A cartridge conspiracy

Chip: Manufacturers have begun using technology that hampers frugal inkjet owners.

October 17, 2002|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Ford and Chevron have partnered to design a new SUV. They claim it will run smoother and longer on a gallon of gas than any other SUV in the same class.

However, you'll have to use a special Chevron Premium gas that costs 30 percent to 70 percent more than typical gas. It's up around the $3- to $4-a-gallon level. Use any other gas from any other station and a microchip in the tank will detect the difference and prevent the SUV from starting. That protects you from poor performance and possible damage to the finely tuned engine. In fact, trying to use any other gas can sometimes void your warranty.

Relax. It isn't true. In cars, that is. (My apologies to Ford and Chevron.)

But it is true in computer printers.

Time to stop relaxing.

Some of the biggest inkjet printer makers are implanting chips in inkjet cartridges. These chips monitor the ink supply and let you know when you're getting low. They can even freeze the printer when the cartridge is empty. Supposedly that can permanently damage the printer.

So far, not so bad. Pretty much all cars have a fuel gauge, and all printers should, too. I loved when Lexmark added ink supply monitors to its software, so I could see how much was left. Few things are more annoying than getting halfway through a vital document only to run out of ink.

If and when you do find the cartridge, let's hope it isn't your first time buying replacement ink. First-timers are typically shocked at what they have to pay. That $100 inkjet printer may need three $35 cartridges to get back in a printing mood.

No wonder HP makes more profit on "consumables" such as ink than on anything else. No wonder Dell wants into the business. No wonder there's a busy "recycling" and "remanufacturing" business in discount ink cartridges.

A growing number of companies refill used cartridges, and then sell them - often on the Internet - for 30 percent to 50 percent less. That saves you a lot of money and saves dumps from piles of dead cartridges.

But the remanufacturers won't be able to put a new chip in this latest cartridge design. Or be able to set the old chip back to recognizing "full." Once that cartridge is empty, it's kaput. No recycling, no savings. The chip "squeals" on any attempt to reuse.

Some inkjet printer owners use their own refill kits to save even more money on ink. These kits are available even in some standard stores. They include a syringe, large bottles of ink and instructions. You fill the syringe and then inject your cartridges. There's the danger of a mess, and of voiding the warranty, but there's also the prospect of saving 80 percent to 90 percent.

Smart chips in cartridges will also be able to terminate this savings. Once a cartridge is detected as empty, the chip can refuse to recognize it again as full.

It's called "lock in." Many tech companies are looking for ways to lock their customers in, to make it difficult or impossible for customers to switch to using other suppliers in the future.

Of course, they don't advertise it that way. And many of their engineers and marketers may honestly not believe it that way.

They'll talk about the quality of the ink they make. How it's as much a part of the printing technology as the hardware and software. How you need all three working together to get the full performance. How they want to protect you from bad prints, and the clogged inkjet tubes and broken printers that cheap ink can cause.

And you know, they're sometimes right. Cheap ink can make cheap-looking prints. No-name ink can clog those tiny jets in your printer.

But shouldn't you be the one to make the decision about which to use? Do you want the company "protecting" you against the inexpensive and sometimes inferior products? Wouldn't you like the option of using cheap ink in your cheap printer if you discover a discount-ink company that does just fine for you?

Let's stop this "innovation" now, before it becomes standard across the printer industry. Just say no to any printer that comes with these fink inks. You can make a difference by asking when you buy a new printer and telling the seller that ink monopolies are a deal-breaker.

If we don't fight this cash grab in computers, don't be surprised if other industries are tempted toward more "lock ins." Even my car tale may come true.

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