Have you ever tried printing something from an iOS device lately? Can you explain to me why Apple decided not to give power users a way to use standard network printing protocols?
Apple devices do not to TCP/IP printing. At all. Instead they use a proprietary apple protocol known as AirPrint which, in my honest opinion is both brilliant and horrible at the same time. It is brilliant, because if you live in an Apple friendly ecosystem (and by that I mean you own and AirPrint enabled printer or you have your printer hooked up to an AirPort Extreme) it just fucking works™. This is how it looks like:
Like fucking magic (which by the way is different from regular magic) it just shows up in your print menu. There is no setup, no drivers, no futzing around with IP addresses – you just hit print, and it does. The printers advertise their presence on the network, and the iOS devices know how to find them. It is amazing. This is the sort of thing that makes Apple users such snobby jerks – if you do things the Apple way things just fall into place and there is little to no friction at the interface between human and his technology.
The problem is that we don’t live in an Apple-centric world. Most households have an eclectic a mix of different technologies that usually manage to work together quite well. Sometimes though, making them talk to each other can be a hassle. If you ever had the pleasure of setting up a network printer in a mixed OS environment, with multiple windows machines, all joined to different domains and work groups without a common file/print sharing server you know it usually isn’t as simple as it sounds. The plug and play simplicity of AirPrint solves this issue in a refreshing way but introduces other problems.
If you happen to own a slightly older, TCP/IP network printer without AirPrint support, and you don’t feel like tethering your perfectly functioning device to an expensive AirPort box you are shit out of luck. No native printing from iOS devices for you.
Hold on though, AirPrint is basically just a print service, right? Your printer or AirPort box run a tiny server that then talks to the mobile devices making the magic happen. What if we make a fake AirPrint server that runs on your desktop computer, and acts as a proxy between your local printers and the wireless devices.
It turns out it has been done. In fact OSX had AirPrint functionality built in, but Apple sort of nerfed it and fuddled with it across last few OS updates so that it no longer works properly. Or at least not without some work. Fortunately some good soul made an app for that.
AirPrint Activator is an OSX application that does exactly what I outlined above – it pretends to be an AirPrint server and makes all the printers you have access to on your Mac accessible to your iOS devices. The creator essentially re-wrote the server functionality from scratch so he promises that this app will continue working even if Apple decides to rip out all AirPrint code from Mountain Lion.
Unfortunately, my Mac is a laptop, and as most laptops it is not always on. When I’m using an iPad to print something it is usually because I can’t be bothered to crack open my MacBook and wait for it to wake up. And if I do, then I might as well print from there. My Windows desktop on the other hand is on most of the time. So I searched for a similar application that would run on 64 bit Vista (shut up, I know it sucks but I don’t feel like upgrading).
I have found one rather promising lead that was echoed across various forums that promised to give you a native Windows AirPrint service. Unfortunately it involved downloading a shady looking zip file from Rapidshare, running an executable contained therein, an then applying two registry hacks, also included in the bundle. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t really trust random executables from an unknown source posted on some random forums. Running such things is like finding a dirty syringe on the street and plunging it’s rusty needle directly into your vain, because a guy on the corner said it’s totally legit cure for your hay fever. Unless you are a protagonist of a Bioshock game, you should not do that sort of thing.
There is a more legit looking application out there called FingerPrint2. Unlike AirPrint Activator it is not free, but it has a free demo, so I decided to check it out.
It turns out it is very Apple-like in design, and it follows the hassle free AirPrint philosophy quite closely. You install it on your PC, and then you see something like this:
You just check-off which of your available printers you want to share with your iOS devices and you are done. No setup, no configuration, no mucking with permissions. It just works. I was quite impressed. Then I tested it and my excitement waned.
FingerPrint works like magic, but it’s creators decided that giving you a fully functional demo would be too nice of a thing to do. So unless you buy a license and activate your copy, they will print a gigantic full color watermark on the first page of every print job. And I’m not talking about a small logo in the corner, or discrete diagonal text. No, they slap a gigantic high resolution, full page image with vibrant color in the middle of the page, blotting out all the text on the page. I guess they really want you to buy it.
The full license is $20 which is quite steep of a price for the functionality you can get for free on a Mac. But I guess I can’t flaw their logic – if you are an owner of an iPad or an iPhone then shelling out twenty bucks on a tiny little app that sits in the tray won’t kill you. Still, it seems like a lot of money for the functionality it provides. Then again, maybe I’m just falling into the same cognitive trap that Oatmeal aptly described in his comic.
Why is it so difficult to evaluate what software is really worth? Well, perhaps the question here is whether or not software utilities are goods that ought to be sold to begin with. Part of the reason behind the free software movement is that most people just feel uncomfortable buying or selling software. It just does not seem right.
But I digress. How do you print from your iPad? Is there a cheaper alternative or should I just suck it up and give FingerPrint people that twenty? What do you think?