One could say that the selection of mobile print apps on the market today is almost as diverse as the number of tablet and smartphone platforms they are made for.  There is at least one mobile print app from just about every major printer maker, in addition to those offered by software companies.  Each app covers a limited number of printers and offers its own level of print functionality.  Despite nearly a decade of growth in the smartphone market and two years since the first iPad, there still isn’t a universal solution that allows users to print whatever they want, from any program, to any printer.  And this lack of a universal solution is preventing print vendors from connecting to the massive amount of content circulating on mobile devices.

To understand the importance of developing an easy-to-use and universally applicable mobile print solution it is important to understand the changing relationship between printers and the PCs that they connect to.  The printer industry has and always will be dependent on the devices that create and distribute printable content, which for many years was the desktop PC.  Around 2006, notebooks surpassed desktops in US consumer PC shipments, and it was about that same time that US inkjet sales began to stall.


This change in PC preference led to a change in the way users consumed content, and ultimately broke down the longstanding correlation between PC and printer purchases.  Historically, retailers relied heavily on this relationship between PC and printer purchases, and frequently offered incentives encouraging customers to purchase the two together.  Since mid-2010, gap intelligence has watched retailers all but abandon the idea that customers are going to buy a printer every time they purchase a PC.

The notebook PC’s rise to prominence was followed soon after by an explosion in smartphone shipments and the introduction of the Apple iPad in 2010.  In contrast to notebook PCs that run Windows or OS X and therefore have the same familiar print functionality as desktops, smartphones and tablets use new mobile operating systems that often lack the familiar ‘print’ button that is common on traditional PCs.

Some industry observers see the shift to mobile as a major headwind for printer makers – quite simply, these devices can serve as a substitute to the printed page, especially as users become accustomed to reading on smaller screens.  However, there is a pile of evidence that suggests that the need to print exists, and that more devices in the channel means there is more printable content being distributed and consumed.  In a testament to the growth of mobile device use, Facebook’s most recent quarterly filing indicated that the number of active mobile users (using a tablet or smartphone) visiting its site increased 67% over the past year to 543 million users (desktop/notebook user growth was flat).  And the growth of printable content?  Facebook’s IPO filing stated that its global user base was uploading over 250 million photos per day as of the end of 2011.

As I discussed in a blog in May, broad availability of mobile printing began with HP’s ePrint in mid-2010.  ePrint was followed months later by Apple’s AirPrint, which Apple and HP jointly developed in response to the large number of complaints about the iPad’s lack of print functionality.  Since then, printer makers and a few peripheral vendors (i.e. Cortado, EFI) have launched branded mobile apps that allow users to print either via email, a wireless network, or a direct connection to a wireless printer.  Apple AirPrint is likely one of the most broadly supported platforms, however most mobile apps are typically exclusive to one brand’s devices.  So while Apple users (˜33.2% smartphones, ˜55% tablets (both US)) enjoy support across several printer brands, the mobile app landscape remains fragmented for many Android, Windows, and Blackberry users.  And as mentioned, advanced functionalities (i.e. paper size option, duplex, collate, etc.) only exist in a handful of apps.

Many mobile print solutions tend to silo users, since they only allow printing while logged into their app and support only that brand’s printers.  Adding to the frustration, some brands will have one app for their inkjet printers and another for business laser devices.  There is a clear motivation for printer makers to push their own apps – it helps the brand build an exclusive ecosystem that fosters familiarity and brand loyalty.  Unfortunately, by forcing customers to download multiple apps and offering limited support and functionality, printer makers have created obstacles that likely hinder mobile printing (Chris called attention to this glaring problem in his April 08, 2011 Pico letter titled ‘Rad! It’s Like 1984 All Over Again!’).

The reality is that many consumers (like me) would greatly prefer universal access to any printer from any app.  This is what users have been conditioned to expect from traditional operating systems such as Windows and OS X, where a ‘print’ button is typically available on any program.  Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print are perhaps the best examples of software makers attempting to provide universal printer access (despite complaints of their limited functionality).  Now, Windows has revealed that it’s developing a new ‘version 4’ or ‘v4’ print architecture for its upcoming Windows 8/Windows RT operating system, which is designed to simplify mobile and traditional PC printing. Windows’ v4 architecture will hopefully reduce the headache of downloading drivers, cut down the size of driver files, and most importantly, provide a universal user interface (UI) that works with any printer (below).

The relationship between printers and mobile devices is still young, with less than two years since Apple AirPrint and HP ePrint were first introduced.  Many have been quick to call mobile devices the printer killers, while many others believe that more devices and more content will ultimately lead to more prints.  The truth is that the impact of mobile devices on the printer industry is still unclear, and there is very little primary research to show whether people are printing from their mobile devices or not.

What is clear is that there is a growing number of apps in the market that offer limited printer support and varying levels of functionality, when what every impatient mobile user wants is a single print solution that just works.  Provide mobile users with a simple and well-integrated print solution and printer makers will have a better shot at connecting to the ocean of printable content on tablets and smartphones.  In this vast and growing mobile marketplace, improved access to content would ultimately benefit all printer makers.