Hewlett Packard's printer division stands accused of re-releasing a firmware update which blocks third-party and remanufactured ink cartridges, exactly a year since it pulled the same update following a tidal wave of customer complaints.
Hewlett Packard made a name for itself in the world of home and enterprise printing devices, but the launch of inkjet printers - rather than the toner-based laser printers the company brought to market - gave it a new way of selling: allow customers to buy the printer itself at a massively discounted price, then make up for the losses on the consumables. This 'razor-blade marketing' - named, naturally, for the razor blade industry, which sells handles at a loss then uniquely-shaped blade packages at a considerable markup - is a significant driver of profits for all printer companies, but one threatened by consumers who opt to save cash and install third-party, refilled, or remanufactured cartridges rather than first-party originals.
A year ago, HP sought to protect its revenue stream by quietly releasing an update - downloaded and installed automatically - which caused selected printer models to begin rejecting third-party ink cartridges that the day before had been working just fine. The backlash was quick and brutal, with HP quickly withdrawing the firmware and releasing a new update which reversed the lock-out - a volte-face it appears to have now again reversed, re-releasing the exact same update exactly a year later.
Freelance writer Günter Born was one of the first to notice the change, made on Wednesday, publishing an email from a third-party cartridge vendor claiming that 'more than 50 customers' had reported sudden problems. As before, the firmware affects HP's OfficeJet and OfficeJet Pro family of inkjet printers - printers designed for relatively high duty cycles and on which users can expect to make considerable savings by switching away from HP-branded consumables.
Oddly, though, HP has published firmware revisions which disable the printers' 'Dynamic Security Feature' responsible for the lock-out, allowing owners of the affected printers to disable the "feature" and restore compatibility with third-party cartridges. This firmware version, however, is not installed automatically: Users need to seek out the page with the fixed firmware and manually install it before their printers will again accept non-HP cartridges.
HP has not commented on the re-release of the lock-out firmware.
HP has issued a statement denying that it has reactivated the lockout on third-party inkjet cartridges, but has not offered an explanation for user reports indicating cartridges have begun to be rejected with exactly the same symptoms as the lockout last year. 'Earlier this week a media outlet in Europe inaccurately reported that HP issued a new firmware update designed to prevent the use of third party cartridges,' the company's statement reads. 'No such firmware update occurred. HP continues to use various forms of authentication (including dynamic security) to prevent the use of cartridges with non HP chips. We will continue to issue firmware updates in order to resolve bugs and improve customer experience.'