HP Printers Enter the IoT, but What Does it All Mean?

Our industry has seen some major developments this year under the umbrella of “the Internet of Things” (IoT). Incorporating If This Then That (IFTTT) services, Hewlett-Packard has worked diligently to offer its hardcopy customers a breakthrough in what I like to call the area of automated printing. In its big reveal, a blog post by HP’s Phil McCoog recently announced, “HP Launches the HP Print Channel on IFTTT Creating Over 40M IoT Printers.”

I blogged about this in a two-part post in Jim Lyons Observations this spring that looked first at a bit of history and company strategy, and then took a (relatively) deep dive into some of the IFTTT recipes now being offered via the HP Print Channel. But as I prepared this article, with the objective of trying to explain again to readers of The Imaging Channel (not to be confused with an IFTTT “channel”) some of the key elements of HP’s story, I realized the communication barriers of getting the basic ideas across can be quite daunting. Just the headline on HP’s blog for example – if I throw out “the” and “on,” I count four actual words that are outnumbered by four acronyms and a buzz-phrase (“Print Channel”). Now granted, the HP is obvious, and 40M is just shorthand for 40 million, but unless the reader already understands what those other terms mean, there may be a clarity issue with the headline that could prevent reading further. HP blogger McCoog, a chief technologist and HP Fellow, and one of my favorite long-time sources on the worlds of mobile printing and the future of hardcopy, does a fine job in explaining how users will benefit from this HP initiative in plain English, but again, how many readers will get that far? So here I have my opportunity to help in the encoding/decoding process.

I will start by offering some definitions, including my simplified (and hopefully not overly crude) understanding, reinforced by Wikipedia articles. (I should note that in contrast to its bad name in academic circles, when it comes to many technology-related subjects, Wikipedia is a great, trusted source for definitions, explanations and history, as well as for links to more detailed information. I discovered Wikipedia’s good name from the many IT-related MOOCs I have taken in the last few years – but there I go with new acronyms! That’s a Massive Open Online Course, for the record).

Basic definitions

IoT – The “Internet of Things” is a long-term concept, seeing a future of billions of “things” communicating with each other. The most commonly cited example may be today’s “smart thermostat” connected to WiFi. The vision of the future of IoT is, of course, this connectivity blowing up to include myriad devices in homes, workplaces, and really, everywhere. Read more starting at Wikipedia.

IFTTT – If This Then That is a web-based service that allows conditional actions, based on triggers, across connected web services, and in the words of McCoog, an “IoT solution engine.” Again, to quote Wikipedia, “IFTTT is a web-based service that allows users to create chains of simple conditional statements, called ‘recipes,’ which are triggered based on changes to other web services such as Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Craigslist. IFTTT is an abbreviation of ‘If This Then That’ (pronounced like ‘gift’ without the ‘g’).”

Examples often help at this stage, and HP’s McCoog points out some in his blog post. “This [HP print] channel makes it easy to create solutions that integrate to over 150  [other] channels including Facebook, Instagram, NY Times, Box, Fitbit, Digg, and many more. The solution lets you tag Instagram photos and print them. You can print out new articles from the NY Times that are in the Wine and Dining section. You can print out the most Dugg article of the day. You can print out your weekly Fitbit digest … .”

Automated printing – exciting, but not new

While HP’s reputation for innovation and futuristic thinking is certainly enhanced by their investment in these areas, the idea of automated printing has been around a long time, with both HP and others. Nearly 20 years ago, Canon (Web Record) and HP (Web PrintSmart) offered PC-based utilities that, along with improved print formatting for web-based content, also included automated capture-and-print functions. Shortly after those pioneering solutions, HP went “all in” on automated printing with Instant Delivery, which, based on user preferences, printed daily news and other timely information.

HP has continued to develop these solutions, with a “Scheduled Delivery” solution in recent years that shared this focus on automated printing. I have also blogged about others, like the Berg Little Printer, a popular success but market failure over the last two years. In the best case, automated printing is a win-win, with users saved the steps of finding and printing material on an ongoing basis. In this best-case scenario the hard copy just “shows up” in their printer’s out-tray, which, to the vendors’ delight, leads to a steady usage rate of printer supplies.

The importance of names and simple descriptions

During my 25-year career with Hewlett-Packard, I was involved in the commercial development of many different technologies. Some of the efforts were successful, and others were not. Over the years, I came to realize that there is no substitute for a good name and simple explanation based around the user benefits of a given technology. This is a requirement that can lead to a basic understanding, if not by the masses, at least by potential users and customers.

This was key for something to catch on and become a success. If the new technology (or better yet a solution) had a catchy, easy-to-understand label, like “Desktop Publishing,” it was much more likely to develop critical mass than something like “Jetsend,” an HP-led connectivity scheme aimed at tying together hardware peripherals and elevating them to something like full network “citizens.” (Even that word, “peripherals,” was one of those less-than-catchy labels that brings back the old “cold dead fish” analogy.) Jetsend ultimately suffered from a difficulty in explaining it – insiders had no trouble, but those on these outside, like potential partners and customers, had trouble grasping the concept.

One difference between Desktop Publishing and Jetsend, one might argue, is the former was an industry-wide phenomenon, really pioneered by Apple back in their glory days (phase two) as well as by many other participants, big and small. On the other hand Jetsend was, and stayed, HP-only. But to make a one-company comparison, one can look at the success of font cartridges in the early days of LaserJet, compared to the “soft fonts” that replaced them. HP’s original blades-and-razors business model grew from the popular hard-font business, but their software equivalents were somewhat ethereal and were replaced for the most part by built-in (read: no extra revenue) fonts that we still see today. People could literally touch font cartridges, and they seemed natural as a hardware plug-in.

Will this iteration of what I am calling “automated printing” find a user sweet spot that offers enough benefits to outweigh the learning curve involved in implementing IFTTT recipes? HP points to some positive evidence. As far as acceptance from the printing public, Rachel Chin, Current Business Manager — Web Services, told me that since the launch, “We have had an overwhelming response in social media,” which would seem to be a match with the company’s target market. And as far as the future, Chin sees that “The future holds more development of recipes using more triggers,” and McCoog points out the synergy of “end-user creation of homegrown solutions” as contributing greatly to future growth.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Imaging Channel.

has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. In his monthly Observations column he comments on business and marketing developments in the printing and imaging industry, combining many years of experience with an ever-enthusiastic eye on the future. In the Jim Lyons Observations column on The Imaging Channel, highlights from that blog appear monthly. Lyons is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics at its school of business, and is a regular contributor to both The Imaging Channel and Workflow. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons and read more of Jim Lyons Observations at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/.