Printer manufacturers stand out from their own petard – EEJournal

Once upon a time, printers used ribbon on metal spools that looked similar to typewriter ribbons. In fact, some of them became Typewriter ribbons. Then manufacturers started developing plastic cassettes to hold the ribbons. These cartridges made ribbon installation much easier, but they also served another purpose. They were proprietary mechanical cases. If you wanted to buy a new ribbon for your printer, you had to buy it from the same manufacturer that made your printer. Ribbon cartridges offered printer manufacturers a new, steady stream of revenue, which made the printer manufacturers very happy as they had managed to copy the Gillette marketing model of razors and razor blades.

It didn’t take long for ribbon manufacturers to realize that they weren’t selling as many ribbons as they used to be. They also found that an entire market for proprietary ribbon cartridges was served exclusively by printer manufacturers. It was a walled garden, but the garden wall was quite low and could easily be circumvented. Very quickly, ribbon manufacturers outfitted their own plastic cassettes, filled them with their own ribbons, and began selling them to printer users looking for a better deal.

Early on I had an NEC Spinwriter printer that connected to my North Star Horizon CP/M computer via a serial port. (That was a good two decades before USB.) The NEC Spinwriter printer used a printing thimble with a full character set loaded onto a plastic cup that looked like a blunt, overly complicated badminton shuttlecock. I printed proofs of my first book The Handbook of Microcomputer Interfaces, with this printer and tractor-fed paper in 1981. This printout took a while as the machine was designed for 15-20 characters per second. It sounded great when it was in use. This printer was built like a tank.

All kinds of printing thimbles with many fonts could be bought for the NEC Spinwriter, and I made a hand-patched copy of the WordStar word processor to take advantage of that printer’s extended character sets. You can use the ASCII “shift out” (SO) and “shift in” (SI) control characters to get special print characters like “½” and “£” from the Spinwriter’s print thimble.

The Spinwriter was NEC’s rather original take on daisy wheel impact printers, but the petals on NEC’s detachable daisy wheel were curved upwards. The NEC Spinwriter’s pressure thimble was functionally similar to the interchangeable typeballs used on IBM’s Selectric typewriter. You can get various thimbles with many fonts, including Pica, Courier, and Elite, as well as thimbles for other language character sets such as French, German, Russian, and Norwegian.

The Spinwriter resembled the Selectric typewriter in another way. It used a film printer ribbon in a proprietary cartridge, and NEC figured these ribbons were made of a gold- or platinum-like substance – rather than injection-molded plastic, Mylar film and carbon – and the company charged accordingly. Although I initially used NEC ribbon cartridges, I soon switched to 3approx-Party cartridges as they become available. Most of them 3approx-Party cartridges worked fine, although some were poorly printed or jammed. (Note: 40 years later I can still buy ribbon cartridges for the NEC Spinwriter, although both of my Spinwriters are long gone. It’s a testament to how well NEC built these printers.)

The same happened with inkjet printers. When inkjet printers first came out, only the printer OEMs sold replacement ink cartridges. But those cartridges were mostly just plastic boxes filled with ink, so they weren’t that hard to duplicate. And that’s exactly what happened. Less expensive third-party ink cartridges were soon shooting up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

When laser printers first came out, the replacement print cartridge life cycle started all over again. Each new laser printer required a different toner cartridge, and those cartridges didn’t come cheap. They cost ten times more than the ribbon cartridges they replaced and, like those ribbon cartridges, were originally proprietary. You could only buy replacement toner cartridges from the printer manufacturers.

Of course, history repeated itself. Many of the same companies that offered 3approx-Party ribbon cassettes went into the 3approx-Party ink and toner cartridge shop. This 3approxThird party ink and toner cartridges cost less than the OEM cartridges but more complicated than ribbon cartridges, 3approx-Party printer cartridge quality was questionable. Some of the replacement cartridges worked, some didn’t. some 3approx-Party cartridges left streaks. Some were not printed evenly, so the printed text can vary from light to dark and back again on the printed page.

One of my laser printers, an HP 2200 LaserJet, is fast approaching its end of life as new toner cartridges are no longer available from any manufacturer, HP or otherwise, and toner refills have spotty performance records in my experience. If I use up my cache of HP 2200 toner cartridges, the printer becomes unusable.

Of course, printer OEMs — including HP, Canon, and Epson — didn’t like copying their proprietary toner and ink cartridges. They had started an entire industry of 3approxparty cartridge makers, but they weren’t happy to lose the revenue from those cartridges, especially when the printer market had become too similar to the Gillette razor market. Printer manufacturers had slashed their printer prices to the bone to incentivize customers to choose the cheapest printer and leave them stuck buying expensive printer cartridges. Printer manufacturers didn’t want to lose any of the lucrative cartridge replacement parts market they had created.

Every problem has a solution, and printer manufacturers have come up with an excellent solution to problem 3approx-Party Patrons going into business. They added DRM (Digital Rights Management) chips to their print cartridges. Their printers read the chips to confirm that the new toner or ink cartridge was an official product from the OEM printer manufacturer. These DRM chips and their operations were also proprietary, so there was no universal supply or supplier for these chips, and copying them is not as easy as making another plastic box. Reverse engineering these chips required some electrical engineering expertise, which completely discouraged some 3’sapprox-Party cartridge vendors and threw big obstacles in front of the rest.

However, to get a way out should government agencies see this move as overly monopolistic, printer manufacturers typically offered a printer user a way to bypass the DRM in the printer, but only after stern and alarming warnings of damage to the printer and voiding the printer’s warranty printer goes out. But with warranties of up to 90 days or so, most printers were already out of warranty, so many printer users (like me) just ignore the warnings and buy cheaper cartridges.

I use 3approx-Party ink and toner cartridges for three decades. They generally work but you need to find the good ones as there are a lot of bad ones on the market. Luckily, the internet has made it much easier to share information about these cartridges online. Amazon’s customer reviews of 3approx-Party printer cartridges will quickly help you separate the good from the bad, although you do need to be sensible when reading the reviews. I’ve been told on good authority that some of these reviews are downright wrong.

Thanks to the chip shortage caused by COVID, there is a new twist in this story. (See “How long will it take for chip shortages to ease?Printer manufacturers are having a hard time getting the simple, cheap, disposable DRM chips they have to put in their fancy, proprietary ink cartridges. For example, Canon posted the following message on its websites:

“Unfortunately, due to the ongoing global shortage of semiconductor components, Canon is currently experiencing difficulties in sourcing specific electronic components (microchips) required for toner and consumables. While this will not result in a toner shortage, they will begin introducing non-microchip toner bottles from mid-December 2021 until normal supply resumes.”

I think it’s good that the printer manufacturers have found a way out. They needed it.

Meanwhile, printer manufacturers like Epson are finally moving away from ink cartridges. Epson’s Ecotank printers have built-in ink tanks that are filled from a simple plastic bottle. It makes the ink a lot cheaper, but the Epson Ecotank all-in-one printer I recently bought for my daughter was $299 compared to my last cartridge-based HP Envy 4520 all-in-one inkjet printer , which cost $25 went on sale about six years ago. Part of the difference in price between these two printers is due to the Epson having an automatic document feeder for the scanner, but certainly part of the difference is due to the expected revenue and profits for cartridge-based inkjet printers. Epson claims that four Ecotank ink refill bottles equal 80 ink cartridges. This is a significant reduction in plastic usage in addition to reduced consumer costs.

Canon now makes a similar line of MegaTank refillable inkjet printers, and HP similarly offers a line of refillable Smart Tank printers. These printers cost more initially, but you save on ink costs and they’re a lot more environmentally responsible, keeping those tiny ink cartridges out of landfill.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of this article, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

“Hoist with his own petard” is a proverbial phrase from a speech in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The meaning of the phrase is that a bomb maker is lifted (‘lifted’) off the ground with his own bomb (a ‘petard’ is a small explosive device), indicating an ironic reversal or poetic justice.”

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