The recent announcement of Google Chrome OS included something that's slipped under the radar of most reports: Google Cloud Print. Hinted at earlier this year, Cloud Print is to be the solution to printing demands within the cloud, and will eventually be an option on just about every device: desktop, notebook, netbook, tablet, and phone.
Google Cloud Print is a devastatingly simple idea. Specially-equipped printers within the office or home go online via Wi-Fi or ethernet, and subsequently connect to Google's Cloud Print headquarters. Anything you want to print, from any location in the world, will be sent via the Internet and Cloud Print to the printer.
Users will use the service to print from Google Docs and Gmail, or print Web pages viewed in Chrome, or perhaps even pictures from Picasa.
Printing from devices like phones has always been tricky, and many less-than-elegant solutions have been offered before now. Apple recently found itself under a barrage of criticism for its AirPrint service that will allow printing from iPhones and iPads, but which appears to have been put on ice.
Google envisions a future where the USB cable is abandoned and we all purchase cloud-ready printers. However, existing printers can also be utilized. Google Chrome OS apparently includes a background service that can turn any printer attached to the computer into a cloud device. This raises the bizarre possibility of print jobs potentially travelling thousands of miles across the Internet, to Cloud Print headquarters, only to sent straight back to the same physical location as the user and printed on a device less than a meter away.
However, for anybody using the cloud already, this kind of thing won't sound too odd. I sometimes use Gmail as a primitive file sharing service across various computers. I simply e-mail the file to myself, and then access the e-mail on other computer.
Although it's not possible right now, because each printer is locked to a single Google account, sharing the cloud printer among many users will eventually be possible. This will be vital for any workspace using Cloud Print. Interesting possibilities are raised by the prospect of Internet printer sharing. Imagine being able to print handouts at the location you're about to visit in order to give a presentation, for example. Or imagine being in a conference call with a client and being able to print materials for them on their own hardware -- no need to mail them any documentation!
This clever approach to cloud printing is typical of Google's thinking, and gives the company yet another way to access your data. They say that your print data will be confidential ("Documents you send to print are your personal information and are kept strictly confidential"), but that doesn't mean that Google's search robots can't take a peek at all that juicy information -- entirely anonymously, of course. After all, Google already takes a peek at your Gmail in order to target advertising to you.
But if in the cloud-equipped future you print a document about buying a new car, don't be surprised if you suddenly start seeing a suspicious amount of ads for Toyota, Ford, and Honda.
There are almost certain to be several drawbacks to the service. Sending something to a standard printer connected via USB means the output will be in your hands in minutes, if not seconds. Sending a print job via the Internet will undoubtedly introduce a delay while the job is uploaded and then downloaded to the printer, and that's assuming Google's computers are blindingly quick in their turn-around.
Additionally, it's not unnatural to wonder what will happen to your printing ability should the cloud go kaput, even temporarily. But then again, in Google's ideal future you'll be working entirely within the cloud, so the cloud going down will mean game over for everything. That is unless you have a local cloud backup for such contingencies, and I'm sure Google's working on that right now...right, Google?
However, positive points of the system include the truly plug-and-play, cloud-equipped printer, and there will be no need to mess around installing drivers on any computer that wants to print to it.
It should also mean printing is less hassle for users; once the job has been uploaded to Cloud Print, the user is free to shut down their computer. Using USB-connected printers, by contrast, users have to wait until the print job has finished.
One wonders if Google plans to connect any other mundane hardware to the cloud. I can imagine image scanners being next in line, at least based on the hardware profile of a typical home or business. No doubt Google would love to get its hands on the data contained in any documents or images you might choose to scan in. But whether access to such data is worth the effort of Google creating specific hardware and software protocols for the purpose remains to be seen.
In theory, at least you can try Google Cloud Print now via a specially modified version of Google Chrome browser, which will turn any USB-connected printer into a cloud device. However, you'll need a Google account in order to register the printer, and the special version of Chrome only works on Windows (Mac and Linux support is coming soon, apparently).
Once the software is installed, access the Under the Hood settings with Preferences and click the Sign in to Google Cloud Print entry on the menu.
Now comes the difficult bit. You'll need to get hold of the Chrome OS in order to print anything other than a test page. At the moment, short of compiling the Chromium source code yourself (tricky!), the only way to do this is to apply for one of the Chrome OS Cr-48 notebooks that Google's giving away to those who can prove themselves worthy.
Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.