Planned obsolescence is a business strategy in which the obsolescence of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. Products become obsolete when they become out of date, unfashionable or virtually useless. Consider how often we replace our smartphones. We discard these phones after only a few years of usage when the screen breaks or when the operating system is no longer as fast as before. Yet, smartphone manufacturers crank out brand new models every year, tempting consumers with a superior replacement.
Planned obsolescence works as a business strategy because it guarantees that consumers will keep replacing their products in the future, thus bolstering demand. However, this may upset consumers who feel manipulated that demand is being stoked at their expense, particularly if new generations of products offer few improvements over previous versions. Furthermore, this practice is bad for the environment as consumers are led to discard older models so that newer models may be acquired.
Watch this video to learn the difference between planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence.
Apple has been sued in France over slowing old iPhones to prevent them from malfunctioning due to poor performance. French law prohibits the commercial practice of planned obsolescence, where replacement rates are deliberately inflated. Regardless, Apple has denied that it is practising planned obsolescence and argued that it slowed iPhones with degraded batteries to avoid sudden shutdown problems. In Italy, however, both Apple and Samsung were fined for the planned obsolescence of their smartphones where the updates were found to have a negative effect on the performance of the devices.
Is There Any Good to Planned Obsolescence?
The practice of planned obsolescence may help to drive technological progress, especially in consumer electronics. The cutting-edge innovation and relentless competition for market share in the smartphone industry means that underlying technology and hardware just keeps getting better. In this way, obsolescence is almost built into technology as newer forms of technology make older forms obsolete.
Given the rapid progress of technology in consumer devices, planned obsolescence may be useful for consumers if it means that the strategy leads to cheaper devices. If smartphone batteries cannot last after a few years and technology is evolving rapidly, consumers desiring new devices may appreciate paying less for a smartphone.
In addition, this practice has made countless products much cheaper and thus increased its availability to many others in both the developed and developing nations. Where it would have been difficult to imagine so many of us having access to smartphones just a decade ago, many of us are now able to indulge in a smartphone. Similarly, on a macroeconomic scale, the rapid turnover of goods increases the growth and employment in several manufacturing countries.
Are the Consumers to Blame?
Is planned obsolescence a result of corporate manufacturing bigwigs out to get the consumers or is it caused by the consumers’ purchasing patterns?
When we purchase the hottest, latest, smallest and cheapest products, we send signals to manufacturers to engage in planned obsolescence. Manufacturers want to give consumers exactly what we are asking for and thus products are compromised in a number of ways. If price is valued over quality, then manufacturers would seek to drive prices down by cutting corners on their products. Another example is that consumers wanted smaller smartphones and this necessitated the doing away of replaceable batteries. As a result, it is more difficult to replace the batteries and consumers started replacing their phones more often.
On the other hand, planned obsolescence could benefit both consumers and manufacturers. Some products’ durability may be tailored according to the consumers’ needs and expectations. For instance, children’s clothes need not be super durable as the children grow out of their clothes very quickly and it is prone to easy staining.
The Future: What Can We Do?
As consumers become more environmentally conscious, manufacturers may seek to develop goods which become less disposable. Manufacturers may seek to recycle and reuse its older models. For instance, Tesla is developing a unique recycling program for its batteries such that they recover the materials from the batteries instead of tossing the batteries into landfills.
Furthermore, manufacturers can plan for products to be made compatible with one another and to be designed with resource efficiency in mind. For instance, old USB connections may make older smartphones obsolete. Having cross-compatibility of accessories may thus help delay the obsolescence of these older smartphones.
Questions for further personal evaluation:
- Should manufacturers or consumers bear the larger share of the blame for the planned obsolescence of product? Why?
- How often do you replace your smartphones? What would it take for you to continue using your smartphones for more than three years?
- ‘obsolete’: no longer in use or no longer useful
- ‘stoked’: encourage or incite
- ‘bigwig’: important person
Here are more related articles for further reading:
- Forbes: The promise of Google’s modular phone could threaten the practice of planned obsolescence of other smartphone manufacturers.
“Project Ara changes this dynamic. It becomes technically and economically viable for third-party developers to push faster and deeper camera development. They might build specialized lenses for market segments too small for big manufacturers’ one-size-fits-all mass market strategies. They might offer interchangeable lenses for different applications. Ara’s design rules reduce technical complexity and ensure compatibility. Ara also provides a visible path to the marketplace. Consumers could choose to upgrade only their cameras rather than entire phones, or they could choose to upgrade more frequently than typical upgrade cycles.”
- Paris Innovation Review: A debate on the merits of planned obsolescence.
“If obsolescence is treachery, then consumers are enthusiastic accomplices, as noted by designer Brooks Stevens (1911-1995): “Planned obsolescence instills in consumers the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”Philip Kotler, a famous professor of marketing strategy at Northwestern University, is also among Stevens’ assiduous supporters: “Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society – forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.” According to him, planned obsolescence would somehow be the bread and butter & fundamental lubricant of a market economy.
And just like cholesterol, planned obsolescence is not a univocal evil. Bad obsolescence consists in introducing mere cosmetic changes that improve neither utility nor performance and constrain towards replacement for all the wrong reasons. This is what experts call “pseudo-functional obsolescence”, which is difficult to detect because it readily comes under the guise of innovative design – a strategy that not only creates frustration among consumers, but that has proven to be quite harmful to our environment.
Conversely, there may be good reasons to plan obsolescence. Should some products not purposefully be designed not to last, they would remain out of reach for most people. Another respectable argument is “value engineering”, that is to say, the analysis of value in the design phase. The aim is to use as little material as possible, while providing an acceptable lifespan; it is also to ensure that all parties malfunction at about the same time, so as to reduce waste. This is, somehow, responsible planned obsolescence. A simple example: given the pace of technological advances in telecommunications, it would be pointless to build a mobile phone capable of lasting ten years. It’s a good thing that mobile devices are made for the most part of cheap plastic. A phone made out of titanium would outlast its usefulness by a very long shot. So, such positive planned obsolescence protects the environment. “Functional obsolescence” also has its virtues. It occurs when the introduction of a radically innovative product makes previous models not only outdated but largely useless. This is the case of smartphones, whose features have nothing to do with those of the first mobile phones.”