If you've ever been involved with supporting printers in an enterprise environment, you've likely grown to hate printer driver and print server acronyms like these:
One would think that in today's age of rapidly developing technologies, printers would be a snap to set up and configure. But in reality, printers are a constant annoyance. The problem revolves around the fact that most printers require their own unique drivers in order to function. Printer drivers are software installed on PCs that convert the data from applications to a format that the printer understands. But for this to occur, your PC operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) must know the specifics of each printer so it knows what it can or cannot do. That's why no true "universal" printer drivers exist, even though attempts have been made.
What this means is that IT staff charged with supporting printers in an enterprise environment have to struggle with all the unique printer drivers and setups for end-user stations. The situation can really become a huge time-sink for your staff, which could be used for more productive tasks.
But what if printer companies finally got their act together and developed a method where end-user devices did not have to understand a printer's capabilities? Instead, all printing could be handled identically from an end-device perspective -- and the intelligence of printing decisions handled on the back-end at the printer itself. That would really be a game changer, and this is what I believe HP is looking to do with WebOS.
There's been a great deal of head scratching regarding HP and its plans for WebOS -- the mobile OS it obtained from the Palm buyout in early 2010. While HP is no longer looking to use this mobile operating system for tablets or smartphones in the near future, it seems that it wants to use it for one specific purpose: printers.
Most technology writers who are speculating about HP's use of WebOS in printers envision printers with touchscreen capabilities. While this may be one benefit of using WebOS in printers, I believe that HP's use of WebOS lies in the attempt to finally eliminate the print driver by combining a well coded mobile operating system that understands HTML5. If the current printer driver model were abandoned and replaced with an open standard language that was understood by all end stations and printers, negotiations between devices and printers could be handled seamlessly, no matter what the printer capabilities were. In addition, printing from smartphones, tablets, and other network-connected devices would also be easy to set up and manage.
If a concept such as this were to take off, other printer manufactures could follow suit, either using webOS or developing their own. Because HTML5 is (hopefully) soon to become a finalized standard, all the formatting rules are in place, and as long as the intelligence behind a printer's capabilities could be handled by the printer OS and shielded from end users, it could eliminate the need to install printer drivers forever. Add to this the fact that HP has just decided to make WebOS open-source, and you can begin to see the possibility of a single, open-sourced printer OS that could be used by all printer manufacturers.
Let's face it: Printers aren't the most innovative tech out there (as pointed out in this news satire article), and that's why they've been neglected for so long. But despite the move to paperless offices, the laser printer is going to have a home in the enterprise for many years to come. And if they're sticking around, I seriously hope that someone takes a real stab at fixing the printer driver issue that's been plaguing desktop support teams for years.