Economies of Ink


© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

© Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Article from Issue 232/2020

The "paperless office" was once the dazzling vision of futurists and keynote speakers. Tech blogs and efficiency gurus have been talking about eliminating printers for at least 20 years, but it never really happened – or at least, not yet.

Dear Reader,

The "paperless office" was once the dazzling vision of futurists and keynote speakers. Tech blogs and efficiency gurus have been talking about eliminating printers for at least 20 years, but it never really happened – or at least, not yet. Despite the predictions, contracts, school compositions, tax forms, and other essential documents sometimes require the corporeal manifestation that comes with a printer. In other cases, printing is just easier. I often print the articles I'm editing just because I like to make notes in the margins and draw lines and arrows to sketch out changes.

Printers are still around, but they are subject to the same forces that are affecting the rest of the industry. So even though they look the same, the business arrangements surrounding them are rapidly changing. So-called cloud printing has been with us for several years now. How do we make printers even "smarter"? And is "smart" always good?

I noticed a post on Slashdot recently from a guy whose printer quit printing, because he stopped paying the monthly fee for HP's Instant Ink system. In case you're wondering, yes, Instant Ink is a subscription service for printer ink. You pay a flat rate per month, and the ink is delivered automatically to your doorstep. You don't even have to order it; your smart print cartridge knows when you're about to run out and orders it for you.

The problem, apparently, is that some people don't even know they have this service – they forget they signed up for the two month free trial and later notice an unexplained charge on their credit card. It appears that it is possible to exit the Instant Ink program in an orderly fashion, but you have to do it carefully and click all the right boxes. If you just stop paying, your smart print cartridge locks up and won't print anything.

HP's Instant Ink system has been around for a few years, so it isn't exactly news, but they keep extending it to include more printers, so it is gradually gaining a higher profile. I talked to an HP guy once on an airport shuttle, and he told me that ink had always been the biggest source of the company's profits. According to my source, HP used to lose money on the retail cost of a printer just to set up the chance to keep plying the owner with proprietary print cartridges. If you're going to play that game, you really need to price the cartridges to cover the risk associated with estimating how much the user will actually print. Now, due to market forces, the company is less able to assume that risk, or perhaps, they want to provide the user with an incentive for assuming the risk of estimating print volume.

Instant Ink could be an attractive option – if you fit snugly into one of the available plans. Like a mobile phone company, the Instant Ink service offers different prices for different levels of service. For instance, one plan lets you print 100 pages per month for $4.99. That's around 5 cents per page if you use all your pages, which isn't too bad. But if you only print 50 pages, that's more like 10 cents per page. (The plan does provide a means for rolling over unused pages, but it caps at 200 pages.) You owe the fee no matter how much you print, so if you only print one page, you pay $4.99 per page for that month. If you go over the maximum page count for your plan, the per-page rate scales up, which can lead to costly overruns.

Interestingly, the company even offers a "Free" printing plan, which allows you to print 15 pages per month for no cost, and then you owe HP 10 cents per page for everything else you print, which is kind of like the old days, when we used to print faxes, documents, and photocopies at the local copy store for 10 cents a page, only this time, you are paying 10 cents per page to print them on your own printer.

I know I'm old school, yet still I must admit some misgivings about passing from an era where you never really fully own your own software to this brave new tomorrow where you don't even fully own your own hardware. However, from a financial viewpoint, it does appear that, if you have a supported HP printer and are pretty confident about a steady and predictable output, you probably could save money with Instant Ink. Just be sure you follow the instructions if you formally withdraw from the program so your printer doesn't go on strike.

And shop around for other innovations. For instance, the Epson EcoTank series does away with cumbersome and costly print cartridges altogether, providing a refillable tank for a significant per-page print savings that Epson says can be as much as 90 percent.

In theory, as long as competition exists, some of the benefits of innovation should get passed back to the consumer, but read the fine print, and be aware that lower cost with greater risk is sometimes no savings at all.

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