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HP backtracks on third-party ink cartridges, reserves right to lock them out it in the future

HP came under fire last week when a firmware update it pushed out six months ago kicked in and locked out third-party ink cartridges for a number of the company’s OfficeJet printers. The move surprised and infuriated several thousand people who suddenly found themselves with malfunctioning printers, who promptly blasted the company for its actions. Now, HP is walking back its new firmware — but it won’t promise not to reactivate it at a later time.

There is confusion in the market regarding a printer firmware update – here are the facts:

We updated a cartridge authentication procedure in select models of HP office inkjet printers to ensure the best consumer experience and protect them from counterfeit and third-party ink cartridges that do not contain an original HP security chip and that infringe on our IP.

HP printers and original HP ink products deliver the best quality, security and reliability. When ink cartridges are cloned or counterfeited, the customer is exposed to quality and potential security risks, compromising the printing experience… The most recent firmware update included a dynamic security feature that prevented some untested third-party cartridges that use cloned security chips from working, even if they had previously functioned.

Later, the company writes that it intends to continue using security features “to protect the quality of our customer experience… and protect our IP, including authentication methods that may prevent some third-party supplies from working.”

Most people who are even passingly familiar with the printer market are well aware companies like HP charge ridiculous premiums for printer ink. Third-party cartridges are often much less expensive, print more pages per cartridge, and offer almost the same quality.

The nature of that “almost” is where HP and other OEM ink manufacturers do have a small point. Repeated third-party tests have shown that yes, in certain circumstances, manufacturer ink can be superior. Whether this matters (or is even true) depends on the printer, the type of paper used, the criteria used to evaluate the printed text or image, and the print job itself.

For example: In some demanding cases, original manufacturer ink will fade less under UV light than third-party ink. If you are printing a large, full-page color image, manufacturer ink sometimes gives a better result when used with specific paper, or may be less susceptible to color banding. So yes — in certain limited cases, HP’s ink may be better than what you buy for 1/2 or 1/5 the price. But for the vast majority of us who print simple documents or make limited use of color, there’s no practical difference between the two.

Let’s not pretend for a second that this is about safeguarding the consumer experience. If HP simply wanted to do that, it could use advertising and brand presence to position itself as the best-in-class solution for its own devices. There are plenty of companies that build a successful business around the idea of upselling consumers on products they don’t exactly need, and printers are no exception. The fact that third-party ink may sometimes be less suited to a particular task is no reason to embed a sneaky post-launch firmware update that locks out third-party cartridges six months after the update was meant to be applied. That’s nothing but a deliberate attempt to force people to use its own exorbitant ink refills.

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