HP Envisions webOS-Powered, PC-Less Printers

Hewlett-Packard has grand designs on how to radically change the laser printer, a product it brought to the mass market after Xerox invented it in the 1970s.

Following its acquisition of mobile device maker Palm, HP (NYSE: HPQ) has made no secret of its intention to take Palm’s webOS beyond the smartphone, but a business printer was probably not the first device people had in mind.

While laser printers have advanced in areas of color support and speed, some things haven’t changed, such as how to print to one. Today’s laser printers require a network connection through a PC, which in turn is connected to a network.

But with webOS, a lightweight Linux implementation that has native Wi-Fi support, HP is envisioning a new approach: Add a Wi-Fi antenna to the printer and it can talk directly to the Internet, with no intermediate PC needed.

HP CEO Mark Hurd made the first hints of using the webOS in printers on Tuesday’s earnings call with analysts.

“When we think of printers, you’ve now got a whole series of Web-connected printers that, as they connect to the Web, need an OS. We prefer to have that OS in our case to be our IP, where we can control the customer experience as we always have in the printing business, and that’s a big deal to us,” he told analysts.

The second hint came from Vyomesh “VJ” Joshi, executive vice president of HP’s Imaging and Printing Group, during a Reuters technology summit in San Francisco. He said a Web printing initiative was in the works but declined to provide any further details. He did say that webOS would not be limited to HP’s consumer products, like phones and tablets.

One of the obvious choices for such printing capabilities is making it simpler to send photos from a phone straight to a printer, without requiring a PC as an intermediary. “A lot of images are trapped in smartphones,” Joshi said at the event.

HP came out with what it called “the world’s first Web-connected printer” in mid-2009, called HP Photosmart Premium with TouchSmart Web. It was operated by a group of widgets created in HTML5 and Java and was aimed at printing Google maps, tickets from Fandango, coupons, recipes, and other minor stuff.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, found the idea intriguing and fitting. “It’s a logical extension as we move away from traditional PCs and even notebooks onto tablets and other wireless-enabled devices, figuring out how to seamlessly include printers into the circle of machines makes great sense,” he told InternetNews.com.

People don’t want to be tied to a desk, and likewise, freeing up a business printer from a PC only increases the flexibility of an office layout and infrastructure, he added. “That’s part of the point of mobility is not to be tethered to a central computing device. Creating some interesting interconnections between printers and other machines makes great sense,” King said.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at Internetnews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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