Designed To Die: Planned Obsolescence In Tech

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Planned Obsolescence
I consider myself a functional individual when it comes to gadgets as opposed to being driven by the latest trends. Therefore, you will not see me scrambling for the latest mobile phone or the most trendy laptop.

That being said, I often get frustrated when it comes to my mobile phone. I often times find myself replacing  my mobile phone when the battery is gone and can no longer hold a charge. When this happens the phone is otherwise still adequate for all other intents and purposes.

Do you remember the times when you could replace the battery of your phone? Well those times are mostly behind us because these days most mobile phones are designed for the entire device to be discarded when the battery dies. This is a form of planned obsolescence- and it’s actually a thing.

What Is Planned Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence is the idea in economics and industrial design where a product is intentionally designed with a limited useful life where it becomes obsolete after a certain period of time. When this happens, the product either becomes unfashionable or completely unusable.

The drive behind this strategy is to shorten the product replacement cycle by reducing the time between replacement purchases, thereby increasing long term sales volumes. It is inevitable that every product ever designed will eventually die but when planned obsolescence is incorporated into a design, the early death of the product is intentionally built into the design.

Planned obsolescence takes many forms and in some cases it may not be so obvious to identify. The following are some approaches taken by product producers to introduce obsolescence into their products.

Types of Planned Obsolescence

Contrived Durability

In this approach, the product is deliberately designed to deteriorate quickly and hence give it a short lifespan. In this case the design calls for the components of the product to be designed with a certain specification that will make it likely for the product to last for a certain period of time.

In order to achieve this, inferior materials may be used in certain critical areas of the product’s design. Otherwise, the product layout may be designed to be suboptimal in configurations that make the product more prone to wear and tear and hence less durable.

Prevention of Repairs

Think of a disposable camera. It is designed for one time use, after which it has to be thrown away. Compared to the durable versions of the camera, it is not possible to continue using it after that initial use, or at least it is not easy.

Most designs in this category are built in such a manner that makes it very difficult, if not impossible to repair. For example a cheap “throw away” digital watch may be designed in such a manner that it is sealed from the factory and opening it would basically destroy the product.

In cases where you can open the product for repairs, the manufacturer may make replacement parts either unavailable or so expensive that it makes more practical and economic sense to replace the whole unit. An example of this is print heads in inkjet printers.

Other approaches are intended to frustrate repairs by making use of specialised screws that cannot be opened using conventional tools like in the case of Apple devices or irreplaceable batteries like in the case of my mobile phone.

Perceived Obsolescence

This occurs when there is obsolescence of desirability or stylistic obsolescence when the style of products is changed by designers to induce customers to purchase more frequently as the desirability of unfashionable items decreases.

Take clothing for example. Most of the time clothes are not really desired for their functional qualities. It is rather for aesthetic reasons that people buy most of their clothes.

The popularity for clothes follows what is known as the “Fashion Cycle” and by introducing new aesthetics continually and continuously introducing new designs, manufacturers may ride the fashion cycle and make more sales on the new designs even though the original design remains fully functional.

Systemic Obsolescence

This is a deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which the product operates in such a way that continued use of the product is either difficult or impossible.

Common examples of this type of obsolescence include not allowing forward compatibility in software such that old software versions can no longer work in new versions of an operating system.

Programmed Obsolescence

As unbelievable as it sounds, in some cases manufacturers may deliberately program their products to stop functioning after  certain period of time or a certain level of use, thereby requiring the user to buy a replacement.

A good example of this is the technique used by inkjet printer manufacturers that use “smart chips” in their ink cartridges to prevent them from working after a certain threshold such as pages printed or time in use.

The Cost To Society

It can be argued that planned obsolescence stimulates demand for industries by encouraging and pressuring consumers to buy sooner in order to have  functional products. It can even be considered necessary for producers to maintain their level of revenue. But at what cost?

Whilst profitable to producers, planned obsolescence presents negative externalities to society. Not only does continually replacing products rather than repairing them create more waste and pollution and uses more resources, it also results in more consumer spending.

I for one believe we should have and run a sustainable economy that conserves and looks out for the environment. In any case I think I should be afforded the option to buy a battery for my mobile phone instead of replacing the whole device when the battery dies. Is that too much to ask?

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