Group to develop universal print driver

Working quietly, an informal group of the leading printer manufacturers is creating a single universal print driver that will replace the more than 3000 drivers that are currently required.

The goal is to have only one driver included in the operating system, or a Universal Printer Driver Format (UPDF), with the individual characteristics of a particular printer described in a text file residing within the printer itself.

"We are hoping the [bidirectional] characteristics of the UPDF will help IT managers, in that less support of printers is needed," said Sandra Matts, chair of the UPDF committee in the Printer Working Group (PWG) and an engineer scientist for Workgroup Color LaserJets at Hewlett-Packard. "They won't have to configure every client's computer for each printer the client will use."

Commands would reside in the text file within the printer to invoke the printer's capabilities. If a user wanted to do duplex printing, for example, the text file would send the correct data stream.

On the operating system side, the driver is universal. It is on the client side that unique features are described.

"There is no such thing as a device-independent data stream," said Harry Lewis, a member of the PWG and a printing systems architect at IBM Printing Systems Division.

Every device may have different characteristics that can change.

A so-called metalanguage developed by the PWG would be able to describe all of the features of the printer for access by the single driver in the OS.

"Basically, it is similar to PostScript page description language," said Dan Wright, another PWG member and the product manager for alliances for standards at Lexmark.

According to group members, the finished driver will be available for testing in eight months to one year, with another two months needed for interoperability testing before it ships.

The universal driver will require the support of operating system vendors, such as Microsoft, as well as Unix operating system vendors. Currently, Microsoft ships a CD with more than 3000 printer drivers with each package of NT.

Microsoft support appears to be in place, according to Paul Moore, program manager for Windows NT 5.0 printing. The software company currently has Unidrive 5 in Beta 2 of NT 5.0, which is similar to technology that might be used as the basis for the UPDF, according to Moore.

Moore believes the UPDF will benefit IT departments.

"We think that a lot of IT manager problems arise from having too many printer drivers. The benefits [of a universal driver] would be all around," Moore said. "It will reduce the administrative load."

The single driver as envisioned by members of the PWG allow a UPDF to query the printer device for capabilities.

"Today, we really rely on the user selecting in the UI features of the printer," Matts said. "It's really a best guess at times. UPDF will allow our drivers to truly know what is attached to the printer at the start of the print job."

The Printer Working Group can be reached at www.pwg.org

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