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HP printer ‘timebomb’ leaves third-party ink cartridges unusable

As the BBC reports, large numbers of HP inkjet printers recently stopped accepting third-party cartridges on the same date: September 13. Owners discovered the printers had disabled themselves, warning about a “cartridge problem” or claiming cartridges were missing. One Dutch ink vendor, 123inkt, said it received over 1,000 complaints in a single day.
Initially, blame was directed at a surreptitious firmware update quietly issued by HP. It soon emerged that the company last released new software back in March though, ruling it out as the cause of the messages. Instead, the company appears to have coded a timebomb into the firmware, setting September 13 as the date that third-party ink cartridges are suddenly disabled.
The company hasn’t commented on why it took this approach. It could be intended to be even less obvious to users than an update. People who install a firmware update and then immediately find their cartridges unusable should be able to figure out the cause. If a printer has been operating for months without issues, diagnosing a sudden failure could become a lot more problematic.
Unfortunately for printer owners, the practice is alarmingly common across the industry. Companies routinely offer updates with generic changelogs, claiming to “improve the functionality” or “improve the security” of a printer model. Checks for unofficial cartridges are sometimes quietly snuck in with the rest of the update, although it is very rare that a timebomb system is used.
Printer ink cartridges are notoriously pricey. To lower the cost, many consumers opt to buy third-party budget cartridges. Often, there is no difference in visible quality between the manufacturer’s originals and the cheap refills.
Naturally, the printer companies aren’t too impressed by this practice and advise against third-party cartridges. According to the manufacturers, you should always use official products to maximise the life of your printer and prevent clogging. In practice, there’s little evidence that using branded cartridges offers any tangible benefits. HP suddenly blocking third-party cartridges is a very aggressive move, despite the company’s claims that unofficial inks aren’t safe to use.
According to HP, it is still possible to use replacement HP ink cartridges as long as the original security chip is left in place. New cartridges bought from third-parties won’t have this chip though, preventing the printer from verifying them as genuine and leaving them unusable.
It’s hostile towards consumers and contributes to the negative image associated with the printer industry. Just last week, HP bought Samsung’s printer business, claiming it wanted to revive the stagnant market. Angering customers by forcing people to spend more money than necessary isn’t likely to help this aim.
HP said in a statement to the BBC that the update is intended to “protect HP’s innovations and intellectual property.” The company hasn’t been proactive in helping its customers, many of whom have now been left with unusable equipment they rely on to run their homes and businesses. Questions are currently being raised whether HP has broken the law in some regions by disabling the cartridges without providing warning.

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