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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

'River of black gold': Why printers have us all bleeding red ink

It’s not the machines that the industry makes its money from but the liquid gold that goes into them. And manufacturers will do anything to protect that revenue stream

Epson, for one, has been accused of issuing firmware updates that prevent its printers from working with non-Epson inks. Getty Images
Epson, for one, has been accused of issuing firmware updates that prevent its printers from working with non-Epson inks. Getty Images

Scorpion venom is reputedly the most expensive liquid in the world, reportedly selling for around $8,600 (Dh31,583) per litre. But riding high in the top ten, somewhere alongside insulin and Chanel No 5, is printer ink. Branded inkjet cartridges made by firms such as Canon, Epson and HP hold tiny vials of ink that cost many thousands of dirhams per litre, and for more than two decades, these companies have moved hell and high water to protect that valuable revenue stream.

Last week, in a letter to the Texas Attorney General, the digital rights group EFF accused Epson of issuing printer firmware updates, which, as well as improving aspects of performance and security, also prevented printers from working with certain non-Epson inks. Earlier this year, Australia’s competition watchdog, the ACCC, censured HP for doing the same thing. “It’s part of a long-standing strategy on the part of these firms,” says Rod Young, global chief executive of ink retailer Cartridge World, “which they’ve developed to protect their river of black gold”.

The cornerstone of that strategy is the so-called razor-blade model. The inkjet printer is sold cheaply, but its ink cartridges sell at a premium, locking customers in for the life of that printer (seven years, on average). As people discovered ways to refill old cartridges, and competing companies such as Cartridge World began to thrive, the big printer companies reinforced their model. HP launched a scheme called Instant Ink, a subscription service that monitored a printer’s ink levels and automatically sent out branded ink when levels got too low. Ever-sophisticated chips were incorporated into cartridges to discourage imitators. And today, when printers invariably connect to a home network and onto the internet, manufacturers can maintain the battle with cheaper ink vendors remotely, by sending out firmware updates and recommending that they’re installed.

Going beyond reasonable

“Nobody likes being made to pay over the odds for ink,” says Cory Doctorow, special advisor to EFF. “The most egregious current example of this is where a low-income family with children might see a sale on third-party inks, so they buy a year’s worth of school supplies. Then they run a firmware update on their printer, and find themselves with either the choice of throwing away that printer or throwing away all the ink. The manufacturer has effectively reached into your home and punished you for arranging your affairs to benefit yourself rather than their shareholders, and it’s not fair. This is about the right to use your private property as you see fit.”

The legal pushback against these practises stretches back at least 15 years. In 2003, a number of lawsuits were filed against Epson for using systems that advised customers to replace ink cartridges when there was still plenty of the liquid in them. Epson, quite rightly, pointed out that printing with an empty cartridge can cause permanent damage to the printer, but publicity surrounding this industry-wide issue caused a booming trade in cheap resetting mechanisms that could override the warnings. Other cunning methods, such as colouring in part of the cartridge with a marker pen or pressing secret printer key combinations, started being used by customers in an attempt to use the ink they had paid for.

“There are a number of other ways in which the big manufacturers have gone beyond reasonable,” says Young. “They tell consumers that warranties will be voided if they use other cartridges. They surround theirs with patents, and have sued a whole raft of resellers and remanufacturers who they claim have breached them. They put an artificially high price on cartridges, but selectively give price reductions to certain organisations to buy exclusivity. And now, when consumers connect their computer to the internet, they give the manufacturer a direct line to their printer’s firmware.”

To update or not?

The firmware trick was first noticed two years ago. HP sent out an update in March 2016, and then, in September, a feature of the firmware, which prevented use of non-HP or refilled cartridges, kicked in. “One or more cartridges appear to be damaged,” popped up the error message, confounding customers. When they expressed their annoyance, HP, while asserting its right to protect its brand from infringement, apologised and made a way of reversing the firmware change publicly available. But a year later, almost to the day, another HP firmware update did the same thing.

Young believes that customers should be wary of installing printer updates, but Doctorow is unhappy about where that leaves us. “We don’t want to teach people not to update their devices,” he says. “People might think that the main risk of not updating is that their printer won’t work quite as well. But huge botnets run on unpatched devices connected to the internet, and the main risk, actually, is that your machine gets infected and either spies on you or gets hijacked. Unfortunately, the same updating mechanism that you use to update the security of a printer is the same one that prevents you from using third party ink.”

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Consumers have cursed the price of printer ink for more than a generation. How much must it cost to produce those few millilitres? Printer companies have, over the years, responded to this dissatisfaction by launching printers that reverse the razor-blade model, such as Epson’s Ecotank and Brother’s INKvestment Tank system, which cost more up front but hold ink that can last as long as a year. But in an era when, thanks to smartphone technology, we don’t need to print out as much stuff as we used to, the firms are understandably developing new ways to protect themselves.

Might there be a time when we no longer need ink? Earlier this year, HP showcased a mini printer, the Sprocket, which uses heat to print photos – but, crucially, it requires special HP paper to work. Meanwhile, a firm called Tocano has been trumpeting its own inkless solution, involving a laser-burning process known as carbonisation. Forcing a route into such a fiercely guarded market, however, won’t be easy. “When an industry is reduced to a small number of players, they all tend to converge on the same set of bad practises, says Doctorow.

“Markets are supposed to drive innovation, and the innovation we hope for is that we get better printers. What we don’t want is a dark innovation where firms try to figure out how to stop you from taking your business elsewhere.”