Murphy's Law: The Unnecessary Freak-Out Over HP's Home Printer Advertising Plan


Won't somebody think of the children?  Or the editors?

It seems that mass hysteria is breaking out across the Internet--or Slashdot , the only Internet a geek needs to know--about a new proposed treatment by HP and Yahoo in regards to that whirring hunk of metal and plastic in the corner of your room.  I'm not talking about WALL-E, nor Jeffrey , but your printer.  You know, that crude device that that basically transforms your hard-earned money into a few pages of text and color?

There are few more toxic battlegrounds than the ol' home printer, the site of a thousand separate arguments over the role a manufacturer can play in shaping your fate with a product post-purchase.  It cuts to the very heart of what's an "open" environment--perhaps not in direct function or in one's ability to install Linux on a device, but rather, the concept that what you purchase should be yours to alter and modify as you see fit sans infringement or prevention by others.

I realize that I'm veering a little off-course from the prescribed definition of "open architecture," so please keep the flamethrowers on "standby" instead of "hot."  To wit, an open architecture is one that's ultimately vendor-neutral.  In an open architecture, anyone is free to submit add-ons or modifications to a core product that, itself, has been constructed via agreed-upon or popularized standards.

To me, however, I like to think of a device as "open" if I, Consumer Dave, am not blocked in any capacity from tinkering around with its form or function.  That said, your average printer... is not open.  Not in the slightest.  But I'd be covering old news if I just waxed poetic about how it stinks that you can't really install third-party ink cartridges in a freakin' device that you already paid good money for.

The real flavor of the day is that HP and Yahoo are teaming up to deliver location-sensitive advertisements as a special bonus for the former's new line of Web-connected printers.  Before I describe what that actually means, let's take a moment to reflect on what that could mean, given that your average Internet surfer rarely reads more than just a headline on a page, it seems.

In short, the hysteria has grown over the thought of HP being able to shoot location-based advertising directly out of your printer whenever the company wants to.  Let's ponder that for a moment.  I realize that printer manufacturers are generally up to no good, what with their proprietary ink deals and what-have-you, but really now. No company alive would shoot itself in the foot by insisting, in addition to having to purchase the printer, the paper, and the ink, that its customers would also have to contend with random (expensive) messages shooting out of their device like a possessed fax machine.

The real truth of the matter is that the advertising service comes bundled with the printers' ability to schedule-print particular jobs.  Like, say you wanted to read the morning paper at 7 am each day; You could set up your printer to dish out 35 pages of news from a given source every morning which, presumably, would have some location-based advertisement tacked in per the original document.  HP isn't going to just shoot you random advertisements throughout the day, even given how much it might dictate how and when you can use the rest of your device.

That's it.  I confess, the "scheduled daily print" concept is ninety percent of the way toward the stupidest idea I've ever heard (who wants to waste all that paper and ink for part of a $1-2 daily paper?)  But let's at least assign blame where blame is correctly due: In this case, location-driven advertising--wasteful as it might be--is at least better than having to print a generic ad alongside one's daily print/paper/whatever, right?

I don't know about you, but I long for the day when I can just buy a printer and... that's it.  I choose the ink, I choose the services, I choose the interactions.  HP's "scheduled print" concept might not destroy the openness of its devices--as I'm defining the word--as much as the company's other practices. However, it is just one more step in the grand business practice of a larger entity lording over your devices in an unpleasant, expensive way.  Nobody wins when that happens.

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software.

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