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  • The iOS Report: More Missing Features

    November 24th, 2010

    When I wrote yesterday's column, I lamented over the major scaling back of iOS 4.2's AirPrint feature. Despite Apple's original promise that you'd be able to print to shared printers on your Mac or PC, that feature died during the development process. For now you're limited to a smattering of HP devices that support wireless, driverless printing. Period.

    This doesn't mean there's no solution beyond buying a new HP printer. You can buy one of those third-party printing utilities for the iOS, or you can experiment with a hack that restores the deleted AirPort shared printing features to Mac OS 10.6.5.

    I never say never, and yesterday I said I didn't want to try one of those hacks because of potential incompatibilities. After considering the question, though, I decided that it was worth a try, because it's so easy to apply. You can find the down and dirty details over at the Ars Technica site, if you're curious.

    Now I don't pretend to know why this highly-touted feature was dropped. Some suggest unexpected bugs, or perhaps some intellectual property and/or licensing concerns. Regardless, I did install the hack and, as others have reported, found that it was easy to select a shared printer and get pretty decent output results.

    I'm currently reviewing an Epson Artisan 835 multifunction printer. Without going into extensive detail, it's a mite pricey, at $299.99. But output quality is mostly first-rate, particularly with photos, where Epson usually excels. Even text is more presentable than previous Epson devices, although the "Draft" mode, which speeds up printing substantially and saves ink, gives you mediocre results.

    In any case, I was readily able to access the Print function from mobile Safari on my iPhone 4. In the next dialog, you're able to select your printer, choose the number of copies, and click Print to activate the function. After applying the 10.6.5 hack, the iPhone could see the Artisan 835 printer. Clicking Print was seamless. The Print screen soon vanished, and I was rewarded with pretty respectable output a few minutes later.

    To be fair, this is a no frills feature. You don't have any way to select specific print quality or color options, for example. There's also no guarantee that your printer will work using this hack; I made no effort to try any other printers. That may be one of the reasons Apple dropped the feature. On the other hand, there were no downsides that I could see. My Mac was no less stable, and the iPhone didn't hiccup during the process.

    As for the future, there's a published report about another of those legendary one liners from Steve Jobs on this subject. This one states that "Lots more coming soon. It's what it takes to make a giant leap to driverless printing, which is huge."

    Assuming the letter is genuine, and that's by no means certain, it's always possible Apple is signalling a new generation of printers with embedded drivers. You won't need to install printer software on your Mac and PC and suffer potential incompatibilities. Print dialogs will be consistent, and the OS will simply derive custom configuration information when querying the printer hardware. It'll also save loads of storage space on your computer, since you don't have to worry about the extra files.

    Meanwhile, there are published reports of a mid-December release of iOS 4.3, which is supposed to add publication subscription features of some sort, such as the proposed digital newspaper from News Corp. Nothing has been said, so far, about restoring full AirPrint functionality, though that might be a useful accompaniment to the subscription feature.

    In any case, one hopes that AirPrint will ultimately realize its potential, or more people will decide that they don't need printing, but, despite the skepticism from some quarters, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

    On to other misses in iOS 4.2.1, I still wonder why Apple hasn't figured out a way to allow you to have more than one signature in Mail. They seem not to realize that you might have different addresses for business and personal use, and you don't want "Sent from my iPhone" or "Sent from my iPad" to pollute your responses, although they can be easily removed.

    You should also be able to set rules, or be able to import the ones that you may have already established in the desktop version of Mail. Certainly, if your Mac is running most of the time, and is retrieving email on a regular schedule, the messages you retrieve on your iOS device will be organized in various folders in accordance with those rules — that is if you're using an IMAP-based account. Otherwise, you're out of luck.

    A built-in spam filter would be nice as well. Early on, one tech commentator suggested to me that Apple didn't add that feature to the iOS because the scanning process would consume too much in the way of precious system resources. That train has already left the station. I have little doubt that today's iPhone, iPod touch and iPad are quite powerful enough to handle the demands of catching junk mail. While it's true that many email services these days, from the one provided by your ISP, to such popular offerings as Gmail, are quite capable of handling spam filtering to a reasonable degree, a selectable feature of this sort would be really helpful.

    I haven't even begun to address Smart Folders and other needed email enhancements. For me, the mobile version of Mail is too basic, and adding an integrated Inbox and threaded messaging is just a poor beginning.



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    6 Responses to “The iOS Report: More Missing Features”

    1. Travis Butler says:

      I should have posted this on yesterday's column; mea culpa.

      But to nitpick, isn't the fact that you have to hack *OS X on your Mac* - not the iPad itself - to get AirPrint to work an indicator that it's not iOS that needs to be updated, but 10.6.5 on your Mac? (And presumably an add-on software package on the Windows side.) Not to mention the print utilities that are popping up for the Mac, like FingerPrint and Printopia, that allow you to print from iOS print-enabled applications, using the built-in iOS 4.2 functionality?

      So far, at least, the AirPrint setup seems to be quite solid on iOS itself; it's sharing support on the desktop side that needs to be established.

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @Travis Butler, You notice, I trust, that hacking 10.6.5 is precisely what I said. :)

      Peace,
      Gene

      Travis Butler Reply:

      @Gene Steinberg, you also said: :)

      Meanwhile, there are published reports of a mid-December release of iOS 4.3 [...] Nothing has been said, so far, about restoring full AirPrint functionality [...]

      My point is that "restoring full AirPrint functionality" has nothing to do with updating iOS, as you seem to be suggesting in the bit I quote, and it has nothing to do with being a 'missing feature' in iOS as you suggested yesterday. This is a software update that has to come on the desktop side, either through something like a full system update to 10.6.6, or an add-on software installer to 10.6.5 and Windows.

      The point behind AirPrint seems to be a simple, standard printer driver interface that's the same for every printer - allowing iOS to support printing with a single lightweight printing interface, instead of trying to handle and install drivers for every printer you might want to print to. iOS 4.2 seems to have implemented this 'print to a standard driver interface' just fine, as evidenced by the way it already works with those HP printers that support it, as well as with the Mac-side utilities like Printopia that apparently implement this standard interface on the desktop computer. Any 'restoring functionality' through an iOS update - instead of through a desktop-side update - would really mean abandoning the 'lightweight printing to standard interface' idea and having to build a full print-driver subsystem into iOS, and I don't see that happening.

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @Travis Butler, We're assuming facts not in evidence. There may be some component of the iOS that also needs fixing. It may not just be the Mac and Windows.

      At the time, nothing would stop Apple from releasing desktop OS software to enable these features, right?

      Peace,
      Gene

      Travis Butler Reply:

      @Gene Steinberg, No, I don't think we're assuming facts not in evidence; the facts that a) AirPrint seems to work perfectly with the HP models that pro that 10.6.5 can be trivially hacked to enable support, and FingerPrint and Printopia provide similar service through Mac-side applications - all without any changes, patches, or anything at all done to iOS - strongly suggests that everything is working just fine on the iOS side.

      I still maintain that the issue is that AirPrint was designed to print to a standard, simplified printer interface; that this interface is provided natively by only a few printers at this point; and that any support for non-native printers is going to have to come through a desktop driver that provides the standard interface to iOS, and handles talking to the non-native printers so that iOS doesn't have to.

      The good news is that the desktop driver can be provided through an update at any time without having to update iOS itself; and in fact can be provided by third-parties as well, with extra features even. See the way Printopia can be set to save PDF files to the desktop or to Dropbox, for example.

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @Travis Butler, The fact of the matter is that a hacked 10.6.5 seems to support AIrPrint adequately. I only tested it on one printer, of course, but it's just a standard inkjet multifunction device, so I presume there was no magic involved. I do not pretend to know why AirPort support vanished from the shipping version of 10.6.5. Maybe too many variables, or rights to certain software elements.

      And, yes, there are several iOS utilities that get the job done. But I'm happy with the solution I found.

      Peace,
      Gene

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