Imagine this: You wake up, stumble out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and go to your printer. There, fresh and warm, are Slate's "Today's Papers," a few of your other favorite Slate departments, maybe even a non-Slate item or two such as that morning's Washington Post news digest. No need to boot up or log on. No need to read onscreen or wait for a printout. Why, there's no need even to go outside and collect the newspaper. True home delivery--inside your home. Sound good?
It occurred to us a while ago: Why can't people leave their computers and their printers on overnight, or whenever, and have their printouts waiting for them, rather than vice versa? There are "push" technologies, such as PointCast and the "channels" on Microsoft Internet Explorer, which will download Web pages automatically. But none of them takes the next step of printing the pages out. Why not? Could it be that computer types don't appreciate the widespread aversion to reading things on a screen? Whatever the reason, how hard would it be to offer this service to Slate readers?
As we do with all deep philosophical questions, we took this one to the nearest software developer, who happened to be Slate's own Chief Computer Guy Andrew Shuman. And Shuman gave his usual two-part answer: a) Very easy. No problem at all. b) Very difficult. Would require many a moon. Need new staff, much wampum. Accused of self-contradiction, he sniffed: "To you it's a contradiction. To me it's a paradox. Some people can't tell the difference." And he added, "If you think it's so easy, why don't you do it yourself?"
So we did. The process gave us new respect for software developers. We deeply regret any harsh or impatient words we may have uttered to them (or even behind their backs). Nevertheless, we have a solution. Shuman wishes it known that this is not an official Slate service, and the publisher wishes it known that we cannot supply support or advice on it. It's just a whimsy of Slate's journalistic element. It hasn't been tested. It doesn't work on AOL and may not work on any configuration of equipment and services other than those on the editor's home machine. Nevertheless, we think it's pretty cool.
It's actually just an adaptation of some software from Hewlett-Packard called HP Web PrintSmart. You can download the software free from HP's Web site. (Although the site implies the software is intended only for HP printers, it actually plays well with others.) PrintSmart has various features, and you're welcome to piss away as many hours horsing around with it as we have. But for our purposes, it does three things. First, at a time and frequency you determine (just once, once a week, every day, or every weekday), it dials your Internet service provider (if necessary), makes a connection, downloads the Web pages you have selected, closes the connection, and hangs up. Second, it very cleverly reformats the pages to look good and save paper when printed out. Third, it does print them out.
PrintSmart can be customized for Slate fairly easily. You can instruct the program to search in various ways for pages linked to other pages. By setting these parameters correctly, you can schedule an overnight printout of any combination of Slate articles or departments you wish. (You can add other Web sites, too.) And in the morning, if you wish, you can go to a checklist of Slate pages, preview them, and choose other articles to print out--all without dialing in again.
PrintSmart has some flaws, and for our purposes it's more complicated than it ought to be. Slate and HP both have ambitions for a simpler process, and you can expect to see some developments over the next few months.
We also should mention a rival product put out by another printer company, Canon. Called WebRecord, it has some advantages over PrintSmart. For example, it formats printouts for two or three columns a page, thus saving even more paper. But it doesn't have a search mechanism, it doesn't have a scheduler--and it costs $30. Nevertheless, if you're into printing out, it's worth investigating.
For instructions on setting up Slate Home Delivery using HP PrintSmart,