint devices will support digital print advertising mixed with free content.

Sounds interesting, but does ePrint really qualify as the “new category” of printers that HP claims? Yes and no.

More Mobility

On the plus side, ePrint’s enabling technology — each ePrint machine has a simple, unique email address — is an elegant solution to a problem that has been increasingly painful for some mobile users, especially owners of popular devices with few or no printing options, such as Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. HP ePrint should make printing easy and seamless for those folks and potentially lower adoption barriers for mobile products.

Some might say that ePrint is primarily a commercial ploy meant to 1) continue the seemingly endless demand for HP toner and ink, 2) ensure the health of HP’s printing and Imaging group — its most profitable division, and 3) modernize one of HP’s key business and product strategies. Maximizing revenues is close to every vendor’s heart and has been emblematic of HP CEO Mark Hurd’s management efforts. However, ePrint demonstrates how a vendor can have its profits and modernization, too.

Mobility is causing tectonic shifts across the high-tech landscape, allowing users to capture, consume and create information anywhere, anytime, and in any circumstance. That said, despite the aerobatic future HP and others envision for data, ePrint highlights the simple fact that many documents and images still (and probably always will) require physical manifestation. Thus, ePrint arrives at a pivotal moment, as processes, documents and services once confined to traditional desktop PCs become increasingly untethered, potentially achieving lift-off to the cloud.

The simplicity of ePrint will likely help make the new machines a success, but lacking such a solution could have put HP at serious risk. Traditional printing is an encumbrance for increasingly mobile customers. In contrast, ePrint should enable laptop, netbook, smartphone and tablet users to further slip the physical constraints of home and office, and take their business and play further on up the road. Most importantly, though, “print-enabling” mobile computing could broaden users’ views of the processes for which cloud computing is capable and appropriate.

Platform-Agnostic Printing

ePrint’s Web-enabling features also spell the effective end to system-restrained printing. So long as a device has Web access, HP’s ePrint all-in-ones couldn’t care less if documents come from Windows-, Mac- or Linux-based computers, whether they’re running compatible drivers or even whether they’re new or old. Yet that also casts light on members of HP’s ePrint partner roster, particularly Google.

The Google “seal of approval” could prove beneficial for HP sales, and ePrint’s capabilities may pique the interest of those considering Google Docs for business use. Still, the notable absences of Microsoft and Apple from HP’s buddy list makes one wonder whether they consider ePrint’s platform agnosticism contradictory to their own cloud and product plans. Also uncertain is just how well some of HP’s proposed ePrint partnerships will work out, especially those looking to trade free content for printed advertisements.

Overall, HP’s ePrint qualifies as an elegant and innovative solution to a growing if not especially severe problem. The new printers should make life easier for consumers and could also have a potentially huge impact on mobile jobs and business processes. That should place HP in good stead with its own customers, tempt users of other printer brands and put competitors in a sweat to develop Web/cloud-enabled solutions of their own.


E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

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