Cutting Through the Fog of Google’s Cloud Print

Google introduced its new approach to printing yesterday with the announcement of Google Cloud Print. But “cloud” in this case is equating to “foggy” for some because the entire solution is still at a high-level description. A web-based printing solution hasn’t been implemented yet by Google (s goog) — instead, the company is positioning for what it hopes to deliver for its Chrome OS, due out in the second half of this year. And by Google’s own admission, it’s going to need help. So for now, Google has simply outlined the plans, checked in some publicly available code and floated an innovative idea. So what is Google Cloud Print, exactly?

Essentially, Google is attempting to remove the computer from the middle of the print equation. In today’s world, we use an application to send a print job to the print server running on our computer. That software manages the task by communicating through a driver (more software) to the physical hardware of the printer. In the Google Cloud Print solution, the computer and accompanying print server software go away and are replaced by the cloud. Google handles the print job and communicates directly with a cloud-aware printer — these don’t exist yet, which is why I said the solution isn’t implemented yet. You may not need to replace your current printer with a cloud-aware one, though — Google will include a proxy software solution in the Google Chrome browser, which will register a legacy printer with the cloud.

What’s the use case?

Trying to see through all of this the fog, I had a phone conversation with Om this afternoon and we tried to make sense of it all. On one hand, I believe that Google’s cloud printing concept has merit and solves a problem that could otherwise hamper adoption of Chrome OS devices. And yet Om made a good point with the opposite point of view: What’s the point of sending a print job up to the cloud only to pull it back down to the printer sitting three feet away? Indeed, it’s not the most effective use of valuable bandwidth, no matter how small the print job is. But I see that situation as the exception and not the rule because Chrome OS is meant for mobile use much more so than home use.

Google may ultimately want to push Chrome OS in every market it can — business, home and mobile — but I’d argue it’s best suited for mobile. Chrome OS is essentially a web browser built on a Linux core and won’t support the desktop apps found in the home and workplace. Instead, Chrome OS leverages web services and browser-based applications as shown in my early preview video. These light apps in a browser are perfect for mobile use in areas of Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity. Put another way, people using Chrome OS in the manner it’s intended won’t have as much of a printing need as desktop or laptop users, and in the rare cases they do, Google wants to be prepared. This same reasoning justifies HP’s (s hpq) foray into a similar offering on a smaller scale with its Mobile Printing application for Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone.

Does this advance printing or is Google just trying to control even more?

There’s a point to be made about Google’s control over our data and it’s a point that scares people away from using Google’s web services. I’m not one of those people as I use Google for nearly everything: personal and work email, my Android phone, document editing on my iPad and more. But I respect the people and business entities that won’t entrust their information to Google. And in fairness to those in this category, I haven’t seen anything in the limited Cloud Print documentation that pertains to data security and privacy, aside from logging in with a Google account. Since the Cloud Print idea is only just floating around now, we should be watching for how print data will be handled. For now, I can only assume that Google will maintain the same level of privacy and security that it does with its other services.

Perhaps that’s too big an assumption on my part, but once you get past it, I see some advancements in printing, which really hasn’t changed much in recent years. Once we see cloud-aware printers, what’s to stop the ones nearest to you from advertising their service? I could easily envision a “Nearby Printer Available” message on my future Chrome OS device just as I see “Nearby Wireless Network” messages on my phone, iPad and notebook today. Printing is only a localized event because printers are chained to the computer today. By breaking those chains with cloud printing, Google is simply looking forward to meeting the needs of mobile users.

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