September 17, 2008
Will iPhone Printing Become a Reality?
By Kara Hiltz
iPhone App Developers Josh Keay and Canis Lupus Discuss the Demand for iPhone Printing and the Challenges in Bringing it About
The Internet has buzzed with rumors about whether printing support for your iPhone will debut in future Apple updates, mostly due to an empty folder named "Printers" found in the iPhone 2.0 software as reported by iPhone Buzz. Of course, rumors do not always become reality, especially when it comes to Apple.
Do People Really Want to Print From Their iPhones?
Jim Lyons, publisher of Jim Lyons Observations, reports that his first musings about iPhone printing in 2007 brought a great deal of traffic to his blog. So many people Googled the keywords "iPhone printing," "iPhone print," and "iPhone printer" that he espoused his belief that a market must exist in his follow-up article, iPhone Printing, Revisited, published in April 2008. "Capturing the relatively infrequent but still must-print situations may be the key, and understanding why and when printing makes sense for the millions upon millions of mobile device users, including iPhone owners, may lead to real business success for some of our more savvy industry members," he concluded.
Notwithstanding Lyons' Google traffic, third-party iPhone application developers don't sense much demand from their customers. "We've gotten a lot of requests for the ability to email documents from the phone, though nobody has requested the option to print directly from the iPhone," said Josh Keay, founder of Magnetism Studios.
Magnetism Studios has shipped a number of iPhone apps, including two that seem ripe for printing support — FileMagnet and CityTransit. Nonetheless, Keay believes that the iPhone "could replace a lot of casual printing." As an example, he cites printing directions from Google Maps. "Now that the iPhone puts an interactive version of Google Maps in your pocket, suddenly people don't have to print because they can view it onscreen," he observed.
Canis Lupus, lead developer at Wooji Juice, agrees. "Since the iPhone already requires a Mac or PC to activate, sync and so on, I don't know how likely it is that people would be near a printer, yet not have a computer on hand. Who takes their printer out on the road with them, but not their laptop?" Wooji Juice recently released StageHand, which enables you to control your Keynote presentations from your iPhone or iPod touch.
What Would it Take to Print From Your iPhone?
Assuming a need for iPhone printing exists, would Apple need to bless it or could a third-party developer do the job?
Keay believes that Apple could probably implement printing, but he doesn't believe it's a priority at One Infinite Loop these days. "Before they implement functionality like printing, they should probably take care of basic features like Copy and Paste, which are still absent from the iPhone," points out Keay.
Third-party iPhone application developers might have the ability to create a printing solution, but it would not reside in the iPhone operating system, according to Canis. "Each iPhone application would need to individually add support for the printing utility, because there's no way for third-parties to add system-wide services to the iPhone," he added.
Getting data in and out of programs might also present a challenge for third-party developers, says Keay. "For example, if you wanted to print an email message, you wouldn't be able to just tap a print button in the built-in mail application. Instead, the printer application would have to extract that message from the Mail program and then print it. It would be a difficult workflow for users."
So what about the iPhone Buzz report that points out the empty "Printer" folder in the iPhone software? Keay and Canis don't think the folder necessarily points to iPhone printing capabilities. Since Apple bases the iPhone operating system on the Mac OS X operating system, they believe the folder is a leftover from the Mac.
"It's extremely unlikely that Apple would ship the existing OS X printer drivers across [to the iPhone], as they're something like 2GB in size — fully half of the original 4GB iPhone, and a significant chunk of even the iPhone 3G," said Canis.
iPhone Printing Predictions
Both Keay and Canis believe that iPhone printing in some form will eventually come to pass, and they both believe that WiFi technology will probably provide the solution — but they differ over Apple's role in the process.
Keay believes that a third-party application can pull off the task only with help and cooperation from Apple. "Without Apple's blessing, iPhone printing will have a hard time getting going, but the day they approve it, it will flourish," predicts Keay.
Canis thinks that people will primarily want to print photos from their iPhone, and that a third-party developer will meet that demand. "You could definitely write an iPhone application for use at print shops that would let you pick one or more photos from your "Camera Roll", and then send them to a print kiosk over WiFi. It's not a general print solution, but it probably addresses 90% of the situations in which someone actually wants to print from their iPhone."
Predicting the future is, of course, difficult. But paper has shown itself to be surprisingly persistent in the digital age. Don't bet against it.
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