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Friday, June 13, 2008

Vendor Death Penalty: Hewlett-Packard

As a larval nerd, there were two technology companies I held in the highest esteem: Tektronix and Hewlett-Packard. Tektronix seemed to have a bit more flair: they hailed from the curiously named Beaverton in Oregon, and you'd often find something funny in the complete schematics they shipped with their oscilloscopes, such as the drive circuit for the lower gun of a dual-beam scope being replicated by a bow-legged cowboy labeled “top gun”. But H-P had real class; they printed a hardcover product catalogue, and flipping through it you found not just oscilloscopes, signal generators, and the like, but exotica like rubidium atomic clocks. Not that you were going to buy one, to be sure, but wasn't it cool to know you could, given the budget, and that this company provided you the same specifications for the product they did to customers like the National Bureau of Standards who actually bought such gear?

Perhaps it was a part of the H-P Way, a unique corporate culture created by founders Bill and Dave (here is a podcast interview with the author of the book). But there was always something special about H-P, and not surprising that a multitude of breakthrough products including the first scientific calculator, the first programmable calculator, and the first desktop laser printer emerged from their laboratories to define entirely new market categories.

Well, that was then, and this is now. Companies mature and enter their dotage, founders pass on management to the next generation, and things change—and how. What was once a technology company whose products scintillated with quality and endured for decades has become an ink company, using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to shut down those who attempt to enter the aftermarket for ink and toner for their printers, whose own cartridges are accused to be programmed to die on a schedule not linked to quality of results, but rather recurring revenue to the vendor. (Update: Reader S.L. points out that it was Lexmark, not H-P, who invoked the DMCA against toner cloners. My apologies to H-P for the error. [2008-06-13 20:39 UTC])

So, foolish me, knowing all of this but seizing on the easy and familiar solution, when my LaserJet 4 Si Mx printer (bought in 1993 from the original H-P, and built like a Russian tank) finally expired, I replaced it in May of 2004 with an H-P 2300n network printer. This printer was easily configured and worked just fine in both PostScript and PCL modes, but, being a product of the new H-P, died in April 2008, less than four years after its purchase, and without the original toner cartridge having been used up. It reported a normal status on the LCD panel, but simply stopped talking to the network. Printer, meet dumpster; dumpster, meet printer.

Fool me once,
shame on you.
Fool me twice,
shame on me.
Then, consumed by a need to print a few documents and not thinking things entirely through, I ordered another H-P network printer, this time a LaserJet P2015n. (This is actually the entry from the current H-P Web site for the P2015dn model, which includes both double sided printing and the network interface. The network-only model no longer appears to be available in the U.S., although it can still be ordered from resellers in Switzerland.)


Note the price: amazingly cheap for a network printer with these specifications. Cheap, indeed.

So, I get the printer and configure it for the network in an hour or so, and install it as the site-wide network printer to replace its H-P predecessor now waiting for the next poubelle informatique to be picked up. It prints the Linux CUPS PostScript test page and random text pages without problems, but whenever I try to print a moderately complex PDF document, it closes its eyes, sucks its thumb, and declares “low memory” on its Web status page. Well, OK, I suppose, it comes with only 32 Mb of built-in memory (only!—remember when 64 Kb was an endless expanse of bits to twiddle?). So, all we need to do is add some memory. Off to the H-P Web site, and we discover that, like ink, they give away the printers and pick your pocket for the memory. Here is a screen grab from the current U.S. H-P Web site for the 256 Mb expansion RAM module for this printer.


Hello! A 256 Mb RAM module costs more than the entire printer! Well, only if you're silly enough to buy it from H-P. It being, a free market (for the moment), let's see what other vendors charge for the equivalent memory module. Consulting the Web site of Kingston Technologies, we find this module:


which sells for about what you'd expect for 256 Mb of dynamic RAM these days, and one thirty-fifth what H-P ask for the equivalent memory module. Perhaps their printers only work with memory modules sprinkled with pixie dust vacuum-sintered with an alloy of unobtanium and thiotimolene, but it's inadvisable to attribute to technology what can be explained by greed.

So, I ordered the Kingston module and installed it in the H-P printer. (And, having run a computer hardware fabrication company in the 1980s, of course I used best practice antistatic precautions in doing so.) The result: the printer was totally dead with the memory module installed. Initially, it worked when I removed the memory module, but after a few cycles, it remained dead (the top two idiots light illuminated continuously) with the memory module installed or absent.

Enough: Vendor Death Penalty—first Microsoft in 1996, then Apple, and now H-P. It's amazing how turning one's back upon vendors who betray you can streamline the procurement process for replacement products.

Fourmilab's new printer? The Brother HL-5270DN which, expanded with a Kingston KTB-HL5200/256 memory module has 288 Mb free for file buffering and image rendering and, presumably, no more “low memory” print hang-ups.

Hewlett-Packard? I turn my back on you, snuff the candle, and walk away in disgust.

Posted at June 13, 2008 01:53