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The Hidden Meaning of Google Cloud Print
Google is a giant in networking and online services and so anything they do is relevant to the Internet. They are also becoming a player in as-a-service or cloud technology, in mobile devices, and even in operating systems with Android and Chrome OS. You have to take them seriously in their enterprise aspirations, even if they do something that seems silly. Google is also profit-driven, as much or more than most companies, and so you've got to look for the profit even if they seem to be doing something for free. Google's Cloud Print demonstrates both these situations.It's pretty hard not to think of printing, even network printing, as a pretty boring topic. It's not like printers are a new thing, even on the network. The fact that Google has defined printing as a cloud service for its Chrome OS might be sort of interesting--for cloud conspirators, perhaps. For skeptics, comments on Cloud Print have focused on why sending something to the cloud to print, only to have it come back to your local printer, isn't dumb. Somehow, it has to come back to your printer.
There's more to Cloud Print than cloud printing because it's really not about printing in the cloud, it's about printing from the cloud. Printing a document means converting something from an editable form (the Office DOC format, for example) into something that is structured in the language of the printer, like Adobe's PostScript or HP's PCL5. The conversion normally is done by a print driver on your computer, and even if the printer is a network printer, there's a local print driver for every system.
What Cloud Print will do is create the notion of a cloud-aware printer that "understands" a set of cloud print APIs. Applications that understand those APIs send documents to the cloud, and the cloud then routes them to a cloud printer that's convenient to or selected by the user. What's key here is that any system can be easily made to support the Cloud Print APIs, that they can print any document, and that they can be made to work with any printer. Google is defining Cloud Print in association with its Chrome OS, but the same concept would work for any other OS.
Which gets us to motive and profit. Google is locked in a battle with Microsoft for enterprise applications in the cloud, and with Apple for mobile applications and social-network services. Both Microsoft and Apple have large installed bases and compel support from printer vendors, but new OSs like Google's Android and Chrome or even older ones like Linux may not get complete printer support. Cloud Print could at least make all OSs equal from the print perspective.
And more. Device drivers are used for a lot of stuff, from scanners to plug and play. To use a device, the system has to have a device driver. That makes maintaining these drivers an essential tech support task, one that gets bigger with every new device and every new PC.
Google has always said that to Chrome OS, all applications are web/cloud applications. That's appealing to enterprise IT operations types who have been looking for ways to reduce their application support costs. The whole notion of "virtual desktop" technology came along to provide a way of centralizing the management of middleware and tools needed for running applications. With Cloud Print, Google is showing enterprises that Chrome OS is a really thin client, one that doesn't even need device drivers.
It's pretty likely that Google will be extending this concept to other things that get device drivers. If you can do printing as a cloud service, you could do storage as such a service. And just like Cloud Print is available to other OSs, so would this expanded notion of "Cloud Disk". Even complex display technology (the Linux/UNIX X-windows protocol, and some CAD functions) might be made available as services. You'd need HTML5 for all that to work, but Google is of course a major supporter of HTML5, and HTML5 will be available on everybody's browser and on every operating system.
Cloud Print is only the tip of the iceberg, a step that could revolutionize what an enterprise client device is by creating a set of cloud APIs that represent the visual, print, data access, and application tools available through the device. Even legacy OSs like Windows would likely avail themselves of these tools, and through their adoption the client side of the application would become (surprise, surprise!) more "Chrome-OS-Ready". But whether Chrome OS was or wasn't adopted, the differentiation created by local features and devices would be eaten by the cloud. Cloud Print and its successor services could bring along the age of hosted services once and for all.
There are still issues here, of course. What happens if you have your own printer or disk drive? You can envision a new kind of architecture where you have "user processes" and "resource processes" connected by a "cloud bus" that can draw from either local or hosted tools for both process types. You can envision a virtual computing framework built with the Internet inside it instead of outside it. It's a framework where current computing incumbencies mean nothing.
Gee, I wonder if Google is visualizing that too?