The Grouse: The Inkjet Refill Racket

Why I've given up on the world's most expensive fluid

Running on Empty

At up to $8,000 per gallon, inkjet ink is among the most expensive liquids by volume one can buyJonathan Wilson

">Let us take a moment to mourn the impending death of the Polaroid instant photo. You shall be sorely missed, my shake-and-bake friend. Sniff. And with the death of yet one more beloved but anachronistic technology, let us anticipate the imminent decline of another—the photo printer. Only this time I'll do so with a smile.

Home inkjet printers and their ilk have for a while now embodied the best and worst of the technological state of the union, as it were. Simply put, they are mainstream products with incredibly high-end engineering, but also represent a ludicrously false economy in the worst way. And for a decade, printer companies having been laughing all the way to the bank at our expense.

Let me state that I once was unabashedly passionate about my now aged Canon i70 photo printer. It is compact (in fact portable if you buy a battery for it), fast, prints remarkably great images up to 8 x 10, and does documents too at a respectably brisk clip. When digital cameras first appeared, I'd spend weekends cooped up with my photo-spewing friend, printing out scores of crisp, colorful masterpieces to shove in the face of anyone who would look. "Isn't it amazing! I printed it myself!" I would crow, impressed not only with my handiwork, but more with how I stuck it to the man by not paying for pricey store-made prints. Then I'd run to Staples to load up yet again on $40 worth of ink cartridges.

And there's the rub. Printers are sold using the razor blade business model—the printers are dirt cheap, but you have to keep buying ink for eternity. And wouldn't you know, it turns out that printer ink, especially for photos, is probably the most expensive substance per volume you'll ever buy—more expensive than gold, oil, perfume, even blood in most cases. If you're buying name-brand ink cartridges, which typically hold a few milliliters of ink, you're shelling out the equivalent of between $3,000 and $5,000 per gallon. (Suddenly, spending $45 to fill your car's gas tank doesn't seem so extravagant, eh?) Just as an idea of how valuable this particular golden goose is, more than 40 percent of HP's $2.63 billion operating profits from last quarter came from it's imaging and printing group alone. In other words, ink keeps printer companies in the black.

No surprise, then, that to stave off competition from low-cost generic refill cartridges, the industry giants circled their wagons and began putting chips into their printers and cartridges to make it so that you had to buy their brand. Lawsuits on both sides havesince raged fast and free: Canon sued (and won) to keep refilled cartridges from being sold in Japan without Canon ink; HP sued and won for patent infringement against a company that made replacement cartridges. Epson, however, settled a lawsuit claiming their cartridges intentionally signaled they needed replacement when they still had ink left. And more recently one man filed a class-action suit claiming that HP illegally colluded with Staples by giving them a $100 million "bribe" not to carry low-cost replacement ink. It's sordid stuff, but at this point it's almost irrelevant for me.

Even at barebones prices, it's now far cheaper to order prints through Flickr, Shutterfly or iPhoto, or if you need them in a hurry, from your local Wal-Mart, Walgreens or even mom-and-pop photo store. At my local drugstore, a small chain, if you order more than 100 prints, they're 15 cents each and available in a couple hours on archival paper with archival ink. And I can put my order through online. Compare that with the cost of photo paper, ink (which in my case, by the way, has to be used at least once every couple weeks or it dries out) and the time involved, and my venerable i70 simply can't compete.

So I've put my printer out to pasture for a couple years now, and I haven't looked back. Hit the comments section if you've experienced similar, or have a solution I've overlooked (an obvious one being the decline in printed photos in general). And feel free to nominate other tech you think is moribund to add to my Deathwatch List.