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Trusty computer printer now a relic

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Amber Schmidt of Free Geek in Portland checks out a donated printer to see if its worth salvaging.My Hewlett-Packard laser printer has been a workhorse since I bought it about six years ago, not once needing repair. It’s even been stingy on toner.

Unfortunately, two months ago it became obsolete.

I bought a new computer running on Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system, so my old printer needs software compatible with Windows 8. Usually that software, called a printer driver, is supplied free by the manufacturer.

But to my chagrin, and the chagrin of a number of Internet posters with the same problem, Hewlett-Packard has chosen not to update the printer driver for what once was one of its most popular printer models. So my printer works, but it’s unusable with my new computer.

Darren Heiber, director of public service for electronics recycler Free Geek in Southeast Portland, says his nonprofit received 9,000 donated printers last year. Many come from people in the same situation as me.

“Lots of people will say when they bring in a printer, ‘This is a fully functioning printer, but I’ve changed my computer at home and I’m not able to use it anymore,’ ” Heiber says.

New printers also are sold cheaply, often as come-ons for more expensive computers, so customers have come to see printers as disposable electronics, Heiber says. Sometimes, a new printer stocked with ink can cost less than replacing the ink on an older model.

Mine was not a cheap inkjet printer, but a laser printer.

Heiber says software engineers could write programs

so older printers could still be used with newer computers, but only if manufacturers go

“open source,” making their software available for modification by others via licensing agreements.

HP, he says, won’t make the previous drivers for my printer available, so nobody can create through backward engineering the Windows 8-compatible

driver I need.

Shelley Zimmer, manager of Hewlett-Packard’s environmental leadership program in Boise, Idaho, says HP focuses on providing updated drivers for its “most widely used models.”

Zimmer also says there is an environmental benefit to getting people like me to switch to newer printers. Current models use less energy, she says, and some save paper by printing on both sides of a page. HP has

programs to help people like

me recycle their old printers, she says.

“Even though the printer is still reliable (it) may be consuming quite a bit of energy,” Zimmer says. “Sometimes the energy savings customers realize by buying a new printer and some of the updated features can save them a lot of money.”

Free Geek’s Heiber isn’t buying that explanation.

Energy use is just a part of a printer’s carbon footprint, he says. The bigger piece is production of the printer itself. “If you compare reusing something that already exists to building a new one every time a new operating system comes out, there’s no comparison there. The environmental cost is going to be outrageous,” he says.

Nabil Nasr, director of the Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, agrees that carbon emissions and materials used to produce a new printer outweigh the energy efficiency gained in switching to a new one. He likens the printer driver situation to smartphone manufacturers that don’t provide or sell software so owners of older models can upgrade with the latest applications.

“They want you to buy the new one,” Nasr says.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - PrintersHe says if HP were willing to “open source” its printer drivers, there likely would be engineers willing to write drivers for the printers HP no longer supports, and sell them online as cheaply as $5 each. He says it probably would take a software engineer a few thousand dollars’ worth of time to create the new driver for my computer. The problem for HP, he says, is that they have dozens of printer models to continually support.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of Ifixit.com, says some of the blame goes to Microsoft. Ifixit.com is a California-based web company dedicated to teaching people how to fix “everything,” and Wiens says Microsoft made Windows

8 in such a way that writing

updated drivers becomes more difficult.

“Microsoft has been saying, ‘We’re frustrated with all that legacy bloat that has been slowing us down,’ “ Wiens says.

He guesses it would take considerably more than a few thousand dollars, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, for HP to supply the new printer driver. HP officials declined to respond when asked how much it would cost to write a new driver for my old printer.

“HP has made a business decision not to invest in that. Is that planned obsolescence? Maybe it is,” Wiens says.

All is not lost for my printer, says Free Geek’s Heiber, if I can open my mind to open-source computing. If I were willing to install a free, open-source Linux operating system to replace

the Windows on my new computer, he says, I won’t have any trouble finding a printer driver for my HP.

Heiber wishes he could convince all the Free Geek customers who donate working electronics to change over to Linux, but he knows that won’t be

possible.

“By the time they’re here, they’ve bought a new printer and the decision has been made,” he says.