Combine the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement  with an on-the-go workforce and constant innovations in mobile devices. What does that add up to? Sometimes users trying fruitlessly to do something as simple as print a document on a conventional laser or ink-jet device.
Tablets and smartphones running either Apple iOS or Android operating systems account for the vast majority of mobile devices in use today — a combined 99 percent of the market in 2012, according to the tech services firm IDC Technologies. And although these mobile OSs are full of features, a print module isn’t one of them. That makes it almost impossible for someone to access and use an organization’s printers without additional tools.
“It’s created a kind of ‘uh oh’ moment for CIOs,” says Dave Crist, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Brother Mobile Solutions, a subsidiary of Brother International.
Communication breakdowns between mobile devices and printers aren’t the only challenges. On-the-go work habits also mean that road warriors don’t have preestablished connections to particular printers when they’re outside the office. They need a contingency plan for finding a suitable printer, connecting to it and keeping output secure.
Fortunately, a number of solutions are now available to address these challenges. And although mobile printing isn’t always as simple as hitting “print” and watching hard copies stream into the closest output tray, a little advanced planning by IT managers can provide users with the tools they need to stay productive whether they’re in the office or on the road.
In the past, sales people and service workers epitomized the road warrior. However, today mobility cuts across many job functions. IDC estimates that in 2013 mobile workers will be 35 percent of the worldwide workforce and 75 percent of the U.S. workforce.
In the past, hard-copy documents have often been the best way to share information with others, but that’s not always true now thanks to mobile devices. In many cases, the accessibility of information from a handheld device reduces the need for hard copies of proposals, presentations and other routine paperwork.
For example, although sales of mobile devices rose sharply between 2009 and 2012, the number of printers has remained steady over that period, says Larry Jamieson, director of hardware and supplies advisory services for the Photizo Group, a consulting and research firm. In turn, hard-copy output has begun to decline.
“That has a lot to do with types of applications that people are engaged in,” Jamieson says. “Email, social networking and many news websites don’t lend themselves to doing a lot of printing. One other factor is that while print vendors are offering ways for mobile users to print to their printers, many people have found that confusing.”
That’s a problem because many operational practices and workflow processes still rely on paper — say for contracts needing traditional signatures, state or local government department citations, instructions detailing medication dosage information or schematics that power company workers take with them as they scale utility poles.
When roaming users need to print, they may find themselves at office supply stores, coffee shops, client sites or in their vehicles. But the lack of internal support for printing makes things a bit tricky.
“Each time they print, the print drivers or the network IP addresses may be different,” says Kirk Pothos, vice president of advanced technology for Xerox.
Progress has been made. For example, the print driver dilemma appears to be under control. Rather than requiring unique drivers for each model of printer or multifunction device, major vendors now offer universal print drivers capable of crossing product and vendor boundaries.
IT managers can choose one driver and distribute it to their staff to help them successfully connect their mobile devices to a wide variety of output devices.
“If an end user encounters a new printer, they don’t have to worry about where to get the driver. They have the right driver, and that’s the one that IT has blessed for them to have,” Pothos says.
This may sound elementary to those who only use Microsoft Windows or a traditional Mac OS, which come with inherent support for printers, but print driver support is rare in mobile OSes. Yet, there's another roadblock to making mobile printing easier.
Traditionally, mobile workers had to determine the IP address of the printer they intended to use before they could send a print job over the network. That’s a challenge when working at a customer’s facility or other location where an IT technician might not be readily available.
Some solutions can sweep networks to locate available printers, but hurdles may still arise. “Being physically close to a printer does not necessarily mean you are close to it from a network standpoint,” Pothos points out. “If your notebook is on a Wi-Fi network, you are on one segment of the network; the printer is likely on another one. So when your notebook does a sweep of all the devices that are local to you on the network, you won’t find the printer.”
IT managers now have new tools for helping their mobile peers print, depending on their locations and the types of devices they’re using. These solutions fall into two broad categories: Cloud-based printing, which supports both private and public cloud models Peer-to-peer printing, which establishes close connections between mobile and output devices
One advantage of cloud-based mobile printing is streamlined operations. The destination server — whether onsite or in a distant cloud — stores the necessary print drivers so users don’t need to hunt for them. This model also eliminates the need to track down IP addresses.
In fact, the printer and the mobile device don’t need to be connected to the same network. They only need to communicate with the central server. Once the print job arrives at the central location, a mobile worker goes to the desired printer or multifunction device and enters the necessary authorization code to release the print job from the server to the printer.
Private cloud implementations have the added advantage of allowing IT managers to integrate the destination servers into corporate e-mail systems and network administration and security directories. Public cloud services work in a similar way while also relieving IT managers of set up and handling day-to-day oversight of the necessary infrastructure.
HP’s ePrint Enterprise mobile printing solution is among the cloud choices now available. It lets IT administrators launch e-mail- or app-based printing. With the latter option, users download a mobile app to their smartphones or tablets to send instructions for locating printers and for releasing print jobs. A search tool helps users locate printers within the corporate network or at HP ePrint Public Print locations.
“Once an organization downloads the solution, by default, its staff can print to 21,000 print locations,” says Sridhar Solur, HP director of mobility and cloud services. “But if you want to print to printers within your organization, this client can adopt an organizational persona and show what you’re qualified to use based on your Active Directory user group.” When used internally, the solution can send print jobs to HP printers and those of other vendors.
The Xerox Mobile Print Solution supports e-mail-based output to printers inside an organization’s environment. IT managers can integrate it with e-mail and authentication directories to enforce internal security rules. Xerox is also introducing a cloud-based solution called Mobile Print Cloud.
Lexmark also offers a number of mobile print solutions. Each is designed to capitalize on productivity benefits without compromising security and incurring uncontrolled costs.
Peer-to-peer printing establishes a direct connection between the mobile and output devices. Common connection links include Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth links and USB cables.
One example is Apple AirPrint, which allows mobile workers to print directly from whatever application they used to create the document. But for print jobs to flow smoothly, users must first set up the communication links using one of the wireless or hard-wired technologies.
When architecting solutions for mobile printing, IT managers should look for tools that can be easily layered within their existing printing environment.
“You don’t want to have to strip out all of your devices and bring in new devices just to do mobile print,” Pothos says. “That’s a very expensive proposition given that mobile print volumes are building up gradually. It’s not a big bang where all of a sudden everybody starts printing from mobile devices.”
Solur adds that because most organizations manage printers and multifunction devices from multiple vendors, the chosen mobile printing solution should be product-agnostic. “Also, look for tools that provide visibility into who printed what and where, even when jobs originate outside the organization,” he says. Some mobile device management solutions can track usage characteristics, for instance.
Experts also advise looking at security from a variety of angles. Virtual private networks (VPNs) and data encryption should be used to protect data as it’s travelling from the devices to private or public cloud destinations. Implementations that rely on Wi-Fi communications should support Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP) security standards.
On-premises printers and multifunction devices should encrypt data when it’s stored in internal hard drives, and print jobs shouldn’t move to output trays until an authorized user is at the printer and releases the documents.
Finally, take a new look at the output devices themselves during hardware refreshes. Multifunction printers can play a key role in changing the way that enterprises approach information management. These devices can provide a digital on-ramp to convert paper documents into digital files with embedded barcodes that include instructions for where to store the information or how to guide it through a workflow system.
“That workflow can be managed and executed on by a tablet, a notebook, a smartphone — it really doesn’t matter,” Pothos says. “That’s a great enabler for streamlining operations and reducing processing and printing costs.”