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 user 2003-11-03 at 10:14:00 am Views: 169
  • #8299

    Hold on, the cheap ink’s comING 

    A movie star buys a mansion with nine bathrooms and a koi pond, a CEO buys a Lear jet, and, face it, you’re jealous.

    But you need not be.

    You can splurge with the best of them, and you may not even know it.

    Put it this way: Walk over to your home inkjet printer and take out one of the ink cartridges.

    Behold it.

    A sultan never beheld such treasure.

    “I remember how someone once put it,” said Tricia Judge, editorial director of Imaging Spectrum magazine, a printing industry journal.

    “Pound for pound, forget gold, forget diamonds. There is nothing more valuable on Earth than an inkjet cartridge.”

    This is a story about the ink you use in your office, your home.

    It comes in a cartridge almost as light as a few feathers.


    If the ink were gasoline, it would cost you $175,000 to fill your gas tank.

    Give or take, depending the tank.

    And wait a minute.

    Your printer says the ink is running low.

    Better go out and buy some more.


    “People are astounded,” John Roberts said. “They’re appalled.”

    Roberts did not go into business to astound and appall people. He runs Pieritz Bros. office supply in Oak Park. The store started selling office supplies in 1895, when typewriters were still viewed with suspicion.

    It is a pleasant and well-stocked store, with a fine old cat named Huckleberry asleep on the counter next to the cash register.

    But it has stayed with the times, which means it must sell, among other things, inkjet cartridges.

    “People can’t believe the prices they have to pay,” Roberts said. “And, frankly, neither can I.”

    Here is how the business works:

    You buy an inkjet printer. It comes with ink cartridges, but they are only partially filled and do not last long. The printer company is giving you a taste.

    Then you need more.

    The makers of the printers– Lexmark, Epson, Cannon, Hewlett-Packard–make the ink cartridges.

    A typical cartridge costs $3 to $4 to produce, industry sources say.

    The price to you is 10 times that.

    And you seem to have little choice.

    “They sell the printers cheap,” Roberts said. “But then you’re hooked on their ink. That’s when they’ve got you.”

    The printer companies beg to differ. They cite research and development costs. They cite many factors.

    “We make our cartridges in a clean-room environment with the strictest possible quality-control standards and carefully developed chemicals–this isn’t just colored water we’re talking about,” said Epson spokeswoman Pam Barnett.

    Whatever. They’ve still got you.

    Or are there a few things you can do?


    “The first thing to remember is that your printer lies to you,” said an assistant at an office supply chain. “A lot of people see the printer telling them the ink is running out, and they pop in another cartridge. But your printer is lying.”

    The trick is to squeeze every last drop of ink out of the cartridge.

    Ignore the warnings. Keep a replacement handy and keep printing.

    The personal best for the writer of this piece is two weeks of printing after the warning.

    And when the ink really starts to run out, pop in the new cartridge, right?


    “You can still get a few more pages sometimes,” the assistant said. “Take out the cartridge and shake it. Then put it back in. Not always, but sometimes, it works.”

    Good advice when you’re using ink that prices out per milliliter, according to one study, at seven times the tab for Dom Perignon 1985.


    But other than that, they’ve got you.

    Or do they?

    “The real answer is competition,” said Lester Cornelius. “And we’re finally starting to make a little progress here.”

    Cornelius is chairman of the International Imaging Technology Council, an industry group seeking to open up the market for those who would compete against the expensive guys in the cartridge business.

    And don’t get Cornelius started about the expensive guys.

    “Some of their inkjet cartridges have three colors–and when the ink runs out in one, the cartridge shuts down and you have to throw it out. Amazing. They’ve been banned in China, you know. China said it’s too poor to throw out half its ink.”

    But they haven’t been banned here. And the answer, Cornelius said, is coming from the “compatibles” and the “remanufactureds”–generic cartridges made from scratch and used cartridges that are refurbished, refilled and sold at a fraction of the original price.

    The idea started some years ago. It was a nonstarter when it started.

    “You had a lot of them coming out of mom-and-pop organizations,” said Jenny Popps, who oversees inks and toners for the Office Depot chain.

    “They’d just drill a hole in it and resell it. There were some real quality problems.”

    But customers are starting to notice there are alternative brands that don’t come out of somebody’s garage.

    So now when you walk into an Office Depot, you will find an Office Depot brand of inks for many printers. The Staples chain has developed its own alternative with the help of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Independent manufacturers with no moms and pops in evidence are wholesaling to retailers, too, some for half the price.

    The market share for the upstarts is 15 percent and growing.

    “A lot of consumers still don’t know they have these alternatives,” Cornelius said. “But they’re starting to catch on.”

    The trouble is, so are the makers of the printers.


    “I’ll tell you the most hideous thing they do,” Cornelius said.

    Adds Judge of Imaging Spectrum magazine: “Some of these are almost like a computer virus.”

    The printer companies have launched a number of counterattacks, even down to threatening to void warranties if some brand of ink other than their own is stuck into their printers.

    But none has been so effective as one.

    “The hideous thing they do is killer chips,” Cornelius said.

    There are now computer chips that shut down a cartridge when the ink is low, making it impossible to refurbish and refill. There are killer chips that send a message to the printer to shut down if another brand is installed.

    The makers of the printers say this is for quality control, that an inferior cartridge can foul up a printer. The upstarts say it is a question best settled in antitrust lawsuits, a couple of which are now pending in federal court.

    But for now, the killer chips are killers.

    “We haven’t been able to remanufacture any of the cartridges that have killer chips in them yet,” said Popps of Office Depot.


    But there are some rustlings, too, of a counterattack to the counterattack.

    Along with the federal lawsuits, there are new laws in Texas, Connecticut and California that ban state agencies from buying products with any devices that prevent recycling.

    North Carolina just passed a law protecting people who use alternative brands of ink from having their warranties voided.

    The European Union is taking a hard look at killer chips.

    And while momentum grows, a new report from the front:

    “We’re developing killer chips to kill their killer chips,” said Bud Linville of Longer Life Products, which makes compatible cartridges in Triadelphia, W.Va.

    “This is a war. They have their research and development. We have our research and development.”

    So just hold on.

    “Right,” Linville said. “This should all be settled in 10 or 20 years.”


    Connie Huber carried a piece of printed paper and her 10-month-old baby, Evan, into Pieritz Bros. office supply. She smiled. She handed the paper over.

    She was there because of the price of ink cartridges.

    “The ink is so expensive, I thought I’d do it this way,” she said.

    This is what she was doing: Taking a special trip to an office supply store to have 35 copies made of a flier for an upcoming block party in her neighborhood.

    Probably cheaper than using her home printer, she figured.

    And maybe so.

    John Roberts made the 35 copies of the block-party flier. He gave them to Connie Huber and her baby.

    Any advice, meanwhile, for users of inkjet printers?

    “Get a laser printer,” Roberts said. “Laser printers have come down in price. The toner isn’t cheap, but it’s less expensive per page. You’ll save money in the long run.”

    Meanwhile, the writer of this piece picked up a $40 inkjet cartridge and made it do a little dance in the air in front of the baby.

    The baby reached out a hand and shoved it away.

    Everybody is a critic