So what had happened? Within a few hours, it quickly became clear that the source of the mystery lay in the fact that all the printers were manufactured by the same company — Hewlett-Packard, or HP. More specifically, the models in question all came from the OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro and OfficeJet Pro X ranges, which cost anywhere between £70 and several hundred pounds.
Unbeknown to the thousands of unsuspecting users around the world, HP had secretly installed the technological equivalent of a time-bomb in their printers, which effectively rendered them useless if their owners had installed cartridges which were not made by HP.
The company is unapologetic about such a move, which it brazenly calls an 'update'. Its aim, a spokesperson said, was 'to protect HP's innovations and intellectual property'.
What HP has done is the equivalent of a car manufacturer such as Vauxhall ensuring that its cars can only run on petrol manufactured by Vauxhall. Such a move would, of course, provoke a huge outcry, and might even be against the law.
But so far, apart from some grumbles on social media, there has been no collective expression of outrage that a computer giant is effectively remotely disabling products that customers have bought in good faith, and then forcing those same customers to buy its own branded products that are more expensive.
Why have we taken this lying down? How are the likes of HP able secretly to access our printers? And what can we do to stop them?
There's no doubt that most of us loathe printers. A necessary evil, we are all too accustomed to their unreliability, the shocking cost of their ink, and their mysterious capacity to stop communicating with our computers, just when we're in a hurry to get a document printed.
And yet most of us need them, as there are times we still want to read something on a piece of old-fashioned A4 paper rather than on an iPad or some other screen.
All of us know that using printers is an expensive business, that firms sell the printers at a loss, then slap horrifically huge margins onto their ink cartridges — which is where the likes of HP really coin it in.
Take, for example, HP's 4520 All-in-One Printer, which can be bought on Amazon for the 'bargain' price of £49.99, which ensures it sells by the lorry-load.
With this model, HP will charge you a whopping £38.21 to buy a package of one black cartridge and one tri-colour cartridge. This means these two measly cartridges — which with normal family usage will run out in a matter of weeks or months — cost more than 75 per cent of the value of the entire printer.
HP are not the only offenders, of course. Buy two Canon cartridges — one black, one colour — in the larger, wider cartridge size which is supposed to be more economical, and it'll set you back a staggering £56.
It's a long-running joke that it's almost cheaper to buy a whole new printer (which comes with ink supplied) rather than a new set of cartridges.
For the fact is that printer ink is far more expensive by volume than Dom Perignon champagne or even Chanel No 5 perfume. It is precisely because printer manufacturers charge a tech billionaire's ransom for their cartridges that many of us buy cheaper versions which are copies of the brand-name cartridges.
They are typically made in China and sold by online retailers in the UK. Although some of these cartridges can be inferior to those made by the printer manufacturers, many are just as good. And the savings can be huge.
To replace the six cartridges on, say, a Canon Pixma MP990 costs £75.46 if you buy the Canon-branded cartridges.
However, if you purchase a full set of so-called 'after-market cartridges' from a firm such as Inkmasters then they're just £22.98 — less than a third of the Canon price. Clearly, only the lazy or naive spend the extra £52.48 on an almost identical product. This is why firms such as HP and Canon are unhappy when people buy other manufacturers' cartridges, because their business model would collapse if we all did it.
Therefore, in order to protect their business, manufacturers have gone to war on both consumers and the sellers of after-market cartridges.
Dennis Haines, 67, the managing director of Inkmasters, which turns over £6 million every year, explains the challenge faced by companies such as his.
'First, the big firms sue rival suppliers for infringing their patents. Clearly, they have deep pockets, whereas the likes of us who are far smaller find it very hard to afford to defend ourselves.
'Furthermore, the lawsuits can drag on for years, and to the best of my knowledge, not one of these suits brought in Europe has ever been resolved in court.'
The second way in which printer giants can make life difficult is to protect their businesses by installing small computer chips on their cartridges. The first company to do this was Epson, claiming its aim was to 'improve the user experience'.
However, the real reason lay in the bottom line. If the printer detected that the cartridge did not have the right kind of chip, it would not work.
This meant that manufacturers of cheaper ink not only had to copy the cartridges, but also the chips they contained if their product was to work.
For a while, they managed to do this, and an uneasy truce existed between the printer firms and the cheaper producers. But HP's recent move is clearly a new salvo.
So how exactly has HP managed to cripple so many of their customers' printers?
The answer is that printers 'update' themselves automatically via their connection to the internet, which is either directly through wi-fi or via your computer. When installing our printers' set-up software on our computers, many of us tick an 'automatic update' box, thinking little of it.
But according to Mr Haines, it's within that automatic updating that the trouble lies.
'What I suspect has happened is that the users of these HP printers, when they first installed their printer 'driver' software onto their computers, ticked a box that allowed for automatic updates,' he says.
The update to the printers' systems was delivered in March this year, but there seems to have been a built-in delay which meant HP printers would only stop accepting after-market cartridges on September 13.
'This is a very aggressive move,' says Mr Haines. 'But then again, HP, like all firms, has every right to protect its intellectual property. On the other hand, what they also have is a responsibility of fully informing their customers of what an update entails.'
The problem is that many firms are extremely opaque when it comes to telling customers an update will actually make life harder — and more expensive. The devil is often buried in the lengthy and verbose details at the end user's licence agreement, if indeed it is written there at all.
So what can printer users do to outwit the tech giants?
Mr Haines advises HP users to wait for firms like his to produce new after-market cartridges that will cope with the update, but this will involve a wait of a few months. 'It's an irritant,' he says, 'but we do try to keep on top of such things.'
Another option is to try refilling your cartridges yourself, but this is a tricky and messy business. And besides, the chip in the cartridge will, in all likelihood, refuse to acknowledge that the cartridge is once again full.
Mr Haines also suggests buying an old, second-hand printer, for which the manufacturers will no longer be bothering to update the software. 'All 80 printers in our office are more than five years old and built to last,' he reveals, 'and the company that appears to be the least sneaky with its updates is Brother.
'So look for a reliable Brother printer more than five years old and you should have no problem getting good quality, cheap cartridges.'
The final option is to give up printers altogether. As it happens, it is estimated that printer sales are declining by 5 per cent each year, as more of us read documents on tablets and smartphones.
But then again, as anyone who has ever worked in a supposedly paperless office fully knows, eschewing paper ultimately seems frankly impossible.
So for now it looks as if the battle between the likes of HP and consumers is set to continue. We really are stuck in the ultimate paper jam.
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