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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Article Filed Under: Databazaar Reports Printers
  • September 22, 2008 M. Cutter

    The author of this article is not thinking this subject through very clearly. There is a huge demand for printing from the iPhone... in the context of enterprise applications.

    For example, you should be thinking of applications for mobile sales representatives, service technicians and the like who would quite commonly need to print a sales or service receipt.

    Or think about a mobile application to support event ticketing or parking.

    How about a physician who needs to print a prescription on the spot while making rounds?

    All these are quite ordinary application scenario, but there are hundreds more that are more obscure or specialised, but nonetheless quite common. Shipping labels, returns processing, batch identification, delivery or pickup receipts, claim checks, inspections and many more. There are handheld devices available today that support mobile wireless printing, but they tend to cost $1000+ and are very ugly to use and to develop applications for. The iPhone's features and application frameworks are highly suitable for developing these types of applications... but for some reason Apple has not seen fit to make it easy to print to a wireless printer. That would require something more than the crippled Bluetooth capabilities of the current iPhone.

  • October 16, 2008 TJ

    I constantly receive PDF invoices, orders and blueprints by email - being able to print a PDF directly from the phone would save me the trouble of lugging a laptop around at several of our work sites, which generally do not have WiFi.

    I guess in those cases without WiFi, it would require a USB cable either directly to the printer or a wired computer - but either a wired or a wireless solution would be preferable to the complete inability to print.

    This doesn't seem like much of a difficult technical problem to solve, and would add quite a bit more business functionality than this blog author realizes.

  • October 27, 2008 JWH

    I have several clients who would love to be able to print directly from their iPhones for a number of reasons. e.g. printing faxes and forms received via email whilst mobile or operating in constructions office with minimal I.T. infrastructure.
    I have in the past bought $1,000+ devices with extremely limited functionality to do just this one task. So that specific form or plan information can be communicated to staff in mobile locations.

  • November 05, 2008 Joey

    How hard can it be to create a print function with the bluetooth technology. It seems to me that the phone could tap into any printer with bluetooth functionality and be able to print.

  • November 10, 2008 tonyb

    Must have something to do with saving to much time and money for the working stiff. Or might just be it would make too many other products obsolete.

  • November 16, 2008 dave

    Print would be useful to me. I guess one of the issues is the size of printer drivers, but I would be happy to have the 'common' (to me) drivers installed, allowing me to print at home and to most printers I see in the working day

  • December 05, 2008 Kim

    Printing from my iPhone *would* be useful to me. For instance, this morning, my computer (thanks to vista) takes a loooong while to boot up. But I wanted to go ahead and print this attachment I received in an email (on my iPhone). Hence, my google search for "print from iPhone." I'm just talking wi-fi or bluetooth printing here...

    Also, anything I can do from my Treo I should be able to do from my iPhone, right?! :)

  • December 14, 2008 joe

    Printing from the Iphone - Bluetooth or wireless is an absolute necessity if Apple plans to take their enterprise customers seriously. We have 40 sales reps all of which would have an Iphone tomorrow if they could print invoices directly after sales.

    Instead we have to use WM6 which I personally hate.

    Apple you are losing business because of this feature.

  • December 20, 2008 Marty

    Here's something that will fill many people's requirements. It needs a server component.

  • December 21, 2008 Steve

    Printing notes and any of the documents that arrive in my email is something I have wanted on my iPhone 1G from the second week.

  • January 28, 2009 Will Hertling

    HP now has an iPhone printing app called iPrint:

  • February 22, 2009 Paul

    I'm a mobile tradesman and printing via bluetooth directly to a printer is what I'm after. The job details could be given to our office and the invoice emailed to the iphone to be printed. My old nokia printed photos directly to Bluetooth but I'm thinking PDF printing in this case. The eurosmart app is on the right track but has no Bluetooth capability

    Having a laptop in the vehicle is just asking to get stolen !!

  • March 28, 2009 RaiulBaztepo

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I'v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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