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Why Printers Are The Worst

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Why Printers Are The Worst

Why Printers Are The Worst

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This is a story about what happens when you get between a grandma and her grandkids. The grandma in question is DeLores Williams.


Can I ask how many grandkids you have?

DELORES WILLIAMS: I have, at the moment, 14.

ARONCZYK: You have 14 grandkids.

WILLIAMS: It's wonderful. Yes.

ARONCZYK: It's 2015 when the story starts. DeLores is retired, and she's living in Washington State.

WILLIAMS: I was, like, off the grid almost.

ARONCZYK: Like, you were living in the woods.

WILLIAMS: Basically in the woods.

ARONCZYK: Far away from those beloved grandkids. So DeLores wants photos of those grandkids everywhere. And to save herself money and time and frustration, she wants to print the pictures herself.

FOUNTAIN: So she goes shopping for a new printer. And she's a very savvy technology consumer. She worked in IT for a decade.

ARONCZYK: Sometimes you were the one who had to go open up the printer and make sure it worked.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, and take it apart sometimes and put it back together. I was very good at doing that.

ARONCZYK: She shops around and decides on an HP printer because she used them at work and she thinks they're reliable and trustworthy, easy to fix.

FOUNTAIN: And that first year she has it, it is awesome. She prints tons of adorable photos - so many that pretty quickly, she runs into a problem we've all experienced. She runs out of ink.

ARONCZYK: So DeLores goes on Amazon, and there are two options - HP's ink, which is very expensive, and knockoff ink, which HP claims might mess up her printer, but whatever. It costs a lot less. DeLores goes with the knockoff, and the photos are just as good as before.

FOUNTAIN: But then one day she's got some new photos of the grandkids to print.

WILLIAMS: So I sat down to do it Saturday morning. I said, OK, got nothing else to do. Let me print some photos.

FOUNTAIN: But when she goes to print them, instead of photos, her printer spits out just, like, kind of blobs of color.

WILLIAMS: And it gave me an error message.

ARONCZYK: What - do you remember what it said?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes, that I needed to change my ink cartridge.


WILLIAMS: And I knew better. There was no reason to change the ink cartridge. I had just done that the month before.

ARONCZYK: So like any good IT professional, DeLores starts to troubleshoot.

WILLIAMS: Software, hardware - I checked it all. I deleted it from the system, reloaded, everything. Finally, after a couple hours, I gave up.

FOUNTAIN: It's at this point that DeLores calls HP's customer service line. She gets someone on the line, and they're like, why don't you try this? Why don't you try that?

WILLIAMS: Meanwhile, in between all of the troubleshooting, they're saying, well, you really should get a new printer. And I was like, no, my printer should be working. There was nothing wrong. I told them they're crazy. Are you giving me one free?

ARONCZYK: Five hours later, she gets off the phone.

WILLIAMS: So I hung up, and I'm getting angry. And finally, I said, oh, let me just do some research on this printer.

ARONCZYK: When DeLores starts researching, she finds there are lots of other people having the exact same problem. They're all getting the same error message. And the really weird thing is that they're getting it around the same time - this one week in September. This is not a coincidence. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. Why did DeLores' printer stop working? The answer has to do with those ink cartridges she bought. They were not HP's, and the company was not happy about that.

ARONCZYK: Today on the show, big printer and its decades-long fight to keep people loyal, whether they want to be or not.


FOUNTAIN: I'd always just associated printers with mild annoyance until I read this article. It's titled "The Battle For The Soul Of Digital Freedom Taking Place Inside Your Printer," which really got me thinking about just why printers are so annoying. So I called up its author.

CORY DOCTOROW: My name is Cory Doctorow, and I'm a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I've been there for almost 20 years.

FOUNTAIN: And you are, like, big printer's No. 1 enemy at this point.

DOCTOROW: Well, I'll tell you what. You know, we campaign on lots of issues related to fairness in the digital world, and many of them are very abstract and hard to get people's heads around. But printer ink - like, you just have to whisper the words, and the mob arises online, full of righteous fury.

ARONCZYK: For me, Cory's article gave me flashbacks to the many moments when I wanted to toss my printer out the window. It's sort of a history of all the things that printer companies have been doing to keep us coming back to the proverbial inkwell.

FOUNTAIN: In your mind, where does the story of printer shenanigans start?

DOCTOROW: Well, I think it starts with the vogue for the razor blade business model.

FOUNTAIN: The razor blade business model. I first experienced this at probably, like, 14 when I went to get my first razor.


FOUNTAIN: The starter pack was...

ARONCZYK: Nick, you were 14 when you started shaving?

FOUNTAIN: It was kind of aspirational.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) OK.

FOUNTAIN: Anyways, I still remember. The starter pack was affordable even for me at the time. But when I went back for replacement blades over and over, that got kind of expensive.

ARONCZYK: So, right, that's the business model - low upfront costs, but then they keep you coming back for more. And the reason this works is because we are bad at thinking about future costs.

FOUNTAIN: The same is true with printers and ink. At some point, printer companies realized it was more profitable to sell you a printer at a cost or sometimes at a loss because ink - that was where the money was.

ARONCZYK: Printer companies pushed ink prices so high that ink has, at various times, been listed among the world's most expensive liquids up there on an ounce-to-ounce basis with Dom Perignon champagne, Chanel No. 5 and scorpion venom.

FOUNTAIN: Ooh. But printer ink is cheap to manufacture. So this was an opportunity for competitors who came in and started selling generic ink.

ARONCZYK: There was a time back in the late 1900s when there were lots of ways to get more ink for your printer. You could refill the cartridge yourself, or you could go to the mall, pick up a Cinnabon and stop by the ink refiller kiosk.

DOCTOROW: I don't know if you remember there was a time when there were a bunch of orders of monks that were refilling inkjet cartridges, and you could order...


DOCTOROW: ...From - you could order - like, you know, you didn't have to buy honey from the monks. You could buy ink from the monks.

ARONCZYK: This was, like, monks that got into the printer ink business?

DOCTOROW: Yeah, printer ink refilling.

ARONCZYK: Because it was lucrative.

DOCTOROW: Because it was lucrative. Yeah. Yeah, it was like - it was meditative work that you could do in small - like, as a cottage - literal cottage industry that had a ready customer base.

FOUNTAIN: For the big printer companies, being undercut by small businesses, whether it was mall kiosks or the monks - that was not part of the plan. They needed customers to buy their ink, but they couldn't get rid of the knockoffs. So to sell more of their own ink, they started doing what we're calling shenanigans.

ARONCZYK: Shenanigan No. 1 - when you bought a new printer, you'd get what was called a starter pack. And what that really meant was that those ink cartridges came half empty.

FOUNTAIN: I'm sure the printer companies thought of it as half full, Amanda.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Right. Shenanigan No. 2 - you own a printer, and it tells you that the ink cartridge is empty even though you know it isn't. And finally, shenanigan No. 3 - you own a color printer, and when you print in black and white, the printer throws in some of the more expensive colors, so you'll run out of those faster.

FOUNTAIN: All these shenanigans were in service of one goal - boosting demand for ink. But the third-party sellers, like the monks - they were benefiting, too. If printer companies wanted to own the market, they were going to have to take out the competition. And for that, they were going to need a new strategy.

ARONCZYK: That new strategy is the thing that DeLores ran into when her printer stopped working. To understand exactly how printer companies pulled it off, we're going to need to take a look at the insides of the modern-day printer, which is kind of a technological marvel, right? Years and years and hundreds of millions of dollars of R&D, the modern printer is less like an appliance like a toaster and more like a very, very powerful computer. It even has Wi-Fi.

FOUNTAIN: Don't take it from us. Take it from someone who spent years of his life looking under the hood of HP's printers. His name is Ang Cui.

ANG CUI: If you look inside your modern printer - right? - like, you know, your $70 printer, there's so much computing power and sensors and real-time operation that I'm pretty sure that printer can fly, like, all of the Apollo missions.

FOUNTAIN: Ang is a cybersecurity researcher. He runs a company called Red Balloon Security, and he basically studies the security of everything that's not a desktop computer but is still a computer.

CUI: Your television, your fridge, your washing machine, your typical car - right? - like all those things.

ARONCZYK: The thing about computers, no matter what shape they take, is that they can be hacked. Ang says that his mission in life is to make them more secure.

FOUNTAIN: And he does that by trying to understand what their weaknesses are. Like, one of his favorite things to do when he's trying to hack a new device is to see if he can push it so far that it destroys itself.

CUI: There's something about security people, maybe hardware people. Like, we always want to see if we can make fire. We always try to do that.

ARONCZYK: In 2010, Ang was in grad school, and he decided to try to hack/enflame something that exists in every single office - a printer.

FOUNTAIN: He buys a small HP LaserJet printer for about 79 bucks, takes it apart, puts it back together.

ARONCZYK: In order to understand how a printer might get hacked, he's got to figure out how HP's engineers are telling the printer what to do. Now, HP keeps this a secret in part to keep hackers out. But what Ang discovers is that once you buy a printer, one of the ways HP can still update and change that printer is by sending it instructions via a print job.

FOUNTAIN: Once Ang understands this, he knows in theory how to take control of the printer himself, but actually doing it is kind of hard. He tries over and over again for months. And then finally, late one night, he's in the lab alone. It's 4 a.m., and he tries one last time.

CUI: This is, like, attempt 3,000-plus or whatever, and it finally works. You know, it's one of those - like, I wanted to high-five people, but there was nobody around.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: Now that he has control, he wants to see what he can make the printer do. He gets it to turn on and turn off. He changes the LED screen, so it blinks, hi, Mom; hi, Mom; hi, Mom.

FOUNTAIN: And of course, Ang being Ang, he tries to get the printer to light itself on fire. He knows it has this little heater inside. Heat makes ink stick to paper. So he tells the heater, heat up all the way.

CUI: So, yeah, we spent a few weeks like, you know, messing with it. We got smoke.

FOUNTAIN: Smoke, not fire. But what Ang figures out is arguably far more scary. Like, he discovers that he could get an HP printer to scan every document it ever sees for Social Security numbers or credit card numbers. And he figures out that one compromised printer on a network can be used to spy on all the computers on that network even if they're all behind a firewall.

ARONCZYK: Once Ang understands all of this, he tells HP so they can fix it, and they do. They send dozens of firmware updates to correct these vulnerabilities so that these printers can no longer be hacked. Ang publishes his findings. For HP, this turns into a PR nightmare.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, a Columbia professor tells MSNBC printer security is simply a corner of the Internet no one has been thinking too much about.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: One out of every four HP printers may be vulnerable to malware attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: So buying and connecting a printer - it's like selling a car without selling the keys to lock it. It's totally insecure.

ARONCZYK: Quick side note - HP didn't blame Ang for all this bad publicity. They're actually now one of his biggest clients.

FOUNTAIN: After Ang's research blew up, people would ask him, what can I do to protect my printer from hackers? And he would say, it's easy. You know those annoying firmware updates the company sends you all the time? Accept those. If you don't accept those updates, hackers still have a way in.

ARONCZYK: The problem is at some point, HP realized that they could use those friendly firmware updates to deal with their age-old problem - all that third-party ink. That's after the break.


ARONCZYK: Back to doting grandma and former IT professional DeLores Williams. DeLores remembers she'd bought an HP printer, replaced the cartridge, and then not long after, her printer stopped working.

FOUNTAIN: When we last heard from DeLores, she was trying to figure out how to fix her printer by doing all this online research.

WILLIAMS: And finally, I'd see a couple other people having issues with their printer. It just stopped, the same as mine.

ARONCZYK: These are same kind of issues.

WILLIAMS: With the same error messages.

FOUNTAIN: Seeing that, DeLores got suspicious.

WILLIAMS: I said, I cannot believe this. I don't understand this. So I called a lawyer that same day.

FOUNTAIN: She found a kind of fancy lawyer in San Francisco. And the lawyer said, yeah, seems like there might be something here. DeLores became a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against HP. The lawsuit said that six months before DeLores' printer had stopped working, HP had pushed what they called a security update to printer, one of those supposedly friendly firmware updates. And the lawsuit said HP had hidden a time bomb in that update - a time bomb that said, act normal for now; stay cool; stay low-key. But when the day comes - September 13, 2016 - sabotage every printer that's using knockoff cartridges.

ARONCZYK: The printers could tell when it was knockoff ink because HP built its cartridges with little embedded chips that allow the printer to ask, essentially, are you an HP cartridge? No? Well, then you're rejected.

FOUNTAIN: For DeLores, this is what that meant. Before September 13, she had a totally functional printer, and after it, she didn't. And when she called up HP for help, they tried to sell her another printer. They didn't cop to what they'd done.

WILLIAMS: It was basically a secret that they did it.

FOUNTAIN: Pretty quickly, HP realized that this was a bad look. They sent updated firmware to affected printers so that they would work with non-HP cartridges. And they released a statement saying, we were just trying to protect your printers and our intellectual property, but, quote, "to our loyal customers who were affected, we apologize."

ARONCZYK: But still, the more DeLores thought about it, the more she felt like a victim of theft and that the perpetrator was HP.

WILLIAMS: How dare you come into my house and do a upgrade on my printer without my knowledge and then not tell anyone? You stole my printer. You were in my house. You were a thief. You took my printer away. They took it away.

FOUNTAIN: In 2018, HP settled the class action lawsuit for $1.5 million. DeLores got 5,000. We contacted HP, and they declined to comment.

ARONCZYK: That feeling DeLores had that HP had stolen something from her - Cory Doctorow, who we heard from earlier, says, yeah. She's right because when everything is an Internet-connected computer that the manufacturer can track and reprogram after you take it home, then owning something doesn't mean what it used to.

DOCTOROW: We've entered this bizarre digital world where a company's design choices can allow it to sort of rest its cold, dead hand on your property long after the title transfers to you, and it can really punch you in the face.

ARONCZYK: Now, OK, customers do often have options. Like, for printers, there are models you can buy that don't rely on those cartridges. You'll pay more for that printer, but in the end, you'll spend a lot less on ink.

FOUNTAIN: When I think about the takeaway of this story, it's not actually about printer companies. It's about the business model that they've been working towards - you know, lure people into your system, and then sell them things forever. That model is taking over the world. Think about it. It's basically the subscription model, and it's everywhere. We buy fancy exercise bikes and pay a monthly fee for classes. We stop buying CDs, then sign up for streaming services that we can never leave. We buy phones, and when we run out of storage, we pay the phone maker a monthly fee to store our photos in the cloud. It's the relationship that printer companies have always wanted to have with their customers. It's the razor blade business model but with teeth.

ARONCZYK: By the way, HP now has its own subscription service. It's called Instant Ink, where, for a monthly fee, they will monitor the ink level in your printer. And before you run out, they'll send you a refill. You know who got stuck signing up for this one? DeLores.

FOUNTAIN: I know it sounds ridiculous. She literally sued the company. But she still has an HP printer. She still needs ink.


ARONCZYK: And so even though you were like, never again, you're still kind of stuck.

WILLIAMS: I'm stuck, right, unless I want to go out and buy another printer.

ARONCZYK: She says she's not happy about it, but it is convenient.


FOUNTAIN: The subscription model, by the way, is kind of how we make our money. We ask you to give money to your local public radio station, and they usually try to get you to become a sustaining member. What that means is that they want you to give them $5 a month or whatever forever. I promise it feels really good to be a member of a local public radio station. I am a member of three. If you want to find yours, go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. That's donate.npr.org/planetmoney.

ARONCZYK: If you've managed to remotely set a device on fire, let us know. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.

FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by Dave Blanchard and mastered by Gilly Moon. PLANET MONEY's supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. This episode was edited by Molly Messick. Special thanks to Octavio Blanco.

ARONCZYK: I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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