Inkjet printer cartridges contain a tiny little amount of liquid ink and cost a fortune. Actual calculations vary across the web, but the consensus  seems to be  that printer ink costs anywhere from $4,000 – $8,000 per gallon. This makes it more expensive than gold, oil or Russian caviar.
Inkjet printers are sold using the “freebie marketing ” technique, invented for Gilette razors in the 1890s. The idea is to either give away, or sell below cost, a piece of equipment that requires frequent re-filling with consumables. The assumption is that consumers will keep coming back , and the vendor has a predictable repeat revenue stream where pricing is less important than continued availability.
Admittedly, modern inkjet printers offer a lot for $50 – $120: fast, crisp colour printing, scanning, copying and – sometimes – faxing. The catch is that each refill cartridge costs between $25 and $45, depending on the manufacturer and whether it contains black or colour ink. And the cartridges don’t yield a lot: my Lexmark printer won’t print more than approximately 60 – 80 pages from a single cartridge. That makes printing very expensive: excluding the cost of paper and the cost of acquiring the printer itself, each page costs around $0.40.
For a few years, aftermarket inkjet refills became big business: the cartridges could be recycled by third parties, who would fill them with bulk ink and sell them back to consumers at a fraction of the price. A number of retail businesses sprang up around this business model. To protect their turf, the printer manufacturers changed the game: they introduced what’s become known as ‘chipping’: most ink cartridges now have an electronic imprint that interacts directly with the printer, similar to digital rights management on music files being sold online. If the cartridge has been refilled or otherwise ‘tampered with,’ it won’t work. Game over for aftermarket ink sellers; ka-ching for HP, Lexmark, Epson, Canon and friends. There’s even a class action law suit  about this.
Like most consumers, I didn’t think about it too hard. My home printing needs were very limited – the occasional document while working at home, a Google map here and there for directions, rarely a photo. I was delighted at how much faster and crisper inkjet printers became; especially during the years when digital photography finally eclipsed film photography, they turned into true marvels of technology, offering wireless connections and all sorts of other gadgety goodness.
I also had consistent access to laser printers at the office, so I would simply print out all work-related documents there and take them home. Recently, though, I started working from home more frequently, and my home printing needs have changed. Now, I’m feeling the sting of the printer ink scam. It’s become almost a monthly expense, and my aggravation is exacerbated by my inability to remember my precise printer model and the obscure numbering scheme of the different cartridge options. More than once, I’ve bought the wrong ink, only to discover my mistake after I’d already cut open the little protective plastic bag inside the box. Talk about wasting money!
After some research into the matter, it became clear that the only remedy was to buy a monochrome laser printer. The cost per page (CPP) of printing on a black-and-white laser printer is a fraction of what inkjet printers offer. By my calculations, and depending on what’s actually being printed (images or text), CPP could be as low as $0.02 or $0.05, excluding paper. Laser toner is also expensive, of course, but a $150 cartridge delivers up to 6,000 pages.
The other great thing about laser printers is that they last a long time and aren’t particularly attractive to consumers because they don’t really do anything other than print black and white pages. On Craigslist, I found a perfectly decent, 8-year-old HP Laserjet 4050N battle axe in great mechanical condition.
Optically, it’s not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but that’s forgivable given that I paid only $70 for it. The best thing about it is that it has HP’s JetDirect network card/print server built in which allows me to connect it directly to my home network and share it from my various computers. It works flawlessly and even came with a 70% full toner cartridge.
I think, though, that the inkjet situation could be addressed in other ways.
There is a growing number of consumer gadgets that are being ‘hacked’ by open source community efforts. Notable examples include the iPhone , Linksys routers , iPods and other MP3 players , and Canon digital cameras . The idea is simple: assuming that ownership laws imply that you own any device you have bought and are therefore allowed to modify it, teams of open source developers have set out to improve the functionality of their hardware by changing or replacing the firmware (software that controls the device’s features). In the case of mobile phones, these efforts are often geared towards ‘unlocking’ the device to make it work on any mobile network. In the case of internet routers, the open source firmware adds functionality and makes the device more reliable.
I found myself wondering why there isn’t any open source firmware for inkjet printers yet. A google search turns up nothing in particular. But if there is an area that’s ready to be hacked for the greater good, surely this is it: while I don’t begrudge anyone their right to make a profit from a good business idea, I think the quasi-monopoly exercised by the cartel of inkjet printer manufacturers and their protective business practices are ready for some open source subversion.
What could this look like in practice? There are some hardware devices today that can reset some of the ‘chipped’ inkjet cartridges to make printers believe their counters are at zero. But what if we replaced the printer’s firmware to simply ignore the counters and keep printing? There’s no benefit to consumers to having the printer report, to the printer driver, that its ink is almost empty. We can see that because our pages look faded. By simply removing this restriction, open source printer firmware could save consumers millions.