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Thoughts on Cloud Printing

Shanghai: station guards

Been thinking about this announcement by HP to add email addresses to a range of printers. You might think of this as a small thing, as one commenter mentioned it is just catching up with the fax machine, right?

Here’s why it’s impact shouldn’t be understated:

Email and attachments are a known format, understood by the mass market: it comes with the promise being able to send rich content anywhere in the world at minimal cost and will ‘arrive’ within a few minutes. (Over time expect to see service providers in markets where email is less common to use phone number formats before the @ sign to tap into that domain expertise i.e. 1-310-12345678@mycompany.com).

Whilst the ability to print anywhere on your network has been around for a long while, the growth of broadband and cloud services such as Google Cloud Print will take the sting out of the process: locally cached content; a way of tracking the status of print jobs; your computer+ is not tied up processing the print job once the email is sent.

Could it become just another channel for spam? Without the right controls, of course. Nobody expects printers to just be open to email from anyone – whitelists and confirmations will take care of much of this issue – but in an area ripe for new business models – for example ‘sender pays’. In some markets I foresee a viable market for home-printers, ink, paper and support given away for ‘free’ with a backend that is able to charge the sender for printing. Imagine a home photo printer where family you subsidise the cost of your family to be able to send for free (i.e. you pay for the ink and paper, and use is governed by social norms) but where whitelisted third parties can send mail if they are willing to pay. How much would you charge to ‘allow’ a tangible object in your home?

Google’s printing vision no doubt goes way beyond simply offering up an open infrastructure – printers are simply another channel through which to push advertising, and guess whose in the business of matching buyers and sellers? (And whilst its not socially acceptable today, in time someone will subsidise the cost of individual prints by inserting subtle advertising by manipulating your photos – history is there for the taking).

Once the technology settles – across the globe we’ll see these printers offered as value added services in places like convenience stores. With the rise of location services you’ll always know how far you are from your nearest printer – and this awareness means that they’ll become part of the fabric of our urban infrastructure – being 2 or 3 minutes away from a tangible copy of your digital stuff will be assumed.

There was a time when you’d checked a physical map before leaving home, but no more. In time you’ll print the map/… on demand. Ah, you say – why would anyone want to use dead-tree media when your digital window to the world offers so many more layers of usefulness? Three reasons: the tangible will always have a place in our life; the barrier to creating meaningful, relevant prints will be significantly lower than today – the only question is how much experimentation it will take to figure out the practices that surround it; and that the digital and physical are complimentary technologies.

And looking further out, 3D printers will gradually augment this space and we’ll go through another round of trial and error and innovation to figure out where the value is.

Personally I’m looking forward to be able to print a new camera lens cap on demand.