The best thing this year about PC Expo for me were the printers. Sure, it was nice that the show was narrow, only occupying the front half of Javitz -- a lot like our industry's condition these days. And it was also nice that I could actually get a cab, unlike previous years. But I came away from the show yesterday liking the approach that Xerox and HP are taking with their respective printers. Both companies have extended the traditional user interface of how people work with their printers in new and exciting ways.
Xerox's laser printers are from the folks that they acquired at Tektronix in Oregon, and they continue to call them Phasers. The secret sauce is all about the software under the beige covers. The Tek Phasers were one of the first printers to include a web server to manage them many years ago. Now that is old hat -- everyone includes a web server these days in network-attached printers. What Xerox has done goes beyond that in a few interesting ways.
First off, the printer can now accept emailed documents and print them out. It is almost spooky. Imagine this situation. It is late at night: you are working at home on a presentation that you have to give first thing in the morning to your department. You need 10 copies printed out and ready to go. You could go into the office early and get them printed out, but wouldn't it be nice to just email the document to your office printer and have it make the copies for you right now? Of course, you can't see how the printer is working, and it might be out of paper, or have the wrong paper type. That is where the second part of Xerox's magic comes into play: the printer can now communicate with you via email and let you know if everything is fine: if its toner is running low or the wrong paper is supplied.
Now, granted, I get enough spam email that the thought of being notified every hour by my printer when something is wrong is a scary thought. And I haven't yet tested these features out to see if Xerox really did the right thing. But their heart (and coding prowess) is in the right place, and given their history with innovative software with their earlier Phaser printers, I am hopeful that they have nailed this idea.
Xerox isn't the only one thinking about new printer interfaces. At the show I also saw some new HP printer/copiers that are controlled in a new way. The problem they are trying to solve is to make it easier for people to print out their digital photos. This is still a cumbersome process for many people. So HP has come up with a printer that has several different slots for removable media: Compact Flash, Smart Media, and PC Cards. You take the card out of your camera and insert it into the printer. Then you press the button marked "proof sheet" and the printer produces a single page with all the photos on it, similar to a photographer's contact sheet. This is a special piece of paper, though: on the proof sheet are small little "bubbles" like you would find on your standardized test exam. You fill in the bubbles -- you don't even need a No. 2 pencil -- indicating the photos that you want printed and the size you want for each. Then you place the proof sheet on the copier glass of the printer and press the proof sheet button again. Out come your photos.
Note that for both of these printers, you as the user are moving away from the standard "File|Print" dialog box of your software application and doing what I would argue are more intuitive things, or at least actions that are closer to what you need to do to operate the printer as part of your computing needs. The printer is no longer just a peripheral to our PCs: it is a full member of our computing networks and computing lives.
My caveat here is that I haven't actually tested these printers in my lab, I just saw the demonstrations and talked to the vendors at the show. But I think this represents a major step forward, and I am hopeful that when I do get these devices in and examine them, they will work as advertised.
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