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HP isn’t actually sorry that it has enslaved your printer and rejected your ink

Image: EFF

HP would prefer that you didn’t use third-party or refilled ink cartridges, so it has updated its printers’ firmware to reject “counterfeit” ink. When this upset printer owners, it apologized in the most weaselly, self-justifying way possible. Its statement shows how companies can either apologize, or defend themselves, but shouldn’t do both at once.

In March of 2016, HP updated the firmware on its printers. Six months later, that firmware began to check the chips in ink cartridges, and reject any that aren’t authorized by HP. That day, printers without genuine HP cartridges just stopped printing. (If you refill your cartridge, the chip still says it’s empty, so refilled cartridges don’t work either.) For a revealing narrative about what actually happened and why it’s a problem, see Boing-Boing’s account.

Who controls your printer: you or HP? You bought it, but HP wants to determine how you can use it. Belatedly, the company created an optional update that rolls back the changes, but according to Cory Doctorow’s interviews with HP printer engineers, less than 1% of customers install the optional updates. Of course, you could set your printer to reject all updates, but that would would leave it open to security hacks that could compromise your network.

Breaking down HP’s “apology”

Here’s HP’s “apology” announcement with my analysis and translation:

Dedicated to the best printing experience

By HP Corporate Newsroom
Published: September 28, 2016 (Updated October 12 2016)

HP engineers the best and most-secure printing systems in the world. We strive to always provide the highest-quality experiences for our customers and partners. As a new company, we are committed to transparency in all of our communications and when we fall short, we call ourselves out.

Analysis: Everything in the is opening statement is bullshit. HP’s printing systems are not secure; researchers have shown that hackers could use them to attack networks or make the printers catch on fire. Buying only HP cartridges is not the highest-quality experience, it’s the most expensive. HP is an old company, not a new one. And as you’ll see below, not only HP’s behavior around the firmware, but their communication in this release is anything but transparent.

Translation: We messed with our customers, now we want to justify ourselves.

There is confusion in the market regarding a printer firmware update – here are the facts:

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.

Analysis: Hmm. Why are you “protecting” customers from less expensive cartridges that “infringe on” the company’s IP? This sentence starts out customer-focused, and ends up about protecting HP.

Translation: We modded your printer so now you have to buy new cartridges from HP.

HP printers and original HP ink products deliver the best quality, security and reliability. When ink cartridges are cloned or counterfeited, the customer is exposed to quality and potential security risks, compromising the printing experience.

Analysis: HP passive voice “is exposed to” hides the fact that it is HP’s code that exposes the printer to security risks. HP presents no evidence that the cartridges, rather than the printer, are the source of the risks.

Translation: It will be scarier for you if you don’t buy our cartridges.

As is standard in the printing business, we have a process for authenticating supplies. The most recent firmware update included a dynamic security feature that prevented some untested third-party cartridges that use cloned security chips from working, even if they had previously functioned.

Analysis: After justifying its sneaky actions, HP uses words like “dynamic security feature” and “cloned security chips” to scare people.

Translation: All your cartridge are belong to us.

We should have done a better job of communicating about the authentication procedure to customers, and we apologize. Although only a small number of customers have been affected, one customer who has a poor experience is one too many.

Analysis: Finally, the actual apology, buried deep in the statement. In an apology statement, lead with the apology. And be more sincere than “We should have done a better job.”

Translation: We didn’t tell you about what would happen when you updated your printers. That was sneaky. Sorry.

It is important to understand that all third party cartridges with original HP security chips continue to function properly.

Analysis: Do any such cartridges exist?

Translation: If you don’t want to buy from HP, there may be equally expensive alternatives.

As a remedy for the small number of affected customers, we have issued an optional firmware update that removes the dynamic security feature.

To get the update, customers should visit support.hp.com, select their product, select the product support page, and click on the Software and Driver table to download it. Additional information about this update, including answers to frequently asked questions, can be found in HP’s Support Forum.

Analysis: HP admits that it doesn’t actually need to authenticate cartridges, but makes you go to the trouble of downloading the update, instead of automatically updating the firmware as it did originally.

Translation: Here’s a patch that undoes what we did. That proves the update wasn’t actually necessary for security, and we changed your printer just to make you buy our ink.

We will continue to use security features to protect the quality of our customer experience, maintain the integrity of our printing systems, and protect our IP including authentication methods that may prevent some third-party supplies from working.

Analysis: HP reserves the right to do this again.

Translation: Think you own your printer? Nope. We can update it any time we want.

However, we commit to improving our communication so that customers understand our concerns about cloned and counterfeit supplies. Again, to our loyal customers who were affected, we apologize.

Translation: Sorry. Next time we screw you over, we won’t be so sneaky about it.


Jon Flaxman
Chief Operating Officer, HP Inc.

Lessons from the HP saga

There are two lessons here: one about communication and one about devices.

  • Apologies should apologize. If you make a mistake, start by talking about the mistake you made, and saying you’re sorry. Only then explain why it happened. The more you justify your actions, the less sincere your apology seems. Use simple words, speak directly to the customer, take responsibility, and say what you will do differently in the future.
  • Devices should obey their owners. Author and EFF affiliate Cory Doctorow is a leader in calling out this problem. He refers to connected devices as “The Internet of Shit.” He believes you, not the device manufacturer, should control what you do with a device after you buy it — if the pacemaker in your chest connects to the Internet, the manufacturer shouldn’t be able to turn it off or speed it up without your consent. Even so, the makers of these devices need to keep them secure so they don’t become part of hacker botnets.

While we’re talking about disingenuous apologies, here’s a quick reminder: if you want to vote on the biggest bullshitters of 2016, including the worst apologies, there is still time, right here.

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  1. I don’t know if you care but the reason HP is being so douchey about this is that is their only source of income. They lose money on the printers which are a loss leader for them. They expect to make money on the ink cartridges which are the real business.

    If it weren’t that way your $99 printer would cost about $500 and the ink cartridges would be about 1/3 of what they charge now. The copier business is the same. Service company just about give the copier away for free as long as they can sell you the toner cartridges. If you want to complain about something then suggest you go to that model.

    But if they did that, their business would crash. Why, because all HP competitors wouldn’t go to that model and people going into best buy would not buy the $500 printer that had no more features than the $100 printer.

    1. I agree with Seb’s comment below. If HP wants to have this as their business model, that’s fine. But then don’t pretend the reason for rejecting third-party ink cartridges with a sneak-attack firmware update is “to help the customer.”

    2. There is an alternative to this business model. Epson seems to be doing well with its EcoTank line of $300-$400 printers, which only need refilling (with dirt cheap ink) after about 10,000 pages. I know my next printer will be an EcoTank.

  2. Damn… I’m glad I’ve gone almost 100% paperless. I get that HP needs to make money by selling its ink cartridges, so why not just say that instead of being all evasive?

  3. I remember that, about 20 years ago, I as the Customer Engineering Director for my country, inquired with the
    Printer Sales Director: Why do we sell our (good) printers so cheap? His immediate answer was: W., understand, we are not selling printers, we are selling ink cartridges. I was stunned, but later I understood and proved that he was right. My ‘cloned’ e-bay cartridges still work in my printers.

  4. 1. Remans still work in HP printers, they just need the right chip.
    2. The new HP PageWide Ink based business grade MFPS have absurdly low CPPs and most VARs who sell them can easily undercut Epson Ecotanks. Same deal with the New Managed MFP LaserJet Line which is toner based.
    3. Any IT manager worth their salt can keep their printerfleet safe and using remans in HPs does not change this fact.
    4. Buying consumer grade garbage products from ANY brand including HP at a big store (IE: a $100 laser or inkjet printer) will ALWAYS cost you WAAAAAY more because of the total cost of ownership in light of planned obsolescence and cartridge yields for those crappy consumer grade machines.

  5. I have also seen several times that my printer doesn’t work properly and when I started printing it fails to print but having ink in the toner. If you are also facing the same problem then call Hp customer care

  6. I agree HP is being so douchey about this is that is their only source of income. They lose money on the printers which are a loss leader for them. They expect to make money on the ink cartridges which are the real business.

  7. I’ve been using third-party inks with no issues for several months. It was when I accidentally ran an HP update from my PC that the problem occurred. The error message said “There is a problem with the printer ink or system.”

  8. But if they did that, their business would crash. Why, because all HP competitors wouldn’t go to that model and people going into best buy would not buy the $500 printer that had no more features than the $100 printer.

  9. I agree HP is being so douchey about this is that is their only source of income. They lose money on the printers which are a loss leader for them. They expect to make money on the ink cartridges which are the real business.