Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rethinking Printing

A recent piece about HP’s plan to assert the key role of its printer division in modern computing, and move it beyond the “cash cow” status it presently seems to have by redefining printers’ use cases, left me underwhelmed. As a printer/copier/scanner/fax machine user, I could not see major benefits to me (or for that matter, to the typical SMB) from the proposed “paper is still relevant, cut printing costs, use the printer as a mailbox” strategy.

Still, it made me think. If I Ruled the World, how would I like to redesign things? How could printing technology play a key role in the Web 3.0 of the future? What follows is, I realize, an exercise in fantasy – it will probably never happen. Still, I think it might form a useful framework with which to think about what printing will really do in the future – and what it won’t.

Printing a Hamburger

One of my favorite old ads was one for A-1 steak sauce that began by saying, “My friends, what is a hamburger?” The point being, of course, that it was chopped steak, and therefore people should consider A-1 instead of ketchup. I would suggest that the whole printer area would benefit from asking, “My friends, what is a printer?”

My answer would be a “virtual” one: printing/scanning/copying is about creating a computer representation of a physical image – call it a graphic – that can be displayed on a wide variety of form factors. Thus, a scanner can take these physical graphics from the outside world; a “snapshot” can take such a graphic from a video stored inside the computer; software can intercept physical representations being sent to output devices from applications, such as internal representations of photos, internal representations of Web pages, internal representations of reports, check images, signed legal documents. These standardized representations of graphics then can be customized for, and streamed to, a wide variety of form factors: computer screens, cell phone and laptop displays, printers, email messages (attachments), or fax machines (although I tend to think that these are fading away, replaced by email PDFs).

Is this Enterprise Content Management? No. The point of such a “gateway”, that represents many graphic formats in a few ways and then customizes for a wide variety of physical displays, is that it is aimed at physical display – not at managing multiple users’ workflow. Its unit is the pixel, and its strength is the ability to utterly simplify the task of, say, taking a smartphone photo and simultaneously printing, emailing, faxing, and displaying on another worker’s screen.

One of those output devices – and probably the most useful – is the printer/scanner/copier. However, the core of the solution is distributed broker software like the Web’s email servers that pass the common representations from physical store to physical store, and route them to “displays” on demand. Rather, today’s printer is simply the best starting point for creating such a solution, because it does the best at capturing the full richness of a graphic.

We are surprisingly close to being able to do such a thing. Documents or documents plus signatures can be converted into “PDF” graphics; photos into JPGs and the like; emails, instant messages, Twitter, and Facebook into printable form; screen and Web page printing is mature; check image scanning has finally become somewhat functional; and we are not far from a general ability to do a freeze-frame JPG from a video, just by pressing a button. But, somehow, nobody has put it all together in such a “gateway.”

Extreme Fantasy

As a side note, I’d like to ask if the following is at all feasible. Visualize in your mind your smartphone for a second. Suppose you had optional add-ons in back. They would contain 4-5 pieces of phone-sized “image paper” in one slim add-on, and a laser-type “print head” that would place the appropriate color on each pixel on the paper A button or screen icon on the front would allow printing of whatever was displaying on the screen – including, as I suggested, a “snapshot” of a video.
Can it be done? I don’t know. I know that I would love to have such a thing for my mobile devices, even crippled as it probably would be. Remember the old Polaroid OneShot? The joy of that was the immediacy, the ability to share with someone physically present what was not a really high-quality photo, but was still a great topic of conversation.

Why haven’t printer vendors moved more in this direction? Yes, I know that attempts to provide cut-down attachable printers for laptops haven’t sold. But I think that’s because the vendors have failed to distinguish two use cases. One is the highly mobile case, where you’re running around a local office or factory and need to print on whatever form factor: small laptop, tablet, or even cell phone. That’s the case where all you need is the ability to print out 4-5 pages worth of info, bad quality and all. For that, you need a very light printer and preferably one that attaches to the form factor so that you can carry both – like strapping two books together.

The second is the “mobile office” case, where you go somewhere and then sit and work. In that case, you need full power, including a multi-sheet scanner/copier feeder – why don’t printer vendors realize how useful that is? It should be light enough so it can be carried like a briefcase or laptop, but it doesn’t have to be attachable; and it should be wireless and work with a MiFi laptop. Above all, it should be foldable so that it’s compact and its parts don’t fall off when you carry it.

Sad Conclusions

I realize that some of the details of the above fantasy may be unrealistic. he real point of the fantasy is that paper and the printer are not dead, no matter what; because, as HP pointed out people keep using them more. And, I believe, that’s because it is just so useful to have a “static” representation of lots of information to carry around with you. Nothing on the horizon replaces that need, not the cell phone or laptop with its small display, nor the immobile PC or TV, nor even the tablet with its book support but inability to “detach” valued excerpts for file-cabinet storage and real-world sharing.

But not being dead doesn’t mean wild success. I believe that HP’s printer “vision” is still too parochial, because it fails to detach the core value proposition from a particular physical device. It may be safe to extrapolate present markets; but I believe that such a marketing approach falls far short of print technology’s potential.

Still, I don’t believe that printer vendors will do what I fantasize. The risks of failure are too great, and the present revenues too comforting. No, it seems likely to me that five years from now, the printer business will still be seen as a cash cow – because nobody asked what a hamburger is.