Hands-on review shows that the approach has some merit, if using paper as an output device is not too retro for you, and if they can improve reliability.Two new HP printers (the latest Photosmart All-in-One and OfficeJet All-in-One models) let you perform certain tasks (such as retrieve news feeds) without any computer being attached, as long as they are online. I tried out this new world of Print Apps (as HP calls them) using an HP Officejet Pro 8500A Plus.
You set up the printer with a LAN connection (wireless or Ethernet) to reach the Internet. The unit has a color touch screen that displays icons for functions, and one is for Apps. When selected, it gives a selection of icons for individual Apps, and each of these has a list of possibilities (usually individual printable files.)
There are Apps for crafts, kiddy projects, recipes, Sudoku puzzles, coupons for your Zip Code, and an App that culls the latest postings from selected blogs.
For the SMB, there are Apps that tap into various news organization (USA Today, MSNBC, and Yahoo) for the day's formatted updates, often organized by topic, such as Health, Politics, or Top Stories. You could also get your local weather report, and various business reports through Portfolio.com.
There was also a Quickforms app that let you generate notebook paper, graph paper, calendars, fax cover sheets, and other paper tools.
Finally, all these Apps are free. HP just puts them on its server and you get to use them. But I need to emphasize that the Apps are all you get-you can't go off and browse the Web and print out selected Web pages. (That's what your computer is for.)
In a world where everyone is retreating into a digital cocoon with their iPhone and iPads and whatever, it seems quaint to be coming out with something that depends on paper as its interface. But look at it this way: why have a waiting room cluttered with ancient magazines when you can have stapled printouts of that day's news feeds? Plus, you can have puzzles and children's crafts. The effort and expense would be trivial, assuming you've acquired the printer, paper, and Internet connection anyway.
Beyond that, there are three points I'd like to make:
First, they're just scratching the surface of what Print Apps could do. For instance, I kept looking for IRS forms. Maybe they'll show up tomorrow. HP offers an SDK and hopefully people will get excited enough to use it.
Second, this introduces another point of failure. Handing off important tasks to your printer is okay in theory, but it means that your printer and its connection has to work. Frankly, there were moments when it didn't in my case, but turning it off and the back off was typically efficacious. Individual services could also drop off-line-as you learned after a lengthy wait that finally produced an error message. Of course, this is new technology, which means that early adopters suffer. Hopefully the teething stage will end real soon now. (Listening, HP?)
Third, the Print Apps don't work if the printer is attached directly to a computer via USB. It has to be functioning as a multi-user network printer. In that mode the machines can also perform ePrint functions, meaning they will print files sent to them as e-mail. That's another whole new world, which I'll get to in a future posting.