HP Instant Ink subscription printing proves controversial [Updated]

Many probably see the world today as being predominantly digital but the unfortunate fact is that printed documents still occupy a large, not to mention critical, part of the world. Despite that dependence on printers, these devices have never really become the convenient and seamless experiences their manufacturers advertise them to be. Some of these printer makers have tried to adopt modern business trends without really adopting modern mindsets. HP, for example, is starting a new "printer as a service" program, though the subscription approach isn't pleasing everyone.

It's based on a slightly different kind of subscription service HP introduced quite a long time ago. You still pay a monthly fee but that is for the ink that it delivers to you. That amount of ink is based on how many pages you think you regularly print each month, with the actual numbers reported by the printer to HP servers to charge you for any extras.

According to author and electronics rights advocate Cory Doctorow, HP Instant Ink subscribers received an email last week that pretty much put an end to its "print free for life" scheme. Instead of the monthly fee, which starts at $0.99, being put towards ink replenishment, you will be paying for the ability to print anything at all.

That monthly fee determines how many pages you're allowed to print each month, again regardless of ink levels, with additional charges per extra 10 pages. This will most likely apply to all Instant Ink printers that consumers bought based on the expectation of the old service.

According to HP's support pages, there are five tiers of service. The cheapest includes 15 pages per month for $0.99/mo, with $1 per 10 pages extra, and the ability to roll over up to 45 pages. $2.99/mo steps up to 50 pages, with up to 150 rolled over; $4.99/mo gets 100 pages, with up to 300 rolled over; and $11.99 gets 300 pages, with up to 900 rolled over. Finally, there's a $24.99/mo plan, with 700 pages and the ability to roll over up to 2100; it also changes the additional page purchase to $1 per 15 pages.

Subscribers can change between tiers as they please, and there's no minimum contract to sign. What may be more divisive, though, is that any new cartridges you receive will stop working if you end the subscription. If you choose, therefore, to go from HP Instant Ink to buying cartridges as normal, you'll have to purchase a fresh set since those sent out under the scheme will not allow printing.

It's fair to say that the reaction to HP Instant Ink has been fairly heated, not least because the company does have a track record for questionable policies around ink cartridges. HP's argument is that Instant Ink subscribers can potentially save up to 50-percent on ink – based on 700 page plan subscribers versus their paying for ink as normal – and that the system is optional. Still, Doctorow's ire about the policy change moving existing subscribers from the old 15 page plan to the new, arguably less valuable version stands.

[Updated to correct how HP Instant Ink operates, and add a link to the support page that was not online at initial publication]