HP tightens grip on printer ink market

A new firmware update distributed to HP printers has been activated which blocks the use of other company’s ink cartridges.

HP printer ink cartridges. Image courtesy of Flickr - frankieleon
HP printer ink cartridges. Image courtesy of Flickr – frankieleon

Previously many printer owners used less expensive ink cartridges manufactured by other third parties.

Following the activation of this new firmware update, printers which were using the off-brand ink would display messages like “cartridge problem”, “one or more cartridges are missing or damaged”, and “older generation cartridge”.

Interestingly, the actual update which caused these errors was distributed in March, and the current ‘block’ only came into effect six months later in a so-called ‘timebomb’ effect.

One reason HP may have chosen to deploy it in this way was to stop users from getting the word out and preventing their printers from updating.

Responding to these reports HP appeared to confirm that update was indeed intentionally blocking these third party cartridges.

“The purpose of this update is to protect HP’s innovations and intellectual property,” the company explained in a statement.

“These printers will continue to work with refilled or remanufactured cartridges with an Original HP security chip. Other cartridges may not function.”

Despite coming as a shock to printer owners, this ‘timebomb’ is not unprecedented. In 2003 Lexmark sued a third party cartridge manufacturer for a breach of copyright in an attempt to block their use in their printers.

In the end Lexmark lost this case, however it is unclear if this decision will provide any insight into the current situation, given that HP’s technology is much more advanced, and uses more intellectual property.

Printer market control

While other parts of HP’s business are performing rather poorly, its printer ink and toner sales continue to be a multi-billion dollar cash-cow for the company, and indeed represent the single most profitable segment of HP.

Nonetheless, the printer market, and subsequently the market for printer ink is in a slow decline, as the world moves away from hard paper copies.

This latest move can be seen as yet one more way for the company to continue to make massive profits from printer ink sales despite a shrinking market.

Moreover, it fits into the company’s continued strategy of absorbing or marginalizing its rivals in the printer business. Just last week, HP announced the acquisition of Samsung’s printer market for $1.05bn.