Printer vendors keep a close eye on AirPrint

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Printer vendors, accustomed to letting their devices make most of the noise, adopted a quietly watchful stance amid the speculation surrounding Apple's iOS 4.2 AirPrint feature.

AirPrint facilitates the wireless printing of documents from the iPhone 4 and 3GS, 3G and 4G iPod touch, and the iPad, to compatible printers (right now, five HP ePrint models).

AirPrint originally meant more than that. The announcement of AirPrint—by Steve Jobs at Apple's September 1 media event—also touted a networking function that, in conjunction with the Mac OS X 10.6.5 update, would allow Apple's mobile devices to print to any networked printer regardless of brand. This cross-platform, vendor agnostic, Wi-Fi networking feature that would automatically find printers on a local network and, without installing software, let you print from them, is the part that got delayed at the last minute, leaving users with HP as the sole printing option.

Despite public circumspection on the issue, vendors are keeping a close eye on how Apple handles this hotly anticipated feature, and are advancing their own strategies to serve users with iOS devices irregardless of AirPrint.

A Macworld spot check of printer vendors reveals that they acknowledge the importance of AirPrint and have staked out roughly three, non-mutually exclusive positions: Watch and keep all options on the table; offer proprietary solutions that match, complement, or exceed AirPrint's capabilities; and consider AirPrint functionality for the future.

Lexmark's approach is a good example of the first strategy. According to Kathy Edwards, Lexmark's corporate communications manager, "Currently, we do not have any products that operate with AirPrint. Lexmark's product development team continues to evaluate Apple products and solutions, but I'm unable to comment on future compatibility." The folks at Konica Minolta take a similar stance saying, "Our R&D team is investigating Apple AirPrint and are evaluating its potential. We have not developed a specific plan to make our printers and MFPs compatible with Apple AirPrint to date."

Kyocera says it's "working on" how to approach AirPrint, but that "nothing is set in stone yet." Similarly, Dell has stated that while it currently has no models or a set timetable for AirPrint support, it's something the company is "working towards."

Epson's response represents the second position. With the introduction of Thinxtream Technologies' printing app, PrintJinni for Epson, which allows Apple iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users to print certain Microsoft Word, Excel PowerPoint, PDF, and JPEG files from an IMAP e-mail account to any Wi-Fi-enabled Epson all-in-one, it covers some ground that the current AirPrint does not.

Epson's view is that, "With this all-inclusive productivity app, users can download, display, preview, and print e-mail attachments that maintain accurate formatting, which makes it unique compared to other mobile printing solutions. Epson is currently working closely with Apple to ensure PrintJinni provides complementary features to what will be offered by the iOS 4.2 update."

Kodak's take on AirPrint is similar. The company now offers the Kodak Pic Flick App that provides photo printing from iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad to a wireless Kodak All-in-one printer. And it is also considering the AirPrint feature for the future, a company spokesman said.

Xerox says it's "committed to making it easy for Apple mobile device users to print on Xerox equipment." The company has gone so far as to test such devices on its printers and hints at positive results. "We have performed preliminary testing on a sampling of Xerox printers and MFPs with positive results. Although we can't guarantee trouble-free performance out-of-the-box with our products until more exhaustive testing has been completed, we expect many users will be able to have a compatible experience," said Robin Wessel, a Xerox marketing director. "We are performing more robust tests of Apple's AirPrint solution with Xerox equipment and intend to support future Apple iOS, although timing has not been determined at this point."

While trends increasingly point to more conservative printing practices, because of better archive and search functionality in digital formats and heightened concern for the planet and its trees, there will always be a time when you'll need a hard copy of something. And when you do, it's not going to matter where that document lives. While Steve Jobs responded to an email inquiry recently by assuring that AirPrint had not been abandoned, it's unclear whether or when the promised networking feature will be restored.

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