Web Apps

Google Dreams Up Cloud Printing Service

Google on Friday announced that it’s working on Google Cloud Print, a service that will let any application on any device print to any printer over the Internet.

Instead of relying on the device’s local operating system and drivers to print a job, applications will use Google Cloud Print to submit and manage print jobs. Google Cloud Print will then send the print jobs to the appropriate printer and provide information on the job status to the application.

Google on Friday released code and documentation for Google Cloud Print as part of the open source Chromium and Chromium operating system projects.

The Fine Print

Google Cloud Print will revolve around the Google Chrome operating system, in which all apps are Web apps. The idea is to make sure printing from Web apps is as natural as printing from traditional native apps is today, according to Google Labs, which is working on the project.

Existing print subsystems and drives on existing PC OSes leave “a lot of room for improvement,” according to Google Labs’ statement.

Any kind of app, ranging from Web apps such as Gmail to native apps such as a desktop word processor or Android or iPhone apps, will be able to use Google Cloud Print.

The apps will call the Google Cloud Print application programming interface (API). They will then either use the common print dialog Google Cloud Print will provide, or use the Cloud Print APIs to collect the data needed for custom print options. Google is developing the common print dialog as a Web user interface that apps will call on to let users select the printer and print options they want.

There will also be APIs for querying print job status.

When the APIs are available, third-party app developers will be able to use Google Cloud Print in their Web, desktop and mobile apps.

Talking to the Cloud

How printers communicate with Google Cloud Print depends on whether they’re cloud-aware printers or what Google calls u201clegacy printers.u201d

Cloud-aware printers are still a gleam in Google Labs’ eye, and Google is working on an interface for printer manufacturers.

Perhaps seeking to change the world with one stroke of a pen, Google defines legacy printers as “every printer in existence today.” These include Web-connected printers that provide users with access to certain Web services such as maps and movie tickets. They are not cloud-aware printers in Google’s eyes because they don’t know how to talk to a cloud print service to get print jobs.

Legacy printers will have to connect to Google Cloud Print through a proxy.

Following in HP’s Footsteps?

The concept of a cloud printing service is not necessarily new — HP Labs came up with a similar idea some time ago, and Google’s service is even named the same as HP’s — CloudPrint.

HP CloudPrint is a free mobile printing service for users’ cellphones or mobile devices.

Users send their print jobs to the HP CloudPrint virtual print server, and the server will store a copy and send an SMS to the user’s device with a reference ID. The user enters the code on the CloudPrint Web site and this twill trigger the server to convert the print job to a PDF that’s ready to print.

CloudPrint also has a service that lets users find a nearby printer.

Users can retrieve CloudPrint documents from any computer with a Web browser and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Does Anyone Want Cloud Printing?

Reaction to news of Google Cloud Print was mixed.

The service could save the printer industry, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “With e-books and tablets coming in, printing on paper is on the way out, but the more Web-capable printers are, the longer they’ll be around,” he explained. “Making printers Web-capable would be a good defensive move by the printer vendors.”

Cloud printing services are an extension of the move to have everything from consumer electronics devices to white goods such as refrigerators connected to the Internet, Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, pointed out. “It’s good that companies are finally pushing the envelope rather than waiting for consumers to request this capability,” he told TechNewsWorld.

However, the service might be overkill when it comes to using local office printers, Randy Abrams, director of technical education at ESET, told TechNewsWorld. “In most cases, when someone wants to print something, they want to have it right in their hand,” he remarked. “Sending a file across the Internet to print — it seems like a Rube Goldberg approach.”

The service could also fail because printers have mechanical problems. “If your printer jams or runs out of paper or ink and you’re sending a job to it remotely, how will you know?” Abrams asked.

What About Security?

If printers are all Web-capable, won’t that make it easier for hackers to come in and steal sensitive documents in transit? What will happen when the Internet crashes, or Google’s service crashes? Will users experience blackouts as they do when Gmail stumbles?

And what about document storage? Will Google retain a copy of a user’s documents on its servers regardless of whether or not they want it retained there?

“The answers to the majority of your questions can be found in a FAQ on the code site,” Google spokesperson Eitan Bencuya told TechNewsWorld.

On the question of security, the FAQ states that spammers won’t be able to send print jobs to printers because a printer can only receive a print job from its owner or an authorized person. All data transfers between apps and Google Cloud Print, and between the service and printers, will be over encrypted connections.

That doesn’t satisfy Abrams. “Someone could launch a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack, which will waste a whole lot of paper,” he pointed out. “And right now, man-in-the-middle-attacks are very real. The problem is, that’s not a Google security flaw, it’s an Internet security flaw.”

In man-in-the-middle attacks, hackers independently establish connections with both ends of a conversation or data transmission to intercept messages, then relays his own messages to both parties. Think of the hacker in this case as a translator — everything each party says goes through him and he can change the message at will. Man-in-the-middle attacks can steal users’ private data for any site the attacker chooses when the victim uses a public network.

Will Privacy Be a Problem?

Google Cloud Print will take two approaches to privacy. If the data being printed is already stored in the user’s Google account, such as a message in Gmail or a Google Docs document, the service will transmit the data together with the print job information to the printer and leave the original data in the cloud.

If the data being printed is not already stored in the user’s Google account, the Cloud Print service will temporarily store the data in a secure manner accessible only by the user, then send print job information as part of the transfer process to the printer.

Once the data has reached the printer, it will be deleted from Google’s servers. Users will have the option of retaining an archived copy of the content of any job on their Google accounts.

Things may not turn out quite so well, Enderle warned. “With Google, this could prove problematic because they haven’t exactly been the poster child of confidentiality, except with their own information,” he said.

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