The Grouse: The Inkjet Refill Racket
Why I've given up on the world's most expensive fluid
By Jon Chase Posted 02.12.2008 at 5:22 pm 18 Comments (external - login to view)
At up to $8,000 per gallon, inkjet ink is among the most expensive liquids by volume one can buy
Let us take a moment to mourn the impending death (external - login to view) of the Polaroid instant photo. You shall be sorely missed, my shake-and-bake friend. Sniff. And with the death of yet one more beloved but anachronistic technology, let us anticipate the imminent decline of anotheróthe photo printer. Only this time Iíll do so with a smile. Home inkjet printers and their ilk have for a while now embodied the best and worst of the technological state of the union, as it were. Simply put, they are mainstream products with incredibly high-end engineering, but also represent a ludicrously false economy in the worst way. And for a decade, printer companies having been laughing all the way to the bank at our expense.
Let me state that I once was unabashedly passionate about my now aged Canon i70 photo printer. It is compact (in fact portable if you buy a battery for it), fast, prints remarkably great images up to 8 x 10, and does documents too at a respectably brisk clip. When digital cameras first appeared, Iíd spend weekends cooped up with my photo-spewing friend, printing out scores of crisp, colorful masterpieces to shove in the face of anyone who would look. ďIsnít it amazing! I printed it myself!Ē I would crow, impressed not only with my handiwork, but more with how I stuck it to the man by not paying for pricey store-made prints. Then Iíd run to Staples to load up yet again on $40 worth of ink cartridges.
And thereís the rub. Printers are sold using the razor blade business modelóthe printers are dirt cheap, but you have to keep buying ink for eternity. And wouldnít you know, it turns out that printer ink, especially for photos, is probably the most expensive substance per volume youíll ever buyómore expensive than gold, oil, perfume, even blood in most cases. If youíre buying name-brand ink cartridges, which typically hold a few milliliters of ink, youíre shelling out the equivalent of between $3,000 and $5,000 per gallon. (Suddenly, spending $45 to fill your carís gas tank doesnít seem so extravagant, eh?) Just as an idea of how valuable this particular golden goose is, more than 40 percent of HPís $2.63 billion operating profits from last quarter (external - login to view) came from itís imaging and printing group alone. In other words, ink keeps printer companies in the black.
No surprise, then, that to stave off competition from low-cost generic refill cartridges, the industry giants circled their wagons and began putting chips into their printers and cartridges to make it so that you had to buy their brand. Lawsuits on both sides havesince raged fast and free: Canon sued (and won) to keep refilled cartridges from being sold in Japan without Canon ink; HP sued and won (external - login to view) for patent infringement against a company that made replacement cartridges. Epson, however, settled a lawsuit (external - login to view) claiming their cartridges intentionally signaled they needed replacement when they still had ink left. And more recently one man filed a class-action suit (external - login to view) claiming that HP illegally colluded with Staples by giving them a $100 million ďbribeĒ not to carry low-cost replacement ink. Itís sordid stuff, but at this point itís almost irrelevant for me.
Even at barebones prices, itís now far cheaper to order prints through Flickr, Shutterfly or iPhoto, or if you need them in a hurry, from your local Wal-Mart, Walgreens or even mom-and-pop photo store. At my local drugstore, a small chain, if you order more than 100 prints, theyíre 15 cents each and available in a couple hours on archival paper with archival ink. And I can put my order through online. Compare that with the cost of photo paper, ink (which in my case, by the way, has to be used at least once every couple weeks or it dries out) and the time involved, and my venerable i70 simply canít compete.
So Iíve put my printer out to pasture for a couple years now, and I havenít looked back. Hit the comments section if youíve experienced similar, or have a solution Iíve overlooked (an obvious one being the decline in printed photos in general). And feel free to nominate other tech you think is moribund to add to my Deathwatch List.