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November 1999

Network printing: CSY’s Pandora’s Box

Three years after releasing limited print capability, HP hears requests to update it

After three years of trying to placate 3000 customers with a bare-bones network printing function, the Commercial Systems Division (CSY) faces facts this fall: it won’t be easy to avoid enhancing the fundamental spooler in MPE/iX.

The issue surfaced most recently on the 3000 Internet newsgroup, where customers and developers discussed HP’s comments at HP World on fixing a flaw in network printing for the system. One solution supplier and 3000 advocate called HP’s statements “mumbo-jumbo,” and called for a swift fix to a bug that keeps HP’s newest system printers from communicating completely with 3000s. Others said CSY’s efforts should remain focused on work only it can do for the system, leaving opportunities for third parties to add print features.

At issue is whether CSY must continue to enhance software it introduced as a limited-functionality feature. The debate points to the balance of the division’s responsibility to its third-party partners, as well as to its customers, and what’s the best use of CSY’s resources. The discussion also highlights the limited capability of HP’s included network printing, and how customers are getting around those limits.

One direct way for the HP 3000 to communicate fully with the newest printers is through third-party products, some priced relatively inexpensively. But one segment of the customer base expects network printing to be a free part of the operating system, and to operate as promised in 1996: with all HP printers that generate PCL output, such as LaserJets, regardless of how large that group of devices might be today.

In the Internet discussion, Wirt Atmar of AICS Research said he was angry about CSY’s comments during the recent HP World management roundtable. Steve Hammond, a systems manager for the American Association of Medical Colleges, had asked HP at the management roundtable how it planned to fix the 3000’s operating system to recognize new PJL commands now issued by the latest HP printers. These LPQ Series of devices, manufactured by Printronix and sold under the HP label, issue commands that the 3000’s included network printing cannot recognize.

CSY managers Vicki Symonds, the division’s Product Marketing Manager, and Dave Wilde, R&D Lab Section Manager, explained HP didn’t intend to put extensive, ongoing engineering effort into network printing when first introducing the feature three years ago.

“A couple years ago we looked at how we were going to provide our customers with a complete printing solution,” Symonds said. “We looked at there being a need from the low end, as well as a need for system-type printing. We went into some investments to support the LaserJet with a JetDirect card. It was supposed to be a basic solution to provide basic print connectivity.”

Symonds also said HP brought system printers into the HP 3000 product line at that time, “so we had the LPQ printers into the 3000 product line.” She added that HP has been concerned about page-level recovery aspect of those printers, and noted that the Version C of the printers “have full PJL capability.” Version B LPQ printers can be given full PJL capabilities through an upgrade.

But what Hammond and others have problems with isn’t the printers’ capabilities, but the savvy of the latest MPE network print spooler. And the problem isn’t limited to the LPQ Series.

LaserJet 5si printers have lost page-level recovery with 3000s, causing “huge amounts of wasted paper,” Hammond said, when print jobs abort and must be restarted from the beginning. “MPE is not recognizing the PJL commands.” Hammond said. “The LaserJets have gone one step further than MPE has kept up with.”

“When we first looked at the LaserJets and how we were going to connect to them, we were looking at a very basic level of capability,” Symonds said, “not particularly for the system-type of printing.”

Wilde said that CSY is “between a rock and hard place. When we originally did this, there was a lot of pressure in the marketplace, because a lot of the other platforms in the market had a low-end printing solution that didn’t involve things like page-level recovery. When we decided to go ahead and implement a network printing solution for the 3000, because there were other companies out there like MiniSoft, Quest and [RAC Consulting] that had a high-end solution, we were very clear that we didn’t want to do things that third-party products were doing very well.”

“Initially we weren’t planning to have any sort of page level recovery in the [network printing]. Along the way after we released that, there was a lot of pressure to do page-level recovery on the laser printers, using the capability we developed. Now we find ourselves at a point where to continue that is a very expensive proposition for us. If we add every printer as a one-off it’s expensive. And if we architect the solution we have so it’s more of a table-driven solution, that’s kind of a major enhancement for us.”

Wilde suggested that CSY involve its engineers at a subsequent HP World session, “or offline get some of our spooler people working directly with you, to talk about different approaches we could take. I don’t really see a great solution at this point.”

A rough show of hands in the HP World session showed nearly half of the attendees had experienced these problems with the included network printing.

Atmar said in his Internet comments that HP’s answers to the problem didn’t address it. “The mumbo-jumbo given in response... was a mumbled excuse that ‘HP doesn’t want to compete with its third-party suppliers,’ ” he said. “In fairness, it is entirely possible that no one on the dais understands the problem, simply because no one from management actually uses HP printers connected to an HP 3000 on a daily basis.”

The president of the company which offers the QueryCalc reporting application for HP 3000s added, “There is no competitive issue here. It is merely a bug (or more accurately, a lack of maintenance) in the HP 3000’s network spooler software that is the direct result of the various divisions of HP not talking to each other.”

Creeping into competition

The record of CSY’s promises about network printing capabilities began with the division’s warning about its limited functionality. In 1996 briefings during the rollout of MPE/iX 5.5, HP product managers gave verbal assurances the 3000 would be getting only fundamental print operations, features short of third-party alternatives. HP detailed a modest list of its supported printers in the Communicator documentation about the feature — a table that included only printers up to the LaserJet 4 for page-level recovery.

But once the feature was introduced, customers began lobbying for enhancements as well as fixes for its shortcomings. HP’s own marketing materials mentioned no limit to the feature. One regular critic of network printing is Jeff Kell, who at times through the past three years has been chairman of both the networking and MPE Special Interest Groups.

Kell said that despite the benefits he enjoys from RAC Consulting’s ESPUL and Roc Software’s Formation, he believes HP has a commitment to deliver fundamental network print services for the 3000 without flaws.

“Why, pray tell, is there no supported and functional method of connecting any printer to a 3000? A plain line printer. I simply do not follow the ‘pushing away the competition’ argument in this case,” Kell said. “I have ESPUL and Formation, and won’t give up either one even if CSY gets network printing — plain, vanilla network printing, mind you — working reliably.”

The software at first release “didn’t work worth crap with an [HP] C40D though, despite my complaints. It started breaking more widespread with the [LaserJet] 4000. The biggest advantage of the third-party software is being able to communicate with non-standard network cards and print servers, Novell print queues, distributed printing, and so forth. Network printing has been the biggest let-down since the optical mark sense card reader of the Classic [3000] days and the FCARD intrinsic.”

HP’s LPQ Series of printers have more in common with non-HP brands than the rest of HP’s lineup, however. These devices are made by Printronix for HP.

Although third-party solutions are a reliable way to connect to non-HP devices, competition with third parties didn’t worry another solution supplier. Tom Brandt of Northtech Systems, a third-party supplier provides EDI software for the HP 3000, said having your niche filled by HP is a fact of life.

“If HP, due to market demand, decides to plug a hole in its products that was being filled by third parties, well, that’s life,” Brandt said.

But another developer noted that plugging holes isn’t always an accurate description of why customers ask HP to improve its free software.

“If the market demand didn’t exist until the third-party came up with the idea, then ‘plugging a hole’ can be translated as ‘jumping on the bandwagon,’ ” said Stan Sieler of Allegro Consultants. “I’m not against HP doing that in general. I’m against them doing it if there’s a more pressing need for HP R&D resources elsewhere — are they shortchanging the users?

HP has a clear duty to keep its spooler current with printers bearing its own label, according to Doug Werth of 3000 consultancy Beechglen Development.

“I don’t see how fixing the spooler to work correctly with HP JetDirect print servers using HP brand printers is stepping on any third-party vendors’ toes,” he said. “It still won’t print to NetWare, Intel, JetDirect clones, LPR/LPD, HP 3000-to-HP 3000, or any other myriad of print servers on the market today. All you have to do is look at all of the different types of printers that are supported by ESPUL, [Quest’s] NBSPOOL, and Spoolmate — sorry if I missed any — and you see that the ‘all-HP’ solution is just a small subset.”

Customers have been asking HP to add that LPR/LPD capability in the spooler for more than a year, however. And some 3000 network printing features simply aren’t available in a reliable release from anyone — like the ability to do interrupt-driven searches instead of polling many printers. That polling method can cause high overhead on HP 3000s with a large network of printers.

The creator of the ESPUL/NetPrint solution, Rich Corn, said he’s got workable solutions to the overhead problem. But this kind of creeping functionality, he says, creates a business challenge, one which shapes his development plans for the HP 3000.

“Before HP released its free printing, I had the design together for the interrupt-driven detection of spoolfiles for network printing and PJL/page level recovery support as well,” Corn said. “This effort represented significant dollar and time investment. After HP released the network printing, many clients were so enamored with the ‘free’ word that they dropped support. I soon came to the conclusion that new sales of network printing were going to drop off significantly, and there would be a large defection of the installed base. It did not seem to make sense at that point to make that investment in the product.”

The drop-off in sales and customers has happened, he adds. Corn notes that with pending requests for LPR/LPD functionality, he’ll be forced to make another decision about future releases for the 3000 market — should CSY decide to add that feature.

“The problem is, once network printing comes out from HP, now the free crowd is clamoring for LPD/LPR printing, which we offer,” Corn said. “You see, a simple free thing is never enough. I have been a long-time lover and supporter of the HP 3000. However, when HP did what they did, it really changed my priorities away from our HP 3000 products.

“I appreciate that HP tried to leave me and others some operating room,” Corn said, “and in doing so, allowed me continue to sell my products at a reduced level instead of just wiping me out altogether. I can see beyond my own products that whatever HP does for free affects all third parties and the HP user community. I am a member of that community, as well as a vendor.”

Corn said the user community needs to determine how they feel about third parties. The users should decide “If they should continue to ask HP to provide more and more free components — or respect HP’s attitude about third parties and respect the third parties themselves by giving our products real consideration, and thereby preserving a healthy third-party market,” he said. “There is a balance here and HP is trying to walk that, but if users keep pushing, then HP will bend.”

Fixing the current PJL/PLR flaws in HP 3000 network printing is a position supported by everyone in the Internet discussion, as well as Corn. Beyond that, he says, lies respect for another 3000 community member.

“I really can’t understand this attitude among some third parties that it’s okay for HP to damage other third parties,” Corn said. “It’s a question of where to draw the line, and then the users respecting that. Without this line, it leaves third parties with real questions about investing in the HP 3000 — at a time when HP is trying to attract third parties to the HP 3000.”

Fixing the problems

Atmar noted in a later posting that he’s found a workaround for the problem: using an external JetDirectEX card on the printer’s parallel port and abandoning its internal network card.

“These little external JetDirect cards work so well with MPE/iX’s networking spooler that I’m a little reluctant to even suggest that MPE’s spooler be fixed for fear of doing more damage than good,” Atmar said. “One tack may simply be to treat an increasingly larger number of HP printers as ‘foreign’ devices.”

Another HP engineer in Germany reported that CSY has pulled together a task force of two response center engineers and several CSY staff “to investigate the state of affairs for MPE network spooling.”

Hammond reports that HP engineers are working with him to repair the problem, but he’s struggling to get HP’s printer group based in Boise to acknowledge there’s a flaw and help. Hammond said one HP manager in Boise said the size of the market — HP enterprise servers represented at HP World — wasn’t big enough to prompt direct focus on the problem. The group at HP World where the problems were discussed didn’t warrant sending a manager in an official capacity.

“One HP employee said, ‘HP World is not even the flea on the tail of the dog’ in the view of the Boise division,” Hammond reported.

Some say that this disconnect between HP divisions is the price of dealing with an all-HP, free solution. Third-party suppliers bridge these host-to-device gaps better than HP, a reason to continue to give them room to offer extra value.

“I think the HPs, the IBMs, the Microsofts, the Apples and all the others would do well to ensure that these companies are around to support them, and not alienate them,” said 3000 solution supplier Joe Geiser of BiznetTech.net. “The third parties are much more nimbler and can bring product to market faster, because normally, they have a narrower focus — whereas HP and others have an entire operating system to support, a much larger focus.”

Have an opinion about this item? Send your comments about this article to me. Include your name and your company, or just mail to me anonymously.

Ron Seybold, Editor In Chief


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