Your inconvenience powers high-tech profits

Printers, texting, and mobile data are rife with price gouging and sleight of hand. Why do we put up with it?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the U.S. government gets the highest of high technology when it suits it, but somehow still can't figure out how to procure accurate and reliable voting machines to further the cause of democracy. Clearly, there are no technological hurdles here, just skewed priorities.

But the government isn't alone in neglecting the interests of its constituents -- so do many high-tech companies. They don't bother to hide it, either. It's as plain as their stock ticker symbol.

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The most obvious example is printers and printer ink. The consumer printing industry has gone to school on the razor manufacturers and adopted their time-honored strategy from top to bottom: Make the printers cheap, the refills horribly expensive, and profit handsomely.

Some printers, for example, take 6mL cartridges that cost $15. That seems like a deal until you realize that the actual ink in the cartridges costs around $120 for 5,000mL. Manufacturers also intentionally make printers of such poor quality that they break down prematurely, prompting the consumer to buy another "cheap" printer and continue the cycle.

This is not news -- especially if you use a printer from time to time and suddenly find you have to take out a second mortgage to refill the color cartridge. Meanwhile, I've had a circa 2000 HP LaserJet that's been showing a "Low Toner" message for the past decade, yet still prints fine.

It's convenient for these companies to work this way. And it's much healthier for their profits as long as people just shrug their shoulders and continue to pay more per milliliter for printer ink than human blood.

Another example: text messaging. That one's been beaten to death for years, with people pointing out that it costs less, bit for bit, to communicate with the Hubble telescope than to send a text message to your friend. It's unconscionable, but it persists.

And don't get me started on mobile data usage. In a short time, we've gone from multiple companies offering unlimited data plans to Verizon charging $20 per gigabyte per month. If you tip over that limit, you get charged another $20, and so on and so forth. These are usurious prices, but where else can you turn? Planning on taking that sleek, new LTE iPad that's tied to Verizon over to AT&T for a better deal? Nope, you're effectively chained to Verizon's yoke unless you want to sell your iPad and buy a new one. It's locked-in cellphones all over again, just more expensive.

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