The well runs dry

Inkjet cartridges don't come cheap and there's no way of knowing how long they will last. Is anyone standing up for consumers? Michael Pollitt reports

Ever noticed the high cost of the replacement inkjet cartridges? Keith Moss has. "I've been able to buy a printer, complete with two cartridges off the shelf, cheaper than I can buy two replacement cartridges," he says.

Ever noticed the high cost of the replacement inkjet cartridges? Keith Moss has. "I've been able to buy a printer, complete with two cartridges off the shelf, cheaper than I can buy two replacement cartridges," he says.

He's not alone in resenting the price of replacements. According to the Consumer Association's magazine, Which?, some inks cost us more than vintage champagne. But they're big business for the printer manufacturers. Cap Ventures says that over four million inkjet printers were shipped into the UK last year with an estimated 54 million inkjet cartridges sold. With printers available for less than £30 at supermarkets, those £20 replacement cartridges for the bargain printer in your trolley suddenly begin to look disproportionately expensive. Oliver Pawley, a senior researcher at Which?, believes that manufacturers take the cartridges into account when selling printers. "The ink cartridges are where they make their money," he says. "Avoid the really cheap printers that are among the most expensive to run."

Unfortunately, there's no easy way of comparing printers by ink usage. Would you buy a new car without knowing its fuel consumption? Probably not. So why must we purchase inkjet printers without appreciating the true running costs? What's required is a page yield standard for a point-of-sale comparison to spot the ink-guzzlers before you buy. Price is not indicative of how long a cartridge will last.

Indeed, the Office of Fair Trading noticed this in December 2002, when it recommended that there should be a consumer standard within a year that would let us compare cartridge performance. And where is the OFT's standard? It seems that we're unlikely to see it before December 2005, by which time it will be as old as some vintage champagne.

Meanwhile, high cartridge prices have created a new industry that has sprung up to collect, refill and sell inkjet cartridges. Shops such as Cartridge World promise "refill - not landfill" along with 60 per cent savings over new prices. There's a catch, though: manufacturers warn that "using refilled cartridges can damage your printer".

Moss isn't persuaded - but then he is the chairman of the UK Cartridge Remanufacturers Association. He welcomes a standard to compare originals, refills and compatibles, and, unsurprisingly, objects to "killer" chips that some manufacturers insert in their cartridges, which makes refills impossible by ratcheting down the ink they can contain.

The struggle between the printer companies and their new rivals is bitter. Strydent Software, which makes Inksaver - software that balances ink savings and print quality, and claims to pay for itself within months - irritates the printer industry, too. "We've received feedback from retail stores and resellers," says Strydent's Krista Rasmussen. "Printer manufacturers are concerned that InkSaver will affect their ink sales."

So how do the manufacturers respond to the charge that they pile them high, and sell them cheap - except for the cartridges? Tony Hall, Lexmark's general manager of supplies, says inkjets are an annuity product. In other words, buy the razor and forever need fresh blades. It might be a competitive market but the cartridges hurt the pocket. "Consumers see cartridges as expensive, I agree," he says. "But let's compare it to what people are doing today."

His comparison is with digital photography. We may take a film to the chemist or print from a digital camera at home. Hall says the costs are comparable, but the latter has the added bonus of instant results. Nevertheless, Lexmark wants a global standard for page yield to avoid cryptic claims such as "260 pages at 15 per cent".

Rob Forbes, a spokesman for Epson (UK), says the company aims to make a reasonable profit on printers and cartridges alike. "The reference to vintage champagne is an interesting soundbite but is hardly an appropriate analogy for the complexity of our products. Epson does not believe its cartridges are expensive when considering the investment made to develop printing technology, inks and media."

Forbes defends the use of "smart chips" that tell printers they're out of ink. Researchers for Which? managed to override this function - and printed 38 per cent more pages. "Our printers are designed to include a small safety reserve of ink," says Forbes. "This serves an important function in preventing damage to the print head."

HP admits to a 15 per cent profit target for its printer business, something "collectively achieved" through hardware and consumables sales. "While waiting for the OFT standard, HP recommends customers assess their printing needs, considering reliability, quality and ease of use, as page yield is only one factor in the overall cost of printing," says a spokesperson.

So where is the fabled standard? The OFT has turned to Intellect, the trade association for the UK's IT, telecommunications and electronics industries, which is co-ordinating efforts to create it. Steve Foster, head of Intellect's inkjet printer group, says the work is being done by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

"Due to the number of parties involved and the rigorous procedures of the ISO, this process can last between 18 months and five years, but good progress has been made," says Foster. Attention has now turned to Japan, where Canon's Katsuhito Dei is the secretary of ISO standards committee 28. Tests began last July with yield expressed as a page count.

Look for the new standard in December 2005 - a mere three years after the Office of Fair Trading's report into inkjet cartridge pricing. "The standard is designed to allow comparison of printing yields," says Katsuhito. "It should be noted that the test pages developed are focused on office-type documents." Digital photographers may have to wait for a photo standard.

So where does this delay leave the Office of Fair Trading? A spokesperson admits the process is taking a "little bit longer than originally anticipated... but we are not in control of that timetable."

Pawley thinks the OFT isn't doing enough to help consumers now. "It's not a satisfactory situation," he says. "There needs to be more pressure put on manufacturers to reduce prices. We just have to wait for the standard. It will hopefully provide some transparency that will shame the manufacturers into reducing the price of cartridges or putting more ink into them."

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