I get a lot of calls from frustrated people, but Betty was more frustrated than most.
Her father had just given her his printer. She hooked it up to the parallel port of her PC, started up her word processor and tried to print out a report that was due in the morning. She got nothing but garbage, no matter what she tried, and she was getting desperate.
"What driver are you using?" I asked.
Betty was not amused.
"I'm going crazy trying to print this thing and you're talking about golf," she snapped.
I explained to her that in the world of technobabble, drivers have nothing to do with golf or the Indy 500. They're critical pieces of software that tell your computer or application program how to deal with a specific piece of hardware. There are drivers for printers, video boards, CD-ROM drives, scanners and just about anything else that you can hook up to your machine.
Printer drivers are particularly critical, because without them, your software doesn't know what commands to send to your printer to create graphics or manage fonts and typographical effects such as boldface or italics. If you use the wrong driver, your computer might as well be talking to your printer in a foreign language -- and the results can be disastrous.
Supplying printer drivers has always been a headache for
software publishers and printer manufacturers. In the free-for-all world of DOS-based applications, it has always been up to the software maker to supply drivers for all the printers its users might encounter. Most DOS-based programs have setup menus screens that allow you to select from a list of printers. The program uses the printer driver you choose.
If your printer is on the list, you're in good shape. If it isn't, you have two choices: Find a printer on the list that's compatible with yours, or try to get the software maker to supply you with the right driver.
Most printers today are compatible with one of a half-dozen major standards -- which means they'll respond to the same commands as the original machines. For example, many dot-matrix printers can use drivers for either Epson or IBM models, while most laser printers can understand one or more versions of Hewlett-Packard's Printer Control Language (PCL) or Adobe's Postscript.
The better software publishers keep up with the market and regularly update their printer drivers. If they didn't, you'd have to buy a new word processor if you bought a new printer not supported by the old software.
Makers offer disks
By calling the manufacturer, you can often get the driver you need on a disk free or at a nominal cost. Among the major players, WordPerfect has long been famous for supporting virtually every printer manufactured on this planet and a few extraterrestrial models.
Unfortunately, smaller publishers may not have the technical staff to supply a wide variety of up-to-date printer drivers, or drivers for older versions of their software.
If you're using a program from a company that's out of business or no longer supporting your software, you may be out of luck if you buy a new printer, or you may be forced to use only a fraction of its capabilities.
For those who use Microsoft Windows, OS/2 or Apple Macintosh computers, things are a little better. These graphical environments take responsibility for handling printer communications themselves. You benefit because you only have install one printer driver; it will work with your spreadsheet, word processor, and all other programs. Programmers benefit because they don't have to worry which printer you're using; a single set of printing commands will suffice for all.
This arrangement leaves it up to the printer manufacturer to provide the correct driver. Most printers on the market today come with disks that contain the appropriate Windows or Macintosh drivers. Windows itself also comes with drivers for scores of popular printer drivers. These are on the Windows installation disks, if you bought the program on floppies. If you bought a computer with Windows already installed, the drivers are usually hidden away in an obscure subdirectory somewhere.
If you're using Windows, you can "install" the driver from your floppy disk by clicking first on the Windows control panel and then on the Printers icon. Macintosh drivers install by clicking on the installation icon that appears when the driver disk is installed in the drive.
This turned out to be Betty's problem. She had never installed the Windows driver for her new printer. I asked her if she had
received a disk with the machine. It turned out that she had, and it was easy to walk her through the process. Once it was done, her report printed without a hitch.
Watching out for bugs
The downside to all this is that Windows and Macintosh printer drivers are notoriously buggy, particularly at the start of a production run. In fact, if you get a driver disk with a new printer, the chances are good that it's already out of date.
Sometimes the problem appears right away. For example, the original Windows driver for the Panasonic dot matrix printer I use for mailing labels insisted on starting every job two inches down from the top of the page (I wonder how that one ever got out of the software lab). It's more likely that you won't notice any problem until you try to do something out of the ordinary, such as printing gray text or mixing type and graphics in an unusual way. Then you'll spend a couple of hours trying to figure out what you did wrong.
It's always wise to contact the printer manufacturer at the outset and find out if there's a new version of the driver. If there is, you can have it mailed to you. Some printer makers also have bulletin boards with the latest drivers posted for downloading by modem. Most major manufacturers, as well as Microsoft itself, post printer drivers in various libraries on the CompuServe and America OnLine information services.
Oops: In a recent column, I mistakenly attributed the ClickBook program, a nifty utility that shrinks standard word processing documents to booklet size, to the wrong publisher. The program was developed by Bookmaker Corp., 2470 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, Calif. 94306, 1-800-766-8531.
L Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.