WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 12/19/2011 | 10 comments

Andrew Froehlich
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:

  • PCL
  • PostScript
  • PPD
  • CUPS

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.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
nasimson   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/24/2011 2:16:39 AM
Printing ... Not so easy
To conduct some interviews, I moved to another office building near by. There I needed to print the CVs. Then the next ten minutes I was standing there, at the printer on the floor with my laptop, struggling to add the network printer, making it default & printing the CVs. Wish I could print by just sending those to the printer's email address. Sigh!
Andrew Froehlich   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/21/2011 12:53:28 AM
Andrew Froehlich
Re: It's Getting Better
I tend to agree with EyeTee.  I'm sure David isn't alone in his ability to not print anything.  In fact, I found myself in that position for a few months.  But often times when I work with people on the outside -- like external companies and especially for government tasks requiring signatures, I end up with the need to print.
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David Wagner   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/20/2011 11:26:03 PM
Re: Simplicity that might save me time
Printers should be so simple because it does just one thing -- print.  So why is it so complicated to troubleshoot?

I wonder if the simplicity is the issue. Maybe the reason is that there is no real need to optimize.

I also suspect that while 90% of print jobs are probably related to Microsft Office or from a PDF, the other 10% might be exotic enough that they mess with the how simple it should be.

kicheko   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/20/2011 3:33:23 PM
Re: Simplicity that might save me time
Setting up and troubleshooting printers can be real trouble. Sometimes they just refuse to work. At times all it takes is a simple restart if it stops, while many other times you struggle to get it back up.

However recently i used a deskjet HP printer that i did not have to install from a disk. I just connected via USB and was able to follow instructions as it just configured...i can't recall the specs for it but at least it was a relief.
Andrew Froehlich   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/20/2011 1:50:30 AM
Re: Simplicity that might save me time
I agree @kstaron, troubleshooting printers can be really difficult. I'd rather troubleshoot a PC over a printer because there just doesn't seem to be any logic behind a printer's OS design.  Printers should be so simple because it does just one thing -- print.  So why is it so complicated to troubleshoot?
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Gigi   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/20/2011 12:26:15 AM
Re: Simplicity that might save me time
"If a concept such as this were to take off, other printer manufactures could follow suit, either using webOS or developing their own"

Why others have to file suits, it's an enhancement of technology. For others, nobody is limiting their capability for developing similar or advance software; they can also develop and compete.
kstaron   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/19/2011 2:56:21 PM
Simplicity that might save me time
I have been waiting for this. Never mind the annoyance at work when you have to start running things to other computer because the one you always use finally gave up the ghost, but if I never have to get a call from my mother again starting with, "There's something wrong with my printer...." This could have the potential to save me time in my work and my personal life.
EyeTee   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/19/2011 2:46:06 PM
Re: It's Getting Better
@David, I'm pretty anti-printer myself so I certainly don't disagree, but I deal with a lot of contracts which need to be printed out and signed by various people... although if I just need to sign something personally, I just grab a scanned copy of my signature and Photoshop it in.

In my personal life, I don't have a printer. I do agree that they're far less essential than they used to be.

But all that being said, there are still plenty of people in the workplace who need or prefer printouts. I don't really try to get people to change their (backwards) ways.
David Wagner   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/19/2011 1:59:48 PM
Re: It's Getting Better
I think you might be right about printer drivers, but I can't help but think that is bailing water with a bucket out of a ship that hit an iceberg. I can't even remember the last time I printed anything in an enterprise environment.

There will always be a need to print certain stuff. But I just think the printer market will shrink and the drivers for them seems a small deal.
EyeTee   WebOS Eliminates the Printer Driver   12/19/2011 1:28:24 PM
It's Getting Better
Trying to work with a variety of printers in an enterprise environment can indeed be nightmarish, but I think things are getting better.

HP, as you mention, is working on a variety of things to make things easier, such as their ePrint series. And you can already do things such as just essentially emailing a printer instead of going through the traditional series of hoops you need to jump through.

We are just a few years away from being rid of a good chunk of the difficulties involved with printer management... really, the main thing holding up progress is waiting for all these old Legacy devices to finally reach the end of their lifecycles. And that may take awhile; I'm certainly dealing with some fairly ancient printers at the moment...

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