planned obsolescence


Every time I buy a new technology product, I wonder how long it will last.

I salivate over anything new from Apple. But, I’ve had a number of Apple products fail recently. My Apple Time Capsule, marketed as a “revolutionary storage device”, died after just two years, unfixable, losing all the files it was designed to store. My two-year old iPhone seems as clunky and quirky as an old car. The iPhone battery is one of the quickest components to fail, but there’s no easy way to change it.

I found scores of similar stories online and was told I shouldn’t have counted on any of these products lasting longer than two years.

“Planned obsolescence” is a classic consumer marketing strategy, particularly with technology companies. The shorter the lifespan, the quicker consumers will replenish. Getting rid of the old makes way for the new. Consumers theoretically forgive obsolescence because of the wonder of the new new thing.

I wonder though if that design philosophy will ever spark a backlash. Why do consumer products have to be so consumable? Will we ever prize longevity as a design criteria for consumer technology products?

I’m interested in the trend of designing products to last. Hiut Denim launched recently, featuring a History Tag. Each pair of jeans comes with a digital tag that chronicles the long life of that specific product, as long as the consumer owns it. The products are actually designed to get better with age.

“After all if we make a pair of great jeans that last, so should the memories that are made in them … And that’s the genius of making a product to last. It will give our objects more meaning. It will mean we throw things away less. Because it attaches the stories to the objects that we love.”

Innovation is magical. But so is craftsmanship.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

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18 Comments

  1. Xianhang Zhang says:

    It’s not like companies are sneaking into your house and making your products worse, planned obsolescence happens because products are getting genuinely better. When you look at places where technological innovation has slowed down, you do get genuinely adored iconic products like the IBM Model M Keyboard or the HP 15C Calculator.

  2. Paul Arnold says:

    Tom, Love your stuff!
    I think building on this, there is a whole angle about how brands need to respect the fact that they are in a relationship with their consumers and not abuse them. Apple are rapidly falling into that trap and I am right now so ‘out of love with them’!
    So my story: Idylicaly happy with Mobile Me and my MacBook Pr (running Snow Leopard). But wait! we MUST move to new super dooper i-cloud! OK – but then it means I have to move to Lion (+£20) – and then my machine crashes as it needs more RAM (+£40) – Oh and since my i-phone is just an old ’3′ it can no longer synch my calendar and address book! Apple’s answer? Buy a new i-phone! My answer? Move to gmail!

  3. Nate Challen says:

    If only Siri was this accurate!

    Add it to you list of recent Apple dissapointments. I know it’s a little off topic, but how about the trend of tech companies thinking that giving something the “Beta” tag, excuses it from having to work? Siri is the focal point of the advertising campaign for the iPhone 4S. Shouldn’t a feature given this much focus be more fully baked?

  4. Kate Permut says:

    It’s important to notice that the allure of “new” varies by category. There are some products where “new” is not as valued as “enduring and forever,” e.g. could manufacturers of gold wedding rings ever tap into the concept of “planned obsolescence”? Maybe — but it would require a radical, new positioning (…pun intended…).

  5. We used to fix things says:

    “New and improved” may draw in consumers who believe they just “have” to get rid of that iPad 2 and get an iPad 3, but planned obsolescence can take on many forms.

    Once upon a time…. people took their toasters, coffee makers, electric razors, lamps, and any other small appliance to a small appliance repair shop. Now we just throw it away and buy a new one. Some products have a lifespan, and repairs have diminishing returns. Craftsmanship may not be a factor when the repair of a major component in a washing machine, for example, is nearly the cost of a new washing machine.

    Technology adds another wrinkle. My old computer, once state-of-the-art and ran all the software I needed, is now sluggish because said software has been updated and upgraded X.0 times. Now I need faster processors to run new software or stream video. Is it the computer’s fault? Or is software wagging the hardware dog?

  6. Xavier Boileau says:

    The objectives of a company is to sell more. If it sells objects, it will make less money without obsolescence.
    The only way the objectives of a company and consumer are aligned in making products that last forever is when the company sells “usage+maintenance” and not products. This is what tire company do when they sell “kilometers/miles” instead of tires, or plane engine companies selling “hours of flight usage”.
    In the software industry, we see this arriving with “Software as a service / cloud” models.
    I wonder if consumers are ready to rent their oven and buy a “coocking service” instead…

  7. Miki Reilly-Howe says:

    I’ve been an Apple user since 1993 when I got my first laptop. Back then, everything Apple produced was considered “beta” and small inconveniences were expected…it was part of being in the Apple tribe. Now that Apple is no longer the underdog, issues like your Time Capsule experience just shouldn’t happen. It feels like the bar for quality today is simply “good enough” – across many categories. I’d like to buy a pair of pants from Nordstrom without having the hem fall out after the third trip to the dry cleaners. Or get some very expensive prescription ear drops without having the dropper separate into 3 pieces the second time I opened the bottle. There has to be a pendulum swing soon.

  8. Karl Sakas says:

    Tom, sorry to hear about losing your Time Capsule — a dead backup device doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

    When I had a Motorola Droid, I liked being able to swap batteries (cheap, effective aftermarket ones at that)… until the screen’s digitizer died and the phone alternated between unresponsive and “possessed.”

    I like my iPhone 4S but worry what happens if the battery dies before my two-year Verizon contract ends. Fingers crossed.

    Maybe that’s the issue — modern technology that requires a “fingers crossed” attitude. Whereas my mom’s hand-me-down Pioneer stereo from the 1970s works just fine for me 40 years later.

  9. David says:

    There was an enlightening documentary that came out in 2010 called The Light Bulb Conspiracy that tackles the subject of planned obsolescence. You can watch it for free here (http://documentaryheaven.com/the-lightbulb-conspiracy/).

    This film describes the motivation for the practice as a theory of early 20th century growth.

    One thing I thought made the whole film worthwhile is to hear the point of view from those who think Planned Obsolescence is a good thing. While it’s easy to point the finger and denounce the practice as universally wasteful and dishonest, one should be able to at least articulate the other side of the argument even if you don’t agree with it. And knowing the history of it going way back to the last 19th century was fascinating too.

    It’s worth a watch if you are interested in knowing more about the topic and its positive and negative impacts.

  10. samax says:

    Yeah… Planned obsolescence is evil. As a recovering poor person, I’m obsessed with making things last as long as possible. I cannot for the life of me understand why supposed “green” companies do not make their products more modular and durable.

    Well, I understand why: because they’re evil. ;)

  11. Susan says:

    Re: jeans that last forever … that’s a pretty safe business model … as we aging/”growing wider” Americans constantly outgrow our jeans!

    When I first learned about planned obsolescence years ago, the example of panty hose was given. I was shocked to learn companies CAN make/sell a run-less stocking, “but then women would buy 1-2 pairs and be done….they’d lose all their customers!” For years, I was so annoyed every time I’d get a run in my hose.

    Then I noticed something… women just aren’t wearing them anymore. In winter there are cotton tights (which don’t run), in summer: bare legs.

    I don’t know how panty hose companies are doing these days, but “casual workplace” has got to have cut into their sales. Which I think serves them right. I think they should have made them runless and just charged more…expanded into other colors/designs etc. to entice repeat customers.

  12. Concetta says:

    Tom, I think you’re right on with this cartoon. It brought to mind the fact that many companies are planning on “planned obsolescence” as a way to drive sales. If the companies could slow down just a little, there could still be innovation, but they would have time to let the ideas develop and still get a neat product.

    For most companies, a planned obsolescence schedule is two years or less because they need to drive their stock prices up. So an idea that’s 2/3 of the way there is released, even though they know the last 1/3 doesn’t work/is dreadful/is annoying/drives the consumer batty.

    Like a lot of things, if we could slow the relentless drive down even an additional six months, I think we could see a very positive change in technology products.

    @Susan, we stopped wearing hose here in the US because of the companies that sell crappy stockings. Their business model has screwed themselves. Kate Middleton, though, has considerably revived the interest in pantyhose – and she wears exclusively the much higher quality UK hose. If you want a good pair of hose that last more than two wearings, you should look for UK brands online.

  13. Brian says:

    I don’t believe companies in mature industries with low barriers to entry are purposefully making their products fail in a short time span to screw consumers and pad their own profits. In the panty hose example above, what would stop an upstart from selling the higher quality pantyhose and taking over the marketplace? Industry sales would decline but that upstart would make a killing. I’m sure the answer is that higher quality pantyhose cost more, and most women weren’t willing to spend more.

    In non-mature industries like cell phones, the obsolescence is a factor of new products getting better. It doesn’t make any sense to over-engineer an old product to make it last forever when nobody will want that product in 2 years anyway.

    If barriers to entry in an industry are high, then I can see a company with a monopoly or a couple of companies with an oligopoly gaming the market with inferior products. But in most industries, Adam Smith’s invisible hand prevents that.

  14. David says:

    Sorry folks, the link I posted seems to have been taken down.

    This link seems to work better.
    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/light-bulb-conspiracy/

  15. tomfishburne says:

    Wow, a really inspired debate this week, thank you!

    This week’s cartoon goes to Brian, who reminds us that it’s not about companies taking advantage of consumers; it’s about tradeoffs in design and taking advantage and improvements. He also distinguishes between two forms of obsolescence, 1) making lower quality so that it costs less and 2) making new products better.

    This cartoon led to a phone call with a friend at a consumer technology company. We talked about the inevitable tradeoffs in design. A product that is more durable may be too bulky. Or it may be more expensive than consumers want to pay. A product that allows you to swap out components that fail may mean tradeoffs in other places. Innovation is all about navigating those tradeoffs.

    I don’t think most companies are trying to take advantage of consumers. I think it’s a case of making those imperfect tradeoffs.

    My point in this cartoon is that consumers may start to prioritize durability and longevity more than they have in the past. I’m sensing a growing backlash against the pace of obsolescence.

    If that’s true, that could be an opportunity for brands to take a different approach, like the “software as service” type approach that Xavier mentions. Or to choose different tradeoffs.

    Many thanks!

    -Tom

  16. Russell says:

    1 comment and 1 thought come to mind.

    In the tech space particularly low cost is often achieved by reducing or eliminating testing, which can be a considerable portion of production costs. The real testing happens at the consumer level, where low prices makes the item almost disposable. Example – I recently replaced my BluRay player. A Samsung model with internet connectivity cost $69. This is less than 3 BluRay movies. A great price, but I know it will crap out far sooner than I’d wish. For many people who cannot understand why their LCD TV craps out after 2 years when their parents TV lasted 20 will struggle with this new reality.
    I work in the electronics space and when I buy electronics if it has a hard drive in it I buy a 3rd party 3-5 yr warranty.

    The thought is that this does create new niches for those companies willing to offer specifically high quality products at a premium that have been through rigorous testing and ‘burn-in’. This is how manufacturing can come back to the US and EU.

  17. Sam Tucker says:

    This is an issue that has bothered me for some time. It echos a lot of the philosophies about future design here:

    http://www.sony.co.uk/discussions/community/en/community/futurescapes
    (Interesting the association with a consumer electronics company)

    This is an idea that is very popular especially in the fashion industry and I think is likely to be the next big thing in how we shop. It’s the reason I love http://www.howies.co.uk/

    From a personal point of view I find my self working entirely on cloud based services meaning that as long as I have access to the net I can get to my info (I share your frustrations about old iPhones, I’m still chugging away from 2008) and the device I use is less and less important as long as it works.

    In response to your thoughts about the trend shift to longer lasting products, I see this in the offing with the introduction of 4G and more specifically Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology being build into devices. This mean that devices are built with capabilities beyond what is currently possible, thus increasing the longevity of devices. If it is capable of receiving data speeds that are planned for two years time, it still needs to work at that point in time.

    With the current business model this does not make economic sense for manufacturers, with share holders that demand profits, to stop forcing you to upgrade every year or two. There will be a trade off and perhaps mobile devices will become more upgradeable or recyclable.

    Let me know you further thoughts,

    http://www.samueltucker.co.uk

  18. Agatha says:

    When personal computers first came out. I remember someone asking me after we had purchased our first computer, “When are you going to buy the latest computer, just out?”
    I always said, “When the newest, “final one” comes out.”
    I am still waiting….

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