Currently, Net Friends does not recommend Microsoft’s Universal Print services to small businesses.
There are 3 core reasons we do not recommend this:
- Most printers do not natively support Universal Print
- New printers that do support Universal Print are not reasonably accessible or affordable
- The additional costs of Universal Print are non-trivial
We do see some merits and potential for this product, which we will touch on below. There are some larger organizations that have specific printing needs where Universal Print might be a great fit. To further explain our conclusions, let’s start at the beginning defining this new service offering from Microsoft.
What is Universal Print?
In 2021, Microsoft released Universal Print, a cloud-based print infrastructure that runs entirely on Microsoft Azure. This subscription-based service centralizes print management through Azure Active Directory’s cloud portal, eliminating on-prem infrastructure dependencies for managing devices.
How is Universal Print Innovative?
As Microsoft Gold Partners with multiple Azure certified administrators on our staff, Net Friends is always on the lookout to harness new features and capabilities in Microsoft’s cloud products. When Microsoft announced their Universal Print solution, we got excited about its potential. Most people do not realize that optimizing printers for a shared, commercial setting is more complicated than you would think. While our work becomes more situated in the digital world, many still have needs to print throughout the workweek.
Microsoft’s Universal Print eliminates the Print Server in the same way that OneDrive largely eliminates the File Server. We see the value of how it can enable central management of all printers from Azure, with the promise of simplifying configurations, deployments, and ongoing oversight of printing functions.
Since we work with a lot of customers who are highly concerned about privacy, regulatory compliance, and security in general, the potential to have a central log and audit trail for all printing functions could be critical to Data Loss Prevention (DLP) monitoring and controls.
Net Friends has investigated the requirements for Universal Print. We’ve noted that both Azure AD and Microsoft Endpoint Manager (MEM) are required subscriptions to support Universal Print’s cloud-based architecture. Fortunately, when we onboard a new customer, one of the first core things we do is setup Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) or optimize the existing Azure AD environment. We also leverage MEM for all new device deployments and work out a plan with the customer to migrate legacy machines into the customer’s MEM tenant. Lastly, we require that all our customers have Microsoft 365 Business Premium licenses (or equivalent E3 licenses), and Universal Print is included in all these subscription plans. So far, so good.
Why Universal Print Isn’t Ideal
for Small Businesses (Yet)
1. Most Printers Don't Natively Support Universal Print
We discovered our first snag when we saw that most printers have no native way to join Azure AD. Most of the printers that our customers already have will first require being added to a dedicated Windows device, and in turn, that device will act as the “Connector” to establish the link between Universal Print in Azure and the on-premises printers.
One of the key promises of Universal Print was it would reduce the complexity introduced by a Print Server…and yet the Connector is essentially a Print Server by another name.
2. New Printers Supporting Universal Print Are Expensive
The only way around this first roadblock would be to replace all existing printers with new models manufactured in 2021 with built-in support for Universal Print. When we researched the market for printing systems with built-in support, we observed that manufacturers were solely prioritizing this capability in the hefty $2,000+ multifunction printers.
Most of our small business customers typically lease (via a 5-year contract) these large printers over buying them outright. We concluded that there was a low probability that any of our existing or future customers would have compatible printers, nor have a compelling reason to invest in new printers with built-in support for Universal Print.
3. There Are Non-Trivial Additional Costs for Universal Print
We also looked a little deeper into some of the monthly printing volume limits of Universal Print. We rightfully assumed Microsoft would throttle this in some way to control network and compute resource demands on their Azure infrastructure. It’s no surprise that Microsoft significantly limits how many print jobs an organization could print every month.
However, it was surprising to us just how much Microsoft limits the number of included print jobs for each customer. Each user license only includes 5 print jobs per month.
The good news is that these 5 included print jobs per month are pooled licenses for an organization. For example, an organization with 25 staff members, each with M365 Business Premium, would have 125 collective print jobs per month. It’s not hard to imagine that most businesses will exceed their monthly print allotment within a few business days.
Organizations can purchase “volume add-on packs” at $25/month, but this would add more fees on top of the costs for paper and ink, or the per-page fees associated with leased printers. For our customers, this added expense would be a key deterrent. Even though print jobs can be of any page length, and only count against the monthly allotment when they are 100% successful, this still feels quite restrictive.
We do hope that in the years ahead, built-in support for Universal Print becomes the standard for all new printers. We can expect compatible printers at all price points and with more varied feature combinations. We hope Microsoft will also make adjustments to the licenses to significantly raise the monthly printing allotment and improve accessibility to more subscribers.
Our review of Universal Print has led us to the conclusion that the service is not suitable for most small business office environments at this point in time. We see some promising capabilities for Universal Print, and will continue to track developments on this front.
We are prepared to implement Universal Print for any customer that determines the benefits outweigh the costs. Our hope is that Microsoft and various printer manufacturers will continue to innovate and tinker with Universal Print, allowing more businesses each year to see Universal Print as a viable solution.
Technology solutions for small businesses should provide a clear return on investment. They should not hinder productivity, nor generate more operational costs and create more problems than they solve.