Wednesday, 30 June 2010 17:57

HP's new Linux enabled emailable printer - questions and answers


Is wirelessly printing from your smartphone, iPhone, iPad tablet or other connected device, via email, something consumers and businesses will really want to do?

While Sydney has been cooling its heels with some of the coldest June weather on record, the temperature has been sizzling hot here in Hong Kong, both on the thermometer and in discussions over the true usefulness of a printer you can email to.

HP invited me to its regional launch in Hong Kong of its new range of emailable printers, ones which naturally work as normal over corded USB, wireless Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, and now over a cloud-service enabled email printing service that lets you send an email (with or without attachments) to your ePrint capable HP printer, which then gets printed out in anywhere from a few seconds to less than a minute.

Although a printer that you can email to seems very useful at first glance, some journalists wondered whether you'd really want to print from your phone or tablet when you already have the information on your portable digital screen already in front of you, or in your pocket.

However, despite years-old predictions of the 'paperless office' and the widespread availability of desktop and laptop computers, plenty of people still both choose and need to print information out, and having an emailable printer removes the need to email something from your iPhone, iPad or other device to your home or office printer to then print from that particular computer.

An emailable printer removes that 'in-between' step and essentially directly connects you to your own printer, making printing from portable devices very simple - no need for drivers, cables, wireless protocol setups, no need to be within wireless range of your printer, no need for particular operating systems - you just email an attachment to your printer and within a few seconds it starts printing.

It also solves the problem of not being able to 'directly' print from iPhones, iPads and smartphones, allowing you to print to your printer even if you're on the other side of the planet - be it from that phone or your computer, as all you need is a net connection and am email account.

It's also interesting to note that buyers of all new HP printers valued at US $99 and above will simply get this functionality as standard, whether they ever decide to use it or not, so as you buy a HP new printer to add to or probably replace the one you already have, the capability will be baked in, ready for you to use whenever you want.

Of course if you do want to print to your printer's email address, you'll need to set this up (something that is very quick and easy to do) and ensure your printer is on and connected to the Internet (whether by Ethernet or by Wi-Fi), and even if your printer is in sleep mode (to save energy) it will still wake up when needed and pop out your prints as required.

Well, as long as there's paper loaded and enough ink, but then that's an issue you'll have with any printer, emailable or not.

So, what about questions involving 'spamvertisements' being printed by spammers targeting your printer's email address, just as spam faxes can plague some fax machines?

How are the email addresses decided upon, what whitelist or blacklists are used to ensure only you can print to your printer?

What kind of 'downloadable' apps for free (and in the future, paid) content can your Linux-enabled, app running, emailable printer download and install?

Will certain types of apps, such as those that might deliver 'adult content', be banned by HP as is the case with Apple?

These questions and more are answered by some of HP's senior execs on the following pages, please read on!

Following the launch of HP's new emailable printers was a series of sessions going into more detail on the apps available for HP's printers, how email addresses are allocated, how you can protect yourself from receiving unwanted and automatically printed spamvertising and more, so here we go:

To kick off the Q&A proceedings, I asked the first question of Stephen Nigro, HP's Senior VP of the Inkjet and web solutions division.

I asked how users can stop 'spamvertising' being automatically printed to an HP printer that has an email address, with email being so well known for collecting spam?

Nigro answered that there were three levels of defence against spam being printed out on your printer, with the first being the email address your HP printer is allocated being a relatively long set of random characters and numbers, something that will be very difficult for anyone to simply guess, or re-generate.

The second line of defence is set up in HP's ePrintcentre, where you can create whitelists and blacklists of email addresses you're happy to receive printable emails from, and addresses you want to specifically deny.

The third line of defence is spam filtering technology to automatically weed out emails that are suspicious, on top of any whitelists or blacklists you apply.

The fourth line of defence lets you create a new random email address for your printer at any time, so if in the very unlikely event that spam does actually make it through all the other defences, or if there are people such as family members that you've authorised to be able to print to your printer and now want to permanently reverse that, you simply set up a new email address and off you go.

In response to a follow-up question from another journalist, the ability to assign a new email address is also useful in the instance where you give or sell your printer to someone else. Additionally, you can't choose your own email address - it is chosen for you by HP's ePrintcentre service.

Another journalist asked if the cost of paper and ink would be prohibitive, especially if users are printing content from news or other apps - a solution which allows users to get printed content without actually needing a PC or other device beyond the printer to be used at all, with the price issue compared to the very inexpensive price of newspapers.

HP's John Solomon answered that 'consumers are very savvy about it and really are looking for value. What we see is - if you talk about newspapers - people stop subscribing if there is no value there.

'The content through the web connected printer - people are only printing the content they want - they are feeling good about the value. Someone not printing hundreds of pages today is not going to do that tomorrow.'

Continued on page three, please read on!

I then asked whether paid subscription content through apps for the printers would come, seeing as the first set of apps were all free, and if reports I'd read of HP wanting to sell ads around free content were true or not.

HP's Nigro said HP's $99 and above printers would effectively create an ecosystem of tens of millions of printers, something that would quickly generate a large base of web connected printers.

Nigro continues: 'Once that happens it creates an environment that becomes an attractive ecosystem to develop on. What gets developed - what could happen - is that some premium type services (that are paid for) are offered.

'A lot of experimentation will go on - like any of these new iPhone ecosystems, android etc - this is going to be an ecosystem like that. Will that happen - you can imaging all sorts of premium services being developed.

'With regard to the specific ads - we're doing a pilot in the US with Yahoo - doing that to look at - with the combined scheduled delivery of content [for those that want a news update printed at a specific time each day, for example] - to look at inserting ads into that content. It's about developing and looking at new business models - very early on - you can imagine a lot of what can happen when tens of millions of web connected printers are in the market'.

I then asked a follow-up question, noting that in one of the promotional videos, a print-out of a Yahoo news page was shown with a large-ish purple banner at the top of the page, something that could potentially waste a lot of ink for nothing. I also asked if there was a way to print the actual content in full fidelity while printing any HP delivered ads on a page in 'draft' mode.

I also asked if the printers were running webOS acquired by HP, or some other OS.

HP's Solomon said that, regarding apps, there was a 'set of global apps which are available worldwide and available in Singapore [where Solomon is based]. Also country specific apps - how fast partners develop apps for a given market such as SG - there'll be a set of apps immediately available. They'll all be in 'one store'.

Nigro said that: 'As you develop some of the content - often the content is country specific, so you'll see different solutions in different countries.

'To the second question about the model with premium content - what we have announced is an intention to have a 70/30 model - [mirroring] what is developing in the app world [as with Apple] - a 70/30 model - when there is a premium service available we are looking at this as the model. Our SDKs out there, the opportunity is very much in that 70/30 business model.

Another journalist asked whether you'd be able to browse through new apps for download on the printer itself, on the computer to download apps and whether there are any apps that were not going to be allowed, presumably referring to 'adult content' of the type that Apple isn't allowing in its app store.

Nigro responded that there are 'two environments [for app delivery] - you can get it from the printer itself and access the apps in the cloud. The second is the eprintcentre - you can manage apps there as well. Eprintcenter is up and running right now. You can request the SDK. You can see the print apps being rated, comments being associated with those print apps [as is the case with other apps stores out there].

Nigro continued, saying: 'In terms of the gating of that [as in being the gatekeeper] - we will have to go through a certification process - who will be allowed to put up a print app.

When it came to questions about HP's intentions in allowing adult app content to be delivered, HP's executives weren't able to confirm or deny that one way or the other, with one of the executives noting that nothing would prevent users from printing adult content they might want to print from the web, but effectively not stating outright whether certain types of apps would be banned, or not.

Continued on page four, please read on!

Going back to my specific question about Yahoo's page on the video and the 'wasted' purple banner and whether HP would have 'guidelines' on how to best present printed pages and minimise the 'wastage' of ink, Nigro said:

'The intention is to have a global platform of relevant content. Since yahoo does a good job of generating content - that is a print app that we think is going to a global but yet a relevant app. In terms of the solution and how do you control what ink goes of the page? We're very sensitive to the customer experience - we're going to be piqued on making sure that's an experience the customer feels good about.

HP's Solomon said that: 'If you sent your printer to print in draft mode - it's going to stay in that mode'. 

I pressed forward, asking 'Will there be guidelines to avoid big purple banners in subscription app content from Yahoo or others?'. The response from Nigro was that: 'We'll have guidelines - if you think that big purple banners are a bad thing, that's a bad thing and we'll deal with that.'

A journalist then noted that 'Millions of printers means millions of addresses' and then asked 'will the email addresses be so complicated people won't remember them easily?'.

Nigro responded that, while the address was a random set of characters and numbers, users would usually simply add that address to the contact list on their smartphone or tablet device and simply print to that saved contact, negating the need to specifically remember a long email address, while being easily able to discern what that address was from the contact list if you ever needed to know what it was when out and about.

A journalist then returned to the 'printer porn' question and asked if HP would allow adult content apps, but was met with 'I don't have an answer right now' by one of the executives, seemingly somewhat baffled by why Australian journalists were so intent on getting an answer to the 'printer porn' question.

The simple answer (from my perspective) as to why there was interest isn't because Australian journalists are champing at the bit to print porn from apps HP has allowed through its gateway, but more because it's a form of 'censorship' that Apple practices on the iPhone and iPad, so journalists want to know whether HP would do the same.

It's also likely because Australians have been threatened with a nationwide 'Great Firewall of Australia' by the current left-leaning Labor government, with overtones of the even stricter Great Firewall of China, and many Australians are sick and tired of having governments (or anyone else) trying to dictate what can and can't be done with technology they own.

It's also because journalists seem to like making big company executives squirm uneasily over 'unpleasant' questions, but at this point the questioning and squirming over printer porn seemed to have reached its climax. 

Continued on page five, please read on!

I then decided to ask a question over whether I could print from a different address to one that was in my whitelist but still have it go through by using, say, a unique code word in the subject line that I had independently created when setting up the printer in the ePrintcenter, so I could still print via email to the printer even if I wasn't using my own specific device.

Nigro answered: 'How do you discover if you walk up to a printer and you want to print to it? You'll see you can go up to the printer - you can easily print out or discover that email address for that printer. Your suggestion is a possibility for printing [from an email address not on the whitelist] but today we don't have anything like that.'

Solomon added that: 'In the US, customers such as Fedex or Hilton hotels [who want to offer printer services to consumers and business] would use a different model, which would be to have ePrint enabled printers that have the address clearly written on them.'

Another question from a journalist concerned what happens when a job is sent to the printer but it's not on for whatever reason.

Nigro answered: 'The way the service works you can queue up that job to print when the printer turns back on. When you print the image, it goes from the HP service.

You can see the print jobs, the status of print jobs, you can kill a print job etc - you can control that from the ePrintcentre.'

However we also learned later on that despite the printer being able to work without a computer, printing directly from your phone or tablet, or from printer-accessed apps, you can't actually control the print queue and delete things from that queue directly from the printer itself - you'll need to do it from the ePrintcenter online service, although clearly most consumers will have a computing device of some kind that will let them access the ePrintcentre service and perform those tasks if they need to.

Another question from a journalist was: 'If you forward an email with an attachment to an address, does it print the email and the attachment, can you choose one or the other?'

Nigro said: 'It does both, we wanted to focus on simplicity - target it to be as simple as possible - you attach it, you send it and it prints. You don't have to worry about portrait, landscape draft etc.

'However, with time, if we discover there's a customer need to have more control, we'll do it.'

Another question was 'What determines the print dimensions of, say, a photo?'

The answer was that 'It auto formats -a 4x6 photo to your printer will print on that paper, maintaining the integrity and size of the image.'

That said, when I attached a photo from my iPhone, taken on the iPhone, to one of the HP printers, the photo that printed under the email details was smaller than the expected 4x6 size, so I'll have to do further testing on that myself when a review model lands in my hands.

Another question revolved around the encryption level and email based security features'¦ 'is it potentially still be possible for people to intercept the data en route? Is it encrypted?'

Nigro responded, saying: 'It is encrypted, we are using encryption to protect the content'.

A journalist then asked what's happening with the Palm acquisition, and noted it was slightly off topic. The answer was that: 'We can't comment on that other than what you've seen publicly, we'll be closing on that as per schedule.'

The exec noted that WebOS could be used in tablets and future printers. I then noted to the execs that this meant that WebOS clearly wasn't powering the current crop of emailable HP printers, so which OS was doing the job?

Nigro answered, 'Currently, it's a Linux based OS'. Pressed for further details, Nigro was unable to offer any. 

Continued on page six, please read on!

A question then came from the floor about whether there were 'Any plans for competitions to get people developing apps for the printers? [as has happened on smartphone app platforms]

Solomon stated: 'What's unique about the app store is that it's based on print relevance - we won't have the beer app that burps as it doesn't have the print relevance.

'We definitely want to go local - the best apps will come from the democratisation of the process - lower price points to get the installed base. The best apps will come from developers in different countries.'

Nigro added that 'The key to building a successful app ecosystem is scale - there's two today that have scale - certainly Apple has scale and Android has scale. That scale comes from being able to place enough devices built on that ecosystem so that it becomes an attractive environment to develop on.

'We are at US $99 and above - the printer market is big - you can see how we can get to 10s of millions of web connected devices - then it becomes an attractive ecosystem. We're somewhat uniquely positioned because of the scale we're going to be able to drive. It's a little bit chicken and egg - we will get the scale that will become attractive.

'We don't just want to be another app store like Android or Apple - we're going to become print relevant - content that is relevant around print - the kids, the coupons, unique news - with our business products - there'll be a lot of document management services - upload your invoice, retrieve your forms on demand, sales lit on demand - a lot of doc management processes in enterprise.

'It's going to be a large ecosystem for lack of a better term and that's hard to do and that's one of the strengths going for us.'

A journalist then asked: 'Is there any differentiation in terms of web apps that will run on a $99 printer or a $3000 printer?'

Nigro said that: 'There will be a differentiation in the experience you can get but basically it will be pretty similar up and down, slightly different experience at the high price point, gesture based instead of the alternative [button based].

A follow-up question was asked: 'So the apps will be functionally universal across the range?'. The single word answer from Nigro was 'Yes.' 

Questions continued thick and fast, with another being: ''The email addresses will be invaluable for advertising and selling addresses. What plans do you have for that? At the US $99 [starting price point], are you automatically opting in for ads, or can you opt-out?'

Nigro said: 'We would not sell those email addresses. In the advertising program (in pilot in stage the US) - you will opt-in, we won't do an opt-out address. You would have to opt-in. To ultimately adopt a service where that is part of the service you opt-in to that service.

'At any time if you opt-in, you can always opt-out. Privacy is top of mind for us, your info is confidential, we won't monetise those email addresses, you will have control with those experiences.

'Content will only come to your printer if you have taken action to get that content delivered to your printer.

Continued on page seven, please read on!

The next question was: 'If it runs out of ink half-way through, does the system know?'

Solomon stated that 'You'll see this in the demo - the confirmation note that the print completed is only generated when the print successfully completes. If the power goes out or ink runs out, that confirmation will not be sent.'

That said, when I printed to a printer that had a jam in the queue later in the demo, but didn't actually print one of my emails, I still seemed to get a confirmation message. However in HP's defence it's fair to say that the system still hasn't actually officially launched and no doubt there are kinks here and there that will be quickly ironed out, especially as millions of users start using the cloud infrastructure to receive emails and send them to specific printers. 

The next question was: 'Will there be support for other file formats if people bring that to you?'

Nigro answered that: 'JPG, PDF, and MS office [are supported today]- we have a roadmap and we can expand the document types. Can people say we use this file format, can you add it? You can make that request to us, if there's enough of a demand, that's an expansion of the service that will happen over time.'

A follow-up question was 'Do you currently support Open Office or only the XML of Microsoft office', with the answer being 'only MS Office today', although anyone that can generate a PDF from any program can have that PDF printed via email. 

Another question was: 'If the Internet goes down, does the printer still function as an ordinary printer connected to your PC?'

Nigro responded: 'These are great printers, like we saw from the Touchsmart web printer [the predecessor to the current printer lineup], 70% of people launched print apps, the other 30% used them because it was a great printer. These are the best PC connected printers in the marketplace - it functions perfectly as that.'

'Does the printer wake-on-LAN?'

Nigro: 'Our printers are very energy efficient - we talk about 50% lower cost of printing while saving 50% relative to lasers. We have shutdown mode - when Lewis [in the earlier demo] went to print, the printer was off and in sleep mode. When he touched the display it turned on, but it will also wake-up.'

In answer to questions about the cost of cartridges and the amount of printing done by an average customer, Nigro said that in the US, a standard cartridge would cost $7-$10 US dollars, and an XL cart would cost around US $14. 'You get about 300-500 pages. An average customer may print 50 to 100 pages per month.'

Solomon said: 'The data from our pilot - it's not going to make a material difference to the number of cartridges they're going to be buying. We want to unleash documents and printing.'

A question then arose over whether HP's email could-service repository would allow scanning to the cloud, and scanning to HP's repository. The response was that HP's cloud repository was for email only, but if you wanted to scan to the cloud, you would be using someone else's document repository.

Nigro explained: 'When we talk about scanning services many use cases will be repository services - Google Docs is one announcement - to scan the document to the cloud and storing it to the Google Cloud - and then from any e-connected printer you can go to the front panel - you can on the display, type in your account, type in your password and see all the docs you have in the cloud, touch it on the screen and print it.

'From a print app business perspective, the scan to the cloud is going to be a key part of the solution. Not only will you be storing documents but you'll be taking those documents and based on the content, taking action - driving or taking some sort of document driving it based on the content that you consumed up as well.

'This is part of the capability and ecosystem that develops - we think of ideas, you guys probably have ideas that can be done with this - someone out there will see a raw capability of taking content, taking it to our service and printing it. We can pass that content out and putting a service around that. People are going to create new apps, use cases and solutions that we haven't even imagined'.

Continued on page eight, please read on!

I then asked if the US $99 and up printers were still using the semi-full (or semi-empty) 'started cartridges'. The answer was that 'Some of the lowest cost printers may still come with starter cartridges - but all $99 and up printers will come with a 'standard' full cartridge (not an XL cart).'

In terms of a business case for emailable printers that can scan to a online repository, Nigro said: 'Also you can more efficiently close a business transaction - you can print an invoice, get it signed, scan that and upload it back to the business.'

Next question: 'What happens if you get a photo and it prints on plain paper rather than say 4x6 printer or photo paper?'

Nigro: 'With our ePrintcentre - we'll be getting real-time feedback from our customers and we'll add features with time.  Today we want to make it really simple [to print], so people can do it in one step. It won't wait for you to load 4x6, [it will just print, when sent by email printing, on the paper that is in the paper tray].'

Next question: 'Developing apps and understanding customer needs - has that come via feedback - types of files that can be printed - is that info you're aggregating and using to develop stuff?'

Solomon: 'Through different research we have a pretty good idea of what people print by country. Neck and neck is word processing documents and the web - we've been tracking this every year. We have a good back knowledge of what people are printing.

'As Steve [Nigro] and others have mentioned, ultimately developers will come up with ideas that others have thought of. If you look at the bubble chart, it surprised us what came up as high prints - the angle of kids, for example, [which are very popular types of photos and documents to print out.]

The final question that I took notes on was another from me, and I asked: 'Those who get those long emails with reams of forwards and addresses and things preceeding whatever funny attachment it is in the email- will there be some education campaign to remind users to wipe all of that out or will you make users learn to delete all extraneous info before they send an email?'

Nigro answered that there would be no specific campaign on that and users would have to learn to delete any extra info in an email that they did not want to be printed out when forwarding emails for printing to the HP printer.

To conclude, it's clear that there are still some small 'rough edges' to be sorted out, especially given that consumers can't buy the printers yet but will be able to do so within the next couple of weeks.

HP's has built an emailable printing solution, and it hopes that consumers will come - and print more documents from more devices than ever.

Sure, some people will never have any need for such a service, but others will find it invaluable. Given that HP is making the feature standard on $99 and above printers, it will simply be a standard feature, making me wonder how long it is before all of HP's competitors offer a similar service, too.

In the meantime, the concept of the paperless office seems as far away as ever, although really, that's up to the individual user.

Documents can be seen on screens, on smartphones and on iPads, but there's still something about the tangibility of paper that people are attracted to, so on balance, I'd suggest HP is printing itself the next chapter of its success in the world of printing, with competitors likely already planning on their own competing capabilities, although only time will tell whether this feature will get jammed in the paper-tray of history, or whether the next step in the revolution started by Gutenberg has finally arrived.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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