THE GRIPE LINE: When the chips are down

THE GRIPE LINE: When the chips are down

It’s remarkable how much trouble a few drops of ink can cause.

A reader recently discovered this fact to his chagrin when one of the many HP inkjet printers in his organisation suddenly ceased functioning. “On one piece of critical lab equipment we have an HP 2000c printer attached, printing out black-and-white reports that are date-stamped and used for required reporting to regulatory agencies,” the reader wrote. “All of a sudden we started getting messages saying the colour cartridges have expired. Now the printer wouldn’t work at all, even though we don’t use the colour cartridges, and if we couldn’t print these reports, we could be fined US$72,000 per day.”

Before he could determine what was wrong with the old colour cartridges, the reader hurriedly bought $200 worth of replacements.

“I eventually find out, on the 2000 series printers, that they have a chip that expires the cartridge 30 months after the install-by-date printed on the cartridge,” the reader said. “Not knowing this at the time, I made an emergency purchase of three new cartridges — to replace completely full ones — and three extra for backup.” Only after learning about the chip did he realise the three spares would expire at the same time as the new ones he had just installed, meaning they would likely go to waste. He was also annoyed that the information that came with the printer hadn’t made the expiration issue clear.

“Because we can’t take the risk of any more surprises, I will be surplusing this printer for one that will only quit working when it actually runs out of ink, not when it runs out of time!” he said.

I’ve heard from several other readers about similar problems they’ve had due to the chips in the ink supply cartridges for HP’s business-oriented printer models, so I pretty much knew what I’d hear when I asked HP about it.

“In some of our printer models with separate print heads and ink cartridges, the ink cartridges expire after a certain period of time to prevent degradation of the printer components and print quality due to changes in ink properties, cartridge properties, and interactions between the ink and the cartridge,” an HP spokesman said. “For quality assurance reasons, we have set a maximum lifetime for the ink supply. The time allowed is adequate for product distribution and in-printer life for even our low-volume users.”

The readers who have suffered various difficulties with expiring cartridges suspect the chips are there not so much to protect them against degraded ink as to protect HP from red ink. Why, they wonder, does HP only do this in business printer models? If consumers can decide for themselves when ink is becoming too degraded, shouldn’t business users also get to do so? The lack of a patentable print head to block producers of generic cartridges may have been HP’s real motivation for inserting a chip. Then, by giving the chip a time bomb function, it also effectively prevents reuse of the cartridges for refilling or remanufacturing.

HP is not the only manufacturer with some blotches on its record. Epson, for example, also puts a chip in the cartridges for many of its ink-jet models. While taking a somewhat different approach than HP, the Epson chip seems to have many of the same effects, both in terms of creating difficulties for customers and discouraging competition for Epson’s cartridges.

Of all the printer manufacturers, Lexmark has been the most aggressive in trying to lock in customers to its consumables, going so far as to put a sneakwrap license on cartridges to prohibit their reuse.

Yes, HP is far from the worst offender here. And I think it’s only fair to acknowledge the pace of real technological progress the printer industry has achieved in putting dots on paper in ever-faster, finer streams. With the (high-end?) capabilities to be found in even the cheapest printers, it’s easy to understand why the manufacturers are focused on making their money in consumables. And when you see how many sleazy spammer types are hawking ink-jet cartridges, I think very few of us resent paying a few extra bucks for a brand we can trust.

And that’s what HP, as the printer brand most people trust, has to realise. In several stories that have appeared about the Lexmark lawsuit, HP officials have been quoted as saying Lexmark has gone too far, and that HP believes in making its cartridges reusable and refillable. Not only do the cartridges for the HP2000c prove that to be somewhat hypocritical, they also prove HP doesn’t realise whose trust it is risking.

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