Software lets mobile devices use corporate printers

A new client-server application lets most mobile devices now wirelessly use corporate printers, without having to make changes to smartphones or tablets, or to the printers.

Mobile operating systems typically lack the drivers and other software infrastructure needed to send and manage print jobs, though they can make use of personal desktop printers. EFI's new PrintMe Mobile runs as a Windows application behind the firewall, and exploits features in the iOS, Android and BlackBerry OS firmware to mimic the kind the print capabilities users are accustomed to with their laptops.

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The EFI application will display to the user a list of authorized printers and then manage the print job on the user's behalf.

EFI is a Foster City, Calif., company founded about 20 years ago. It sells software that turns big copying machines into printers for networked users, and high-end, large-format inkjet printers for specialized printing.

Mobile users don't have many options when it comes to printing from handhelds, says Tom Offut, EFI's director of business development. Apple's iOS, for example, is the only mobile firmware with a built-in print capability, according to Offut: the AirPrint protocol introduced about a year ago. But AirPrint works today with only a small number of printers, whose manufacturers have incorporated the Apple protocol. And that means, among other things, that iOS users can't print to existing, older printers.

The EFI client code in effect exploits some existing features in each mobile OS to mimic the missing native print capability. The client uses these features to output documents, images and pictures, which are intercepted by the EFI server. The server code takes over managing the print job and sends it to the target printer.

For iOS users, PrintMe Mobile "emulates" Apple's AirPrint protocol. An iPad user, for example, simply goes through the standard AirPrint steps. The EFI server is listening for this print request, and responds with a list of authorized printers for that user. To the iPad, these printers appear to be AirPrint devices.

For Android, which lacks a native print feature, the EFI client application makes use of Android's "Share" capability, for exchanging selected information and files with other devices, as a substitute, says Offut. The user selects a file to share, selects the PrintMe Mobile app, which then coordinates with the server to send the file to the designated printer on the network.

For BlackBerry users, as well as iOS and Android users, the EFI app can use the native email client and its "forwarding" feature, along with the corporate email server. The IT group creates an email address for each authorized printer that they want to "publish" to their BlackBerry users. The user forwards an email with the attached file to one of those addresses, over a wireless connection, passing through the firewall for virus checking; the EFI server handles the needed file conversions, formatting and other details, packages it as a print job, and sends it to the printer. With this approach, visitors or contractors can be given access to corporate printers without granting them network access: They're simply emailing a document to a legitimate corporate address.

Finally, PrintMe mobile also offers a "secure print" or "release to print" option. A users who's away from the office, or even in another part of the building, can forward a document or file to a designated printer email address; the EFI acknowledges receipt but puts the print job on hold, so sensitive or private information isn't left lying in the printer's out tray. Later, the user can show up at the printer and uses one of several techniques to authorize the EFI server to complete the print job.

The server application can run on Windows XP Pro, Windows Server 2003, 2008 R2 and Windows 7 Professional Ultimate. It supports the range of Microsoft Office file types, along with Adobe PDF, most standard image and photo file formats, HTML, HTM, .TXT and PostScript files. For mobile clients, it supports iOS 4.2 or later, Android 2.1 or later and any BlackBerry, Windows or Symbian phone with a native email application.

PrintMe Mobile is sold as a traditional enterprise-licensed software application. The price is $500 per printer. EFI offers a free 90-day trial copy of the software. The product is available now.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.



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