By Carolyn Gruske, Special to The Record – Given the prevalence of wireless internet access, it is nearly impossible to have a drink at a coffee shop or attend a business event in a hotel meeting room and not see somebody snapping photos with a cellphone or checking email on a laptop computer.
What isn’t common is finding those same people printing their pictures, documents or PowerPoint presentations while out in public. At least, it’s not common yet. But it will be if PrinterOn Corp. has anything to say about the matter.
The Kitchener company’s entire business strategy is to get people printing while outside of their homes and offices. Company executives want people to print documents in coffee shops, hotels, libraries, airport lounges and anywhere else that is open to the public. It’s an idea they’ve been working on for the last decade.
“Our founder, Steve Spicer, said, ‘hmm, here’s the internet, there’s this thing called mobile users. People are going to start going around in public with mobile computers. I think when people do this there is going to be a need to print’,” says Ken Noreikis, the company’s vice-president of sales and marketing. “Steve’s vision in 2000 was just unbelievable. In 2000 he came up with the idea of enabling smartphones to print, before smartphones were even adopted.”
Noreikis says $27 million was raised to develop technology that would “enable mobile users to print on the go.”
Before the company became PrinterOn, it was part of Spicer Corp., a Kitchener-based firm founded by Spicer in 1983. Spicer Corp. provided data visualization solutions for document management companies and printer manufacturers.
Steve Spicer died suddenly in 2007 at age 46 and decisions had to be made about the company’s future. The following year, the Spicer Corp. main business was sold to Waterloo based Open Text Corp. and the mobile printing division became an independent company, employing 25 people and operating under the name PrinterOn.
Since then, the company has developed systems that permit communication between a variety of handheld and mobile device platforms and operating systems, sending a host of file formats to printers made by an assortment of manufacturers.
Right now, any file that can be emailed from a device can be sent to PrinterOn-enabled printers. Additionally, users can open any application on their laptops and print directly from them. In the coming 12 to 18 months, PrinterOn plans to add the capabilities to print from hand-held devices like iPhones and Android based smartphones.
“It sounds like a relatively simple concept to link users on the internet to printers on the other side,” says PrinterOn chief executive officer Angus Cunningham. “What we found is the really, really difficult part is building out the infrastructure so it can both scale and be always on and delivering output in a consistent and reliable way.
“The real technology challenges were building the underlying technology so the solution would look to the user like it’s simple and it’s easy and it didn’t take much to build,” he says.
A further complication was the need to support different payment models, ranging from totally free-of-charge to pay-per-page, depending on where the printers are located. An airport lounge, for example, would probably offer a pay-to-print solution, whereas as hotel might offer free printing to all of its guests.
Besides developing the technology, the PrinterOn team needed to determine how to deliver the service. The company selected a multi-pronged approach. In some cases, it deals directly with the client, be it a coffee shop or a library. Sometimes, it allows a printer manufacturer, like Ricoh Co. Ltd., to offer the service in conjunction with its printers. In other cases, it permits technology resellers to set their clients up with remote printing capabilities.
PrinterOn encourages co-operation with other technology companies, as long as the word gets out about mobile printing and about PrintSpots – the company’s name for places that have its mobile printing solution available.
“We have a partner in the UK that has deployed PrinterOn in 25 public concourses in airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick and Manchester. They’re in public so it’s public printing and they’re charging £3 per print job,” says Cunningham.
Hewlett-Packard Co. is another PrinterOn partner. HP has created a free, GPS-based BlackBerry application that will, on demand, inform users where the nearest PrintSpot is located. The same application provides a simplified process for transmitting print jobs to PrintSpots. Currently, there are 4,000 PrintSpots in more 35 countries.
The concept of mobile printing is catching on with businesses that are looking to entice customers with high-tech services, including Williams Fresh Cafe. So far, six of its locations are PrintSpots, including the stores at King Street East and TuLane Street in Kitchener and at 30 Northfield Dr. in Waterloo.
Customers are charged 25 cents for a black and white copy and 50 cents for a colour print. In order to set up a PrintSpot privileges, customers go online and make a $2 deposit, via their credit cards, into a service account. The account balance carries over from visit to visit until it is depleted.
When the customer wants to print, the system debits the account and then issues that person a security code. The customer then walks up to the printer, inputs the code and pushes the print button. That way only the person commissioning the print job will be able to pick up the pages.
Lisa Adams, director of business development for Williams, says mobile printing fits in with the Brantford- based company’s view of itself as the type of business that “is always on the cusp of technology.” She hopes PrintSpots will entice business travelers. “The idea being that you wouldn’t normally think of going into a Williams to do your printing, but if you want to get lunch or a coffee and want to check your email these are all things you do,” she says. “And now printing is one more business application that can be completed while you’re having your lunch. It’s time saving for our guests, and just one more service we like to offer for them.”
Some locations of the Hilton Garden Inn hotel chain also offer guests PrintSpot access. Tony Levere, food and beverage manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Cambridge, tells every guest he encounters about the complimentary printing service, including those attending business or social functions at the Hespeler Road hotel. “It is going over very well and we are getting nothing but positive feedback. Most people say they didn’t know they could do that.”