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Drawing the line

Drawing the line

THE printer consumables market has rarely been free of controversy and with consumer groups around the world once again targeting the market, major vendors are once more feeling the heat over the price of inkjet and toner cartridges.

In the US the price of printer ink is being compared with the price of imported Russian caviar and consumer groups are asking why it’s so high; in the UK the Office of Fair Trading gave Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark until October 2003 to better communicate the total cost of printer ownership or face heavy fines; and late last year the European Union launched its own investigation into the consumables market.

Writs are flying both to and from printer manufacturers as one side tries to protect the OEM market, while the other tries to force prices down.

Locally, regulatory authorities have yet to show any apparent interest, however, OEMs are keeping their heads down and some are becoming particularly twitchy about any media report they consider may unfairly attract attention to them.

Epson, in particular, is concerned that a lack of understanding about how its Piezo technology works has led to negative reports from consumer groups in various countries.

While Canon, Lexmark and HP inkjet cartridges can be run dry, the Epson cartridge must retain a small amount of ink to keep the permanent print head moist to prevent air bubbles forming and causing streaking.

Canon, Lexmark and HP all offer so-called fuel gauges that give low ink warnings, however, they have been criticised as being designed to prompt consumers into prematurely buying replacement cartridge — something all of the OEMs naturally deny. However, the fuel gauges can be inaccurate if the user hasn’t manually configured their printer to recognise the particular ink cartridge they are using and they often appear when there is still enough ink for dozens more small print jobs.

The gauges work by counting the drops of ink used or, in the case of Canon, by using a light beam to determine the level of liquid ink and once it has reached a certain level starting to count the drops.

Lexmark general manager for Australia and New Zealand, Stephen Waugh, stressed the gauges were only an indicator of low ink and not a reason to rush out and buy a new cartridge.

Retraction

Epson uses a chip embedded in its cartridges to prevent the small cache of moisturising ink from being used. Problems arose when a testing laboratory in Europe overrode the chip and found that there was sufficient ink for several more print jobs before the cartridge ran dry. The results of the tests were published by the Dutch Consumer Association and later other groups in Europe and New Zealand, creating a public relations nightmare for Epson. Not only did it attract the attention of the regulatory authorities in various countries but some consumers considered it proved that printer companies were “ripping them off” with original cartridges.

Epson was able to convince the Dutch that there was no rip-off and that the remaining ink cache was essential to the continued smooth operation of its printers, however, although a retraction was published, not everybody saw it and there has been some collateral damage.

In October, a group in Texas filed a lawsuit citing the original Dutch report and charging Epson with using tech­nology to block inkjet cartridges prematurely so that consumers are paying for ink they can’t actually use.

Naturally enough, the company has hit back. Epson Australia’s director of marketing and communications, Mike Pleasants, described the US lawsuits as frivolous and based on an obvious misunderstanding of how the technology works, in the same vein that the Dutch call for a boycott was based on a misunderstanding and was withdrawn as soon as the Dutch consumer association was briefed on the technology.

“Epson is concerned not by the possibility of copycat lawsuits,” he said, “but by the repetition in media reports of inaccuracies of how the technology works and the issues surrounding that, and the lack of understanding of how Epson’s micropiezo print heads differ from the thermal print heads of other vendors.”

Locally, Pleasants has been kept busy explaining the issues to consumers groups in Australia and New Zealand and claims they are now happy with Epson’s explanation.

He said Epson’s dealings with its channel partners over the past few months had indicated that they understood technological advantages of the micropiezo print head, and at this stage were not overly concerned about the coverage the issue was getting.

Epson is not the only OEM to run into problems with its consumables. In the US, Lexmark is suing third party manufacturers for overriding the microchips in its laserjet toner cartridges which are there to prevent anyone else from refilling them.

In particular, it has targetted North Carolina-based Static Control Components, which makes and sells clones of Lexmark’s microchips to recyclers. While Lexmark has had some initial success in its home state of Kentucky in forcing Static Control to stop manufacturing its clones, a ruling in October from the US Copyright Office could strengthen Static Controls defence against Lexmark’s copyright infringement lawsuit.

The Copyright Office ruled that the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act did not block software developers from using reverse engineering to circumvent digital protection of copyright material if they did so to achieve interoperability with an independently-created computer program.

In August, North Carolina was given legal right to refill any ink jet or toner cartridge and now European regulators are considering a law to ban printer and cartridge manufacturers from using Lexmark-style ‘killer’ chips that leave expended cartridges unusable.

In New South Wales, the State Government and various universities adopted a policy of purchasing reusable and refilled toner and ink cartridges as early as 1998; however, it seems to have had little impact on the market for original cartridges.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that printer prices have plunged over the past decade and you can now buy one for less than the cost of a couple of replacement cartridges.

Waugh explains it by comparing a printer to the chassis of a Formula One racing car.

“The printer is the chassis while the print head [which for most manufacturers is part of the ink cartridge] is the engine and it is the engine where the majority of the technology goes into,” he said. “The printer is just a mechanical device to move the print head, so the amount of R&D that goes into the print head is where the cost is, it is not actually in the printer.

“All of the performance, how fast you print, the resolution, the drop size and so on, all comes from the print head.”

Tremendous savings

OEM’s also put a lot of work into the driver software that controls the print head and into the ink and the media it prints on to ensure colour correctness and fastness, resistance against fading caused by ultraviolet or ozone, and general longevity of the print.

This was something, Pleasants said, that the third party cartridge vendors didn’t do. They did’t put money into the R&D that makes up so much of the cost of the original cartridge.

Despite the storm apparently raging overseas, the local third party ink and toner cartridge vendors, who would appear to potentially have plenty to gain, were not buying into the controversy.

Pelikan product manager, Donna Moffat, said she preferred not to comment at all, while Calidad managing director, Robin Kenyon, said OEMs had nothing to worry about from third party cartridge manufacturers.

“We offer tremendous savings to the consumer and a much higher percentage margin to the channel, but we don’t claim that our product is exactly the same as the OEMs and I don’t think they really consider us a threat,” Kenyon said.

However, he wanted the OEMs to do more to help everybody sell more ink.

Kenyon said they were falling down on the job by not educating consumers as to how good their printers were and as a result ink sales were not as good as they should be.

Kenyon said borderless printing was one of the biggest technological advances in printing, but since it was introduced more than a year ago the manufacturers had done little to educate the market about its benefits.

“Despite booming digital camera sales people are not printing their photographs because they don’t understand the benefits of borderless printing,” he said. “The printers on the market today are fantastic but the OEMs are not getting the message across well enough.”

Kenyon said Calidad didn’t have the resources to educate the channel, that was the job of the OEMs and if they did it properly both could benefit.

Senior product manager, consumer imaging products group for Canon Australia, Glenn Stubbs, was not concerned by third party manufacturers.

He said Canon could live with them and it could not be denied that generally their ink worked in Canon printers.

There were cases where poor quality ink would clog print heads or cause other problems but Canon didn’t threaten to void people’s warranty if they used a third party product.

He said the third party vendors accounted for only a small proportion of the market and even where their products were sold side-by-side with OEM products most people continued to go for the genuine product.


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