firmware upgrade rtmworld

Firmware Updates: Putting the OEMs on Notice About Going Too Far in the Battle With the Aftermarket

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill

There are many battles taking place right now in the desktop printing industry.

The OEMs have multiple weapons, or tools, at their disposal to hold onto, or recover their market share. One such strategy, familiar to most, is the innovative designing and heavily patenting of components inside the printer cartridge. The OEMs will tell you and the patent office they must redesign things like the wheel, albeit gears, in order to add some specific, unique purpose or value to the cartridge. However, most know it is a thinly veiled strategy to design components that will make it difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible for the aftermarket to design around. That’s business and all competitors respect this “above the table” strategy. The aftermarket is often tainted with being called ‘bad guys’ and ‘infringers’ when it doesn’t manage to find a legitimate way around every one of the hundreds of patents inside every cartridge. The OEM sues.firmwareupgrade rtmworld

However, now the OEMs have gone too far. In their haste to try and beat their aftermarket competition, they have adopted a strategy which will, and already has, backfired:

the use of printer firmware updates to lock out existing aftermarket cartridges inside their customers’ printers.

Many OEMs reading this may think they’re pretty clever because some firmware upgrades affect the customer’s choice of printer cartridge. The code in certain updates also ‘just happens’ to lock out the aftermarket cartridge and the printer stops working. The customer becomes upset with the aftermarket provider because of the ‘faulty’ cartridge and they go back to buying an OEM cartridge. Right?

WRONG.

Here’s what happens with most end users:

The frustrated customer calls the aftermarket provider somewhat angry or at least upset thinking the cartridge failed. Let’s say the provider is LD Products—the company where I work—but many other aftermarket providers across the globe are following the same strategy. We do the unexpected: we replace the cartridge for free. Now, you may claim that this action only increased our costs. Yes, it did but it also gave us the opportunity to educate the customer as to how OEMs are using firmware updates to take away their choice and force them to buy OEM again. We show them how to turn off the firmware updates on their printer and we become the “good guys”. The OEMs become the “bad guys”. Perception is reality after all. The OEMs lose that customer for life—we win them for life.

And it gets worse…

firmware upgrade rtmworldNot all aftermarket companies will, or can replace the cartridge for free. In some markets it’s not possible due to the length of the supply chain and someone else has to pick up most of the tab…

Take, for example, the dealer channel. Dealers often use multiple manufacturers and suppliers and purchase through distributors. A lot of work is required in having a “locked out faulty” cartridge returned. Sometimes it’s impossible to get these cartridges back to a provider for credit. However, that’s not even the biggest problem. Their helpdesk gets swamped with customer complaint calls in the days after these firmware updates roll out and their tech staff must spend time figuring out what is going on. They may have to put techs into vehicles and send them on site to troubleshoot the “faulty” devices. Costs rise quickly, productivity is lost, everyone becomes upset. Guess what happens next?

Dealers start turning off the firmware update functions on customer devices which is not a good thing for customers. In fact, it could become a bad thing because of…. hacking!

One of the top issues confronting dealers today is network security. Many are waking up to the fact that printers are one of the weakest gateways or links on the network vulnerable to malicious penetration.

If firmware updates are not installed, then the required patch needed to protect a known weakness in a printer’s security could make the printer vulnerable. It will increase the possibility of that device being hacked causing disruption and misery for end users and business customers.

In addition, the firmware upgrades can also enhance the customer experience with improved quality.

Over recent years some OEMs have settled, or lost class action lawsuits related to automatic firmware updates in Europe and America. Some have cleaned up their act, just enough, to find ways to still include Aftermarket cartridge lock outs in their firmware updates, by including the very minimum language required by law……. usually buried in terms and conditions that most end users fail to read or understand.

Printer OEMs, this is your wake up call. You have an ongoing responsibility to make sure your hardware is not at risk of network intrusion. You cannot hold a customer hostage by effectively making them choose between purchasing OEM consumables, or network security. It’s morally wrong and it might even fall foul of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act 1975.

It is time to stop the practice of using Firmware updates as a tool to stop Aftermarket cartridges from working.

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