Inside the shadowy underground of 'anything, anywhere' cloud-based printing

Cloud printing, it’s time to talk. I just can’t take this rejection anymore. According to the new rules of "anything, anywhere" mobile printing, I should be able to send print jobs to publicly accessible printers all over town—even those hidden in the most unlikely places. In theory, all it takes is a smartphone app to find a printer that's listed as being open for business. 

Yes, even if that printer is located in a private school. Or in the Twitter corporate offices.

EFI
The EFI PrintMe Mobile app shows you nearby cloud printers and lets you send jobs via email.

When I set out last week to try cloud printing all over San Francisco, I thought I had plenty of printers to choose from. I had downloaded HP’s ePrint phone app, which lists nearby ePrint Public Print Locations. And one of HP’s partners, PrinterOn, publishes a Web-based directory of its hosted PrintSpots, amounting to several dozen cloud printers in San Francisco. And then there's EFI’s PrintMe, another cloud-printing technology, which has an app showing local PrintMe-enabled printers. All of these services use email or an app as the trigger for sending print jobs.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That should have tipped me off. Cloud printing isn't a total impossibility, but finding an accessible printer isn’t as easy as these apps suggest.

I found God—but no printer

My first stop was a Catholic high school crammed into a section of San Francisco that also plays host to a public high school and a college. Pray all you want, but it probably won’t help you find parking, which is in short supply—and regulated by a secular authority.

The front of the school looks like a house of God, with heavy Romanesque arches and columns. The doors are unlocked, but a sign clearly states that visitors must sign in. Wasn’t I already in? I had used a Web-based driver to upload a job to a printer that was listed at this location.

Melissa Riofrio
I sent a print job to a cloud printer here. But could I get to it?

An acquaintance who works at the school let me in. We tried to find the printer, but the information I had about it was vague. We wandered around until we found one of the school’s IT guys. He scrolled through a list of printers on his phone. I thought it was pretty cool that he could do that.

“It’s not the library printer,” he muttered.

“Maybe it's Tina's printer?” my acquaintance suggested.

“Does Tina know I can print to her printer?” I asked.

“Tina's printer is down,” the IT guy said. “It can’t print.”

“So they sent you to a dead printer!” said my acquaintance.

Both confirmed that this printer, wherever it was, was not readily available to the public. Shortly after I left, the IT guy emailed me: “The printer is not available on our campus anymore. We had the printer for a bit in the library until it acted up and we had to replace it.” The entire school now uses iPads, so the IT department installed an AirPlay utility called Printopia that requires user authentication.

The doctor’s printer is not in

The outside temperature was a crisp 57 degrees, but in the Presidio National Park, the sun was bright, and the red roofs of the historic buildings glowed against the clear blue sky and masses of trees.

On a weekend, I would have been sitting in the sun, ideally with a dog or two as well as some human friends. On this day, I was trying to print. Following one of the directories, I made my way to a row of cute Civil War-era cottages, one of which housed a psychotherapy office.

Melissa Riofrio
Could I cloud-print in the Presidio? No, not to this location.

The front door was unlocked. The foyer was empty, except for a slender console table, an ancient, hissing radiator, and framed artwork on the walls.

I walked down a long hallway, past therapist offices complete with nameplates, closed doors, and deathly quiet—save for the white-noise machines strategically placed to muffle conversation.

I checked the waiting room and a kitchen, and stopped short of the stairs. I saw no printers, and no one was present. If my print job was here, I had no idea where. The white noise was getting to me, though, so I left.

The library took my money and gave me a print

The main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is open and bright inside, and it was very busy on this Monday around lunchtime. I had sent my job to a specific printer on the third floor. A couple of helpful staff members pointed me in the right direction.

Melissa Riofrio
The San Francisco Public Library has readily available cloud printers.

I had to buy a prepaid card to print or copy; the minimum amount you can load is $1. Directions posted next to the printer detailed how to do everything, including cloud printing. I inserted my card and entered a user ID and password on the control panel. The machine whirred and hummed, and then it printed. My first successful print job—but the library still has 40 cents of my money on this card.

Next page: Twitter doesn't share its printers

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