Sending e-mail messages over the Internet may take a new twist by early next year, when users will be able to send e-mails and files, not to another PC, but directly to someone else's printer.
The Printer Working Group, composed of all major printer vendors, has ratified Version 1.0 of the Internet Printing Protocol (IPP) and sent it on to the parent body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, for final approval which is expected in a matter of weeks.
Once approved, companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark are expected to incorporate the IPP into their printer products so that users will be able to submit print jobs to a printer, learn the status of a print job, cancel a print request, and discover a printer's features, such as colour capability, paper size and number of paper bins, officials said.
"Eventually, if you had a printer that is IPP compliant, that printer will have a Web address and anyone around the world who can get on the Internet can print to that URL," said Robert Palmer, the editor of HardCopy Report, in Boston, a publication that reports on the printer industry.
However, another industry expert warns that there is still some distance between the acceptance of a technology as an industry standard and its implementation by printer companies.
"You need a sponsor or an intermediary that will host the service so that if you are not online the server will resend the print job to you or directly to your printer when you get back online. An ISP might offer this service," said Grey Held, a senior analyst at Lyra Research, in Boston.
The IPP also offers an alternative to sending faxes, especially when colour hard copy output is preferred, Held said.
Microsoft holds the final key for implementation of direct printing over the Web.
"The real bottleneck is Microsoft," Held said. "You need software on your computer that will allow you to select and talk to a destination device."
The software giant is promising that client-side software will be available with Windows 2000, Held said.
On the commercial side, industry players are lining up to support the IPP.
"Netware Distributed Print Service [or NDPS] incorporates printers with Novell Directory Services, for manageability. We are integrating the IPP into our NDPS so that printers are not just available over IP but manageable," said Brad Christensen, product manager at Novell. "A system administrator could manage his printers from a hotel room."
By putting IPP into Novell's printer management suite, administrators will also be able to make older printers available over IP, Christensen said.
Lexmark's commercial division also announced support for the IPP and will make the software available as an upgrade to its print server software.
A member of the Printer Working Group from Hewlett-Packard also expressed her support.
"Everything is moving toward TCP/IP in the corporate world and this dovetails nicely with that transition. It basically allows you to use a printer like you would a fax by addressing its IPP address. It is a powerful way of transmitting documents in corporations," said Sandra Matts, a member of the Printer Working Group and an engineer scientist for Workgroup Colour LaserJets at Hewlett-Packard.