HP Instant Ink Nasty Surprise

A client called me earlier this week because his HP printer had stopped printing. That, in and of itself, would not have been blog-worthy. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about an HP printer that stops printing. Nor is there anything out of the ordinary about any other brand of printer that stops printing, for that matter. What was unusual was the reason: a message, displayed on the printer’s LCD panel, said something to the effect that the printer was unable to print due to a problem with the client’s HP account. (Sorry, I do not have the exact text of the message.)

I get called to fix all sorts of printer problems. One thing I can tell you is that messages about accounts, and other things based on the Internet or local network, are generally displayed on the computer or other device that’s sending the print job to the printer. Until this incident, all error messages I had ever seen on a printer’s LCD panel indicated some sort of hardware problem, such as “out of paper”, “out of ink”, “paper jam”, etc. It seemed strange to me that a printer would know anything about an online account, and that stayed in the back of my mind as I went through my usual troubleshooting procedures.

I checked the printer properties in Windows, and found nothing amiss, except that, even more interestingly, the printer was connected via USB cable. (The client was in another city, so I was troubleshooting remotely; otherwise, I would have been able to tell at a glance that the printer was connected via USB.) That just made it all the stranger that the printer was so concerned about an HP account; the printer didn’t even have direct access to the Internet, so how could it check such a thing?

Since this was an HP printer, I downloaded and ran the HP Print and Scan Doctor, but it found nothing wrong. At this point, I was quite puzzled, as everything seemed to be in order, and the computer appeared to be communicating with the printer. Yet, nothing was printing, and there was that strange error message on the printer’s display.

Paraphrasing from Dr. Sigmund Freud, who allegedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” it occurred to me that sometimes, an error message actually means just what it says. Since nothing else had helped up to that point, I decided that I might as well have the client log into his HP account, if he had one, and see if it could offer any clues as to what was wrong. It turned out that the client did have an HP account, which he had more or less forgotten about. Once we had gone through a “forgot password” procedure and gained access to the account, we finally received a message with clearer information: the client had signed up for HP Instant Ink, and his payment information had expired.

I will digress slightly here to say that I don’t know much about HP Instant Ink. If you’ve looked at any HP printers within the last few years, or maybe even bought one, then you probably know at least as much as I do about it, and maybe more. The concept of HP Instant Ink is that you buy genuine HP brand printer ink on a subscription basis. Unlike corporate copier leases and service contracts, which generally involve monitoring software that reports actual printer usage to the company and tells them when you need more printer supplies, HP Instant Ink has you sign up for a predetermined number of pages per month. HP then sends you ink cartridges on a regular basis, based on their estimates of how much ink your printer will need to print that number of pages. Estimate too low, and you run out of ink; estimate too high, and you’ll be hoarding ink cartridges, because HP doesn’t monitor actual usage. I assume that it’s possible to change the number of pages you’ve subscribed for on an ad hoc basis so that you can “right-size’ your subscription.

I’ve never looked to see if HP Instant Ink is a good value or a poor one. Frankly, I don’t recommend HP’s inkjet and all-in-one printers in the first place, due to frequent problems with their software. Most of my clients who buy HP printers anyway don’t sign up for Instant Ink, so I’ve never looked up the details. But the details are exactly where the problem is. Reading some HP support forum posts reveals that if you’re signed up for HP Instant Ink, your printer will stop printing if the printer loses contact with your HP Instant Ink account, if the credit card info the user entered as part of signing up for it expires, if the user cancels his Instant Ink account, or if anything else happens that prevents the printer from exchanging ink status with the HP Instant Ink account. The fine print on the main page where one can go to subscribe to HP Instant Ink says one can cancel at any time, but it doesn’t say that the printer will stop printing if one does so. It also doesn’t say that if the account is suspended due to expired credit card info, canceled by the user or has any other problem that any HP Instant Ink cartridges one has in the printer will cause it to stop printing, even though they were already paid for via the HP Instant Ink program. I’m sure that information is buried somewhere in an end user agreement that one has to accept during the sign-up process, but HP’s failure to disclose it up front strikes me as being awfully sneaky.

It is possible to get the printer working again without signing back up for Instant Ink, updating the payment information or fixing whatever other problem there is with the account. However, that involves buying new ink cartridges at retail. It seems that HP Instant Ink cartridges have a specially programmed chip that identifies them as HP Instant Ink, and the printer has programming to be aware of the subscription status and stop working if the account is suspended, canceled or unavailable and HP Instant Ink is detected.

There is a prospective dark side to this technology. We’ve now seen that HP can compel HP Instant Ink subscribers to keep their subscriptions active or lose the ability to use ink that they’ve already paid for. It would be quite simple for HP to build a line of printers that only works with an HP Instant Ink subscription, fail to disclose that in any way a customer can see prior to buying the printer, and leave the customer with the inconvenience of having to return the printer if they don’t want to sign up for HP Instant Ink. An even more insidious trick would be for HP to push out a firmware update that turns an HP printer that can use HP Instant Ink into one that only uses HP Instant Ink. I don’t think HP would risk the customer anger, horrible PR and possible class-action lawsuits that such a move would likely spur, but who knows for certain? Tech companies have done boneheaded things before.

Getting back to my client, he was happy with HP Instant Ink, and now that he knew what the problem was, he updated his payment information and was printing again within minutes. But my advice is to remember this incident if you are considering HP Instant Ink.

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