Wilson was trying to decide whether a "standard yield" or "moderate yield" offered more ink for the money. The best answer he could get in an e-mail exchange with Lexmark's customer support was: "I suggest that you may purchase the moderate-yield cartridge for home printing. However, if you are a small-business owner, you may purchase the standard- or the high-yield cartridges."
Wilson's request seemed reasonable, so I decided to take it on. I understand why Lexmark doesn't want to reveal the actual quantity of ink in a cartridge. It might be a trade secret, though a competitor could just open a cartridge and measure the contents. More likely, the company would just as soon customers didn't realize that on a per milliliter basis, ink is considerably more expensive than Macallen 25-year-old scotch or Chateau d'Yquem sauternes.
But why couldn't Lexmark compare output in terms of the number of some standard page that could be printed? Such information is routinely supplied for monochrome laser-toner cartridges, including Lexmark's.
COMING STANDARD. "Publishing information regarding the ink-fill volume for a particular inkjet cartridge wouldn't necessarily assist people in their purchasing decisions when comparing one cartridge with another," Tim Fitzpatrick, Lexmark vice-president for corporate communications, wrote in an e-mail.The U.S. Fair Packaging & Labeling Act recognizes this with a specific exclusion for ink, including inkjet cartridges, and with good reason."
Fitzpatrick said the difficulty in comparing printed output was a result of the large number of variables involved, especially in photo printing. But help may be on the way. Wrote Fitzpatrick: "An ISO [International Standards Organization] standard, which we hope will be available in the first quarter of 2006, will also help to provide an easily understood differentiation between standard and high capacity by establishing a common standard that doesn't require a consumer to wade through disclaimers and explanations regarding all potential variables, including the type of output printed, model, manufacturer, type of paper, etc."
Personally, I would be prepared to work my way through those complexities, but it looks like we'll have to wait for the notoriously slow moving ISO.
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at email@example.com