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If I ever needed some choice profanity words, I could just as well scream “print driver” and it would do the trick. Anyone that is responsible for managing printers in an IT organization knows exactly what I am talking about. It seems that print drivers are the bane of many IT professionals, and I suspect that even the vendors that develop them wish they didn’t have to. Wouldn’t it be great to have just one, a truly universal print driver? Sure, but read on for a reality check.

Let’s start with the market situation. Many large organizations have several different types of single/multi-function printers from various hardware manufacturers. This complex, multi-vendor printer environment creates challenges and workload for IT administrators and users. These burdens are specifically related to the installation, configuration, testing, maintenance, and user experience of many unique print drivers. To address this problem and improve their digital workplace environments, businesses are looking for solutions that standardize and simplify their IT print infrastructures. It comes as no surprise then that some organizations are attracted to the concept of a “universal print driver” (UPD), one that is “applicable everywhere or in all cases.” The universal value proposition seems very compelling.

Some hardware and software vendors claim to offer a universal print driver for the Windows platform, and IT organizations see it as a way to reduce complexity and workload for IT administrators and to provide a standardized interface for users. Unfortunately, it is a utopian concept that is more marketing spin than reality. The hard fact is that no vendor offers a truly universal print driver for all makes and models of printers. It is simply too good to be true because:

  • The printer market is very broad and many different technologies are used to put dots on paper (e.g., dot-matrix, ink-jet, laser, thermal, etc.). 
  • There are too many page description languages (PDLs) that describe the format and content of a page (e.g., PDF, Postscript, PCL, AFP, ZPL, etc.). 
  • There are multiple versions of Windows in the marketplace at any given time that need to be supported.
  • Finally, printer manufacturers continue to invent/develop new features and functions for their devices that must be enabled.

Instead, vendors offer their own definition of “universal,” often meaning “those printers that the vendor really cares about.” If, by chance, the supported printers are the only ones you need, you may find this an acceptable solution until you change hardware in the future. 

Today, printer hardware manufacturers are the main providers of Windows universal print drivers. This makes sense when you consider that the function of a print driver is to enable the unique capabilities of a particular print device (or family of devices). Printer vendors operate in a highly-competitive market as they strive to differentiate themselves, so they are motivated to develop quality print drivers for their own products. Customers benefit in terms of functionality and support since the printers and associated drivers come from the chosen vendor and are designed to work together.

While software vendors can also develop so-called universal print drivers, their solutions come with limitations as well. Since ISVs are not involved in the printer hardware development cycle, they learn about new printers, features, and functions after the products are available in the marketplace. And can you imagine the challenge of trying to test and support your solution with all of the different makes and models of print devices in the market? A generic solution is often the end result; one that supports some printers better than others and may not enable every bell and whistle on any specific device.

Based on our market experience with large enterprise customers, LRS believes the best solution is one comprised of the following elements:

  • UPDs provided by the printer manufacturer(s) that sold the devices in that environment
  • An output management solution that provides a robust print driver management capability as well as dynamic data transform capabilities

This approach yields the following key business benefits:

  • You can select the best hardware based on specific business requirements. All of the hardware features and functions can be fully exploited by users and applications. Technology innovation is encouraged and competitive market forces remain in place.
  • You only need to manage a small number of unique print drivers, and this task is greatly simplified using print driver management software. 
  • There is less room for “finger pointing” between vendors when problems arise and technical support is needed. If you are using a print driver from a vendor other than the printer hardware manufacturer, the manufacturer may be reluctant to provide support when issues arise, e.g., “You need to switch to our driver because we have tested it and know it works.”

Although it is tempting to ask your solution providers for a universal print driver as part of an RFP or other proposal, you may end up with an inferior solution by insisting on a “one-driver-fits-all” solution. Instead, select the minimal set of print drivers for your multi-vendor printer fleet to support the functional capabilities that your users and applications need. This may result in multiple print drivers, including UPDs, depending on the diversity of your printer fleet. 

Then, use an output management solution to simplify print driver management tasks and address functional gaps between application/driver output and device destinations. You may also have to accept some tradeoffs to achieve the best solution for your environment. Careful analysis and testing are important tasks you should perform before making any strategic decisions. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Universal print drivers are a prime example of this time-tested adage.

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