Why Google Just Enabled Cloud Printing on Phones

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Google expanded its Cloud Print service today, enabling users to print a Google Doc or Gmail message directly from a web-connected handset. The function is rolling out over the next few days to phones that support an HTML5 browser, although Google specifically notes compatibility devices running on a minimum of Android 2.1 or iOS 3.0. Google’s Cr-48 Chrome OS computers already support the remote printing feature, but it’s clear why Google has added printing to handsets next: Sales of such devices are rising fast, and the apps they run could benefit from remote printing.

Estimates of computer sales indicate roughly 350.9 million sold in 2010, with 93.4 million sales in the last quarter alone. Those numbers are comprised by both desktops and laptops, with the majority now being notebook computers; quarterly laptop sales began to surpass those of desktops in 2008. But many of those laptops can already print to shared printers on a home or enterprise network. Enter the smartphone, which typically doesn’t have the ability to print and is on pace to start outselling traditional desktops and laptops combined.

Google’s Cloud Printing on phones targets a user base that’s growing quickly, especially in the U.S., where 50 percent of consumers are expected to use a smartphone by the end of this year. In fact, Google’s new print service is initially limited to the U.S. during this first roll-out wave. And the print functionality fits in with another aspect of smartphones: that of mobile apps, where handset owners are using bite-sized chunks of functionality.

For now, printing from smartphones is limited to Docs and Gmail activities, but when it introduced the Cloud Print service, Google’s stated goal was “to build a printing experience that enables any app (web, desktop, or mobile) on any device to print to any printer anywhere in the world,” meaning any mobile app developer could integrate Google’s Cloud Print service into a smartphone application.

That makes me think of SpringPad, a cross-platform application I use to capture thoughts and notes from. Some of those thoughts might be worth printing out. Or maybe I won’t just buy my movie tickets through Fandango on my phone, but instead I’ll send them to a printer at home so they’re ready to be picked up before the show. And then there’s ToodleDo, the to-do app I use on my handset: Shooting a chore list to the printer for the kids to pick up and handle could mean that their rooms might actually get cleaned. Although it’s rare I print much of anything these days, there are specific times when being able to print something from literally anywhere could bring big benefits.

To be sure, Google’s Cloud Print will eventually find its way to traditional computers in the future as well, but it makes sense for Google to go after the smartphone first; more of our small but valuable task-based activities are taking place on the connected handset, not on the computer.

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