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article imageHP backs down from blocking third-party printer inks

By James Walker     Sep 30, 2016 in Technology
Earlier this month, reports hit the media that a timebomb in HP's printers caused thousands of devices to simultaneously start blocking third-party inks. The company has now apologised to customers, saying it will issue a new update to reverse the block.
On September 13, large numbers of HP printer owners woke up to discover their devices had rendered themselves unusable. The printers complained of missing or faulty cartridges when third-party units were installed. It soon became clear that a time bomb in HP's firmware triggered the block, notifying all devices to disable unofficial cartridges on September 13.
Over two weeks later, HP has admitted that a "dynamic security feature" in its latest firmware update deliberately prevented third-party cartridges being used in its printers. It blamed a communication problem for the wave of complaints, saying "we should have done a better job of communicating about the authentication procedure to customers." It apologised for the problems, saying it is "committed to transparency" and "high-quality experiences." According to HP, using third-party cartridges without an original HP security chip exposes customers to quality issues and security concerns. However, the high cost of genuine cartridges makes third-party ones attractive to consumers. The practice of using unofficial inks is commonplace amongst printer users, but is widely resented by industry manufacturers.
HP said the firmware update was designed to protect customers from what it sees as the risks of using third-party cartridges. Vendors clone HP security chips to trick printers into recognising third-party spares. HP's update introduced a check for copied chips, disabling one of the most common techniques used by third-party ink firms.
"We updated a cartridge authentication procedure in select models of HP office inkjet printers to ensure the best consumer experience and protect them from counterfeit and third-party ink cartridges that do not contain an original HP security chip and that infringe on our IP," said HP.
After the effects of the update hit the headlines, HP was almost universally derided by customers and critics. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organisation that protects consumer rights and privacy online, compared the use of third-party inks in printers to bread and toasters.
"HP customers should be able to use the ink of their choosing in their printers for the same reason that Cuisinart customers should be able to choose whose bread goes in their toasters," the Foundation wrote in an open letter to HP. "The practice of 'tying' is rightly decried by economists and competition regulators as an invitation to monopoly pricing and reduced competition and innovation. HP customers should choose HP ink because it is the best, not because their printer won't work with a competitor's brand."
HP has not explained why it used a time bomb to deliver the block. The EFF said HP "abused" its own update procedures. The time bomb was created by a March 2016 software update. The fact it lay dormant until September suggests HP was deliberately trying to mislead customers, making them blame their cartridges for the fault rather than suspecting a software update. With a six-month gap placed between the update and the block, few consumers were likely to make the link.
"We should have done a better job of communicating about the authentication procedure to customers, and we apologize," said HP. "Although only a small number of customers have been affected, one customer who has a poor experience is one too many. It is important to understand that all third party cartridges with original HP security chips continue to function properly."
HP said it will be issuing an additional firmware update "within two weeks" that will enable customers to remove the dynamic security feature from their printers. It will be an optional download offered by each device.
Despite recognising the problems it caused for customers, HP said it will "continue to use" security features to protect its customer experience, technical integrity and intellectual property. It refused to rule out the use of authentication methods that disable third-party printing supplies.
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