While some potential customers are sceptical about the security of printing digital documents over the Internet, more vendors - including Microsoft and Sun - are staking claims in what could be a major new market.
Printer vendors say the market could be large because printing over the Internet can save users the cost of faxing over long-distance telephone lines.
But analysts and users said the idea of sending sensitive files over the Internet for printing raises serious security and reliability questions - even after considering some recently announced products.
Given what some observers see as ripe market potential, this relatively new area continues to draw vendor activity.
The following companies recently made these Internet printing announcements:
• XCD Inc. announced the US$49 PrintraNet remote Internet printing software. It lets a PC user at one site print a file on a remote printer by sending the document as a standard electronic-mail message.
• Sun Microsystems has joined the Salutation Consortium, a global group that is developing a standard for locating and managing devices across the Internet.
• Microsoft is poised to enter the market after unveiling its Internet printing concept before a section of the Internet Engineering Task Force, a group of vendors working on a series of Internet standards. According to Microsoft's plans, printers would be attached to a Windows NT print server, and end users could print documents over the World Wide Web by finding the printer's uniform resource locator. Microsoft officials declined to comment on specific product plans.
Sending print jobs to a remote printer over the Internet may have appeal, but security is still a concern, says Vince Agresti, director of information systems at Management Recruiters International in Cleveland.
"I'd want the files to be encryptable," Agresti said. When told that XCD touts its Internet printing software as being as secure as email, he answered: "Saying your print job is just as secure as email is like saying something's just as secure as a cell phone."
Agresti says his company produces legal, sales and office manuals and could benefit by having high-quality printing on demand at its 700 regional offices.