With exciting technologies like smartphones, tablets and augmented reality growing around us, it’s quite easy to think of the humble printer as "old" technology, before we were browsing the web and reading news, emails and other online content from our growing collections of screens. Understandably so; apart from cheaper colour printers and smaller home photo printers, the advances in printer technology have been pretty much invisible to us users. But some recent developments by printer manufacturer HP could mean that may all be about to change.
Last month, HP bought smartphone manufacturer Palm in what seemed like a fairly obvious fit; HP have been manufacturing Windows Mobile smartphones for several years, and being in control of their operating system would let them compete more effectively with the bigger smartphone competitors. However, what was more surprising to many was a statement from HP’s CEO Mark Hurd in June saying that they were more interested in Palm’s patent portfolio than their WebOS smartphone operating system. What HP were interested in was using the technology and ideas in the WebOS touchscreen interface in their printers.
But this isn’t the only area of new technology that is set to bring a new life to the printer market. HP have a wider vision of printers, beyond being controlled by colourful touchscreens; "web connected and cloud aware." Their new ePrint platform allows their printers to communicate directly with online services like Google Documents, so they can print pages from the internet without having to be directly connected to a computer; all they need is an internet connection of their own.
What makes this interesting is that it isn’t just something that will be for huge floor-standing office printers; it will be available for any HP printer priced $99 or more (about £65), so well within the reach of most consumers.
This could change the way we use our printers — and by extension, the way we use the internet. You’ll be able to print a document by simply emailing it to your printer, whether that’s from your home PC, your laptop — or even a mobile phone or iPad. (A dedicated application for Android phones has been released already, with versions for iPhone, iPad, Symbian and Windows Mobile expected this summer.) By connecting directly to online services like Google Documents or Facebook (both of whom are launch partners), users could print their photos or documents directly from the website — whether or not they are physically connected to their printer at the time. So although there is the idea that mobile internet usage is mainly for "snacking", it could just as well be that you find an interesting article on your mobile, then send it to your printer to read later on, when you have the time to read a few pages and aren’t confined to a 3" screen to read it on.
Print your own newspaper
Looking at where this sort of technology could take us, there are some interesting potential media opportunities. The first is what HP are calling "Scheduled Delivery." There have been a few attempts to start "print your own newspaper" services in the past — such as "Guardian 24" and "Telegraph PM", which deliver the relevant sections of the newspaper as a PDF download — but the fact that a computer has been needed to download and print off the documents mean that so far, it hasn't been an easy and convenient option for most. Other services which require a dedicated printer that won't print anything else have failed to get traction in the market. But the idea of a networked printer removes those obstacles in a simple step, so you could have your own personalized copy of the morning newspaper sent directly to your printer – at the time of your choosing (so when you’re just about to have breakfast, or your morning coffee, or just about to leave for work), and containing only the sections that you are interested in.
That could mean an edition that is tailored to demographics, to the topics that the reader has expressed an interest in, or the geographical areas that they are interested in. Of course, when the printed edition becomes personalised — whether by individual tastes, geographical location, or the kind of demographic information that would be a part of a subscription sign-up, then there is a huge potential for a targeted advertising model to follow.
The fact that newspapers could cut out a huge part of their overheads — from printers, to physical distribution, to retail chains — and deliver directly to their consumers could potentially have a significant impact on their running costs. Of course, the benefits of newspaper and magazine printing lies in their scale — it is far cheaper to print thousands of identical pages onto low-cost newsprint than individual, personalised editions — but the costs involved in distributing the printed copies are still high. (Especially for the sunday papers, which can include entire sections that are printed, distributed, and then go unread by many households.)
So for consumers living in urban areas with access to freesheets like the Metro or Evening Standard, the appeal of these kinds of "print your own" services will be limited, but for audiences in more rural areas, the idea of self-printed news could be much more appealing — so a Daily Mail or Daily Express audience might be the first to show an interest. (Particularly those who would not want to spend hundreds of pounds on a piece of technology like an eBook reader or iPad.) On the other hand, the fact that the news for a Financial Times reader could be out of date by the time they receive their copy could make a self-printed version an appealing alternative to reading an online edition. Meanwhile, reorganisations by the Mirror Group in integrating regional and national news desks could give them an added interest in creating and delivering personalised editions that include relevant local news.
For the printer manufacturers, as the printers themselves have become progressively cheaper, the majority of their profits now come from selling highly profitable toner instead of one-off charges for expensive printers. This means that printer manufacturers are faced with the problem of piracy; counterfeit cartridges and companies offering toner refilling services have led to a cat-and-mouse game of security measures as the manufacturers try to protect their businesses.
Networked printers mean that this business model could change again; instead of buying a physical product (toner), the user could be buying a virtual product (prints). Could this lead to new media opportunities? Subsidised printing costs in exchange for agreeing to advertising on your prints could be an opportunity for creative targeting — say, if you print a Google Map of a route that includes a motorway, then a subsidised printed version could include some vouchers for use in a particular service station on the way. At the very least, advertisers could start delivering a different version of ads for online to printed versions of their web pages.
But by completely separating the printing service from the physical product, the "prints" you pay for could also be used anywhere – so in theory, it could be as easy (and cheap) to use the networked printer at a clients’ office, or a friend’s house, or a hotel room as the one in your own home. So maybe we could see the same "print" credits you buy for your home printer being used on higher quality printers elsewhere. Could we end up seeing newsagents stocked with a single high-quality printer, and personalized magazines printed on demand replacing the racks of magazines and newspapers? While a home printer might produce good quality prints, the benefits of a larger printer could include better binding, or a more cost-efficient printing service.
Obviously, although the technology is available now, the ideas of "cloud printing" are still probably a few years away from any significant level of market penetration. But it goes to illustrate that the online model of advertising — one that is already starting to appear in the TV market (through catch-up services and new models from Sky and Virgin) — could potentially bring radical changes to the world of printed advertising as well.