I was reading about HP’s subscription ink service. The idea looks pretty good – you decide how many prints you want to make a month and HP send you ink cartridges in the post. If I was making prints for sale this might be a good deal: I work out how many prints of each size I can sell and then churn through them.
The complication seems to be in the detail. It appears that you cannot exceed the planned number of prints. If you do, the printer stops working. If you cancel your subscription, the ink cartridges stop working even if they are full. So basically you give HP remote control over your printer to only print what you have paid them for, using only their cartridges. You thought it was your printer when you bought it, but it’s not.
Epson apparently sent out an update to its printers that made them stop working with refilled or third-party ink cartridges. You thought it was your printer when you bought it, but it’s not.
This is one aspect of an issue that is growing with smartphones and tractors. The original manufacturer is trying to lock the device so that it can only be repaired by them or has to be replaced. You may think it’s a simple fix to replace a cracked screen on a phone, and it should be, but not when the phone has been programmed to reject a non-approved screen or will only work if some magic hidden register is reset by the original manufacturer. So the phone goes to landfill and a new one arrives on contract. And we lose the raw materials from the old phone while extracting more to make the new one.
Kodak used to try doing this by using proprietary film formats. It’s difficult to be a rapacious capitalist though, when the only thing stopping a competitor is whether the market is big enough to be worth the tooling costs to make the new format. But imagine what one could do, now that cameras have computers in them. If you make memory cards, or have a business relationship with someone who does, you could subtly slow-down other people’s cards or switch the occasion bit in the stored file to degrade it ever so slightly. You could slow-down the autofocus on third-party lenses, or even put the focus slightly out. Even more sneaky would be to apply a bit of image softening during the processing and saving of the image. And what happens when the scene recognition in your smartphone camera thinks you are taking a picture of children, or terrorists?
Couldn’t happen with film, right? Well you used to be able to pop the end off a 35mm cassette to unload it, meaning that the cassette could be reloaded and reused multiple times. Not any more. Now you have to pry the end cap off a cassette, which destroys it. This turns a useful item into small bits of metal and plastic waste. I know that I can buy plastic reloadable cassettes, but that’s not the point. And in all my fumbled handling of film cassettes, I have never managed to accidentally pop the end off one of the old-style ones (so there can be no real argument that swaging the caps on is a safety feature). Plus, they don’t bear the costs of disposal.
Where does this leave us? As the product. The printer makers don’t want to sell you a printer, they want to generate a perpetual revenue stream. If you refill your cartridges or use someone else’s, you harm their profits. If you get someone to repair your smartphone you might not buy a new one. Farm machinery like tractors probably lasts for years, so retaining an income from spare parts and servicing helps maintain profit between eventual replacements.
What can you do? Repair before replace. Support the right to repair. Think hard before you buy something that locks you in – you would be supporting the manufacturer in milking you. Stop being a product.