- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

The iOS Report: More Missing Features

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.