What is NFC Touch-to-Print and Why it’s a Big Deal for Mobile Printing

Samsung Xpress C460FW IIWe posted a story yesterday that leads with an announcement that Hewlett-Packard is now offering optional NFC (Near Field Communication) touch-to-print capabilities from NFC-enabled smartphones, tablets, and notebook PCs for new LaserJets and Officejets, as well as an existing installed base of 40 million HP LaserJet and Officejet devices. While this is not groundbreaking news (see our NFC posts on Brother and Samsung), we thought that this may be the perfect time to explore NFC and its impact on the future of mobile printing.

What is NFC?

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a set of standards that allows devices to establish radio communication by either physically touching them together or bringing them within very close proximity of one another (usually no more than a few inches). NFC builds upon RFID systems by allowing two-way communication between endpoints, where earlier systems such as contact-less smart cards were one-way only. In its present form, it enables contact-less transactions, data exchange, and simplified setup of wireless communications, including WiFi, and communication is also possible between an NFC device and an un-powered NFC chip (a “tag”) that makes it capable of replacing earlier one-way applications. For the purposes of this article, NFC is capable of enabling devices to act as electronic identity documents and keycards.

NFC-Enabled Mobile Devices

I am sure that you remember the early Samsung Galaxy phone commercials that showed two users bumping their phones together in order to wirelessly share photos, one of the earlier NFC implementations. NFC is also found in Google Nexus devices (“Android Beam”) that use NFC to automatically enable and pair Bluetooth on both devices and disable it once the transaction is complete, and only works between Android devices with the Jelly Bean (4.1) operating system and above. Samsung has its own flavor of NFC (“S-Beam”) which uses NFC to share MAC Address and IP addresses and then use WiFi Direct to share files and documents. The advantage of using WiFi Direct instead of Bluetooth is  that WiFi is much faster than Bluetooth and better equipped for sharing large files. To date, Apple prominently lacks NFC support with its line of iOS mobile devices (up to and including iOS 7), and oddly enough poses one of the biggest threats to NFC with its forthcoming “iBeacon” technology–complete with a 50m range.

Commercial Applications

Contactless Payment Systems – You have probably heard of Google Wallet. Due to an inability for Google to reach an agreement with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, Google Wallet is only officially supported on NFC-equipped mobile devices on the Sprint Network (the three remaining U.S. carriers have adopted ISIS Mobile Wallet instead). BlackBerry – devices running OS 7.0 or higher support NFC and BlackBerry Tag. Mastercard – added NFC support for PayPass for the Android and BlackBerry platforms. Samsung – has partnered with Visa on a “paywave” application for the Galaxy S4 smartphone. Microsoft – implemented the “Wallet hub” into their Windows Phone 8 mobile OS and has built NFC capabilities into the Windows 8 operating system. Meanwhile Germany, Austria, Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Iran, and Turkey are experimenting with NFC public-transport ticketing systems while the city of Vilnius (the Capitol of Lithuania) has already replaced paper tickets for public transportation with ISO/IEC 14443 Type A cards. Finally, India is implementing NFC transactions for box-office tickets.

Vending MachinesCoca-Cola plans to partner with ISIS to implement NFC in vending machines for contactless payment and loyalty awards. In a somewhat more interesting venture, Google launched several Google Play vending machines in Tokyo on Monday.

Mobile Printing – As previously stated, HP announced the availability of two NFC options for new LaserJets and Officejets and an existing installed base of 40 million HP LaserJet and Officejet devices. Meanwhile, Brother and Samsung already have NFC-enabled printers available. Here’s how it works: you “send” a print job from your NFC-enabled mobile device to an NFC-enabled printer. Note that the job is not actually sent at this point. In order to retrieve your print job, you take the mobile device from which the print job was sent and move it into close proximity to the NFC-enabled printer. Then, the Bluetooth or WiFi direct communication channel is established and communication of the print job commences. Finally, depending on how the process is implemented in the printer’s firmware, your job will print automatically and other interim steps (such media-tray select or additional authentication) can be implemented.

Why is NFC-Printing a Big Deal?

In a word: Security. No matter the size of the company, every manager is concerned about uncontrolled printing from mobile devices to their network printers, where a high-coverage color print can cost them up to 18¢ or more. The popular and ubiquitous Apple AirPrint mobile printing solution has virtually no security (other than turning the feature off) and HP’s ePrint remote printing solution can only block certain email addresses from the ability to print (and they must be manually designated on the HP ePrint Web site). Google’s Cloud Print remote printing solution is somewhat more secure as users must physically establish a destination printer using a locally sourced registration code. Plus, the prints sit in the exit tray in full view of everybody until they are physically retrieved by the initiating user with all three solutions. Moreover, if somebody has installed photo paper in the main tray, for example, prints will be produced on some expensive media, regardless if photos were contained in the print job or not.

In response to these issues, there are scores of third-party applications and solutions whose value-add is user authentication and tracking, but more often than not, require server components and implementation and management by IT personnel. NFC-print offers a simple and effective alternative–the user must walk into close proximity to the NFC-enabled printer with their mobile device and/or touch the printer with their mobile device, choose a media source, print their job(s), and retrieve their prints. Managers will have an opportunity to physically observe who is doing what and not have to worry about users inadvertently printing onto inappropriate or expensive media that may result in wasted prints and money. Moreover, any on-board print-job logging software will record details on the mobile device that sent the job, which will be sufficient to identify the source of the prints and manage, track or charge them back to the user.

Keep in mind that NFC can be utilized for both remote and mobile printing. However, since the print job is not actually sent until NFC communication is established, you cannot remotely “send” a print job to a person in another location like you can with ePrint or Cloud Print because the job will not print until you establish a NFC communication channel.

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