Planning to Fail

Planning to Fail

Do you find that your tech always happens to die just after the warranty runs out? Do you get a new phone every year? Is this all a coincidence? Apparently not. We owe it to something called planned obsolescence: the deliberate design of products to shorten their lifespan.

The roots of planned obsolescence stretch back to the 1930s, when companies in an effort to boost sales altered the design of lightbulbs, ensuring they wouldn’t burn for more than 1000 hours.

Since then, the use of planned obsolescence has continued to pervade the market. You’ve probably seen it in your own life: from indicator bristles on toothbrushes to printer ink cartridges that ask for replacements when they’re still 40% full. Heck, even most pillows now have an expiry date!

A key component of planned obsolescence, a phenomenon known as psychological obsolescence is being used by businesses to instil within consumers a perceived need to upgrade, when in fact their product is far from being obsolete or outdated. One of the most prominent contemporary employers of this is Apple, with the perpetual reiterations of their popular iPhones and iPads. Rather than using the tactic of engineering tangible faults or breakdowns, they’ve developed a habit of releasing new models of virtually the same product year after year, each one with marginal improvements over the previous.

In fact, what has proven to be the case over several iterations of Apple’s iPad, is that Apple has deliberately held back features in older models in order to incorporate them into later generations. One example is the iPad 1 which didn’t have a camera, a feature that later became the predominant selling point of the second generation iPad – the iPad 2. Naturally, one would believe that this feature was added via some means of technological improvement. But if you were to open up the iPad 1, you’d see that the camera frame was already built in – just not the actual camera itself. Saving the camera for the second generation iPad was Apple’s method of assuring that its new product appeared innovative – the next best thing.

It’s not just Apple that is guilty of these perhaps unethical deeds. The likes of Microsoft and Samsung have likewise followed in the footsteps of Apple, eyeing the same monumental profits, and iterative consistency that Apple has achieved.

You might wonder, why does it matter that they do this? Many customers can afford to replace their phone every year. Some consumers will even revel in the yearly excitement of being able to upgrade to the newest and the greatest. But aside from the financial consequences, the practice of planned and psychological obsolescence can have outsize impact on other facets of society.

With nearly every product sold, another is thrown away. Despite the large number of companies dedicated to recycling, only 10% of electronic and technological products are recycled. In 2008, Australians threw away 16.8 million televisions and computers. Of these, 100% contained toxic materials. The government is trying to curb such wastage by introducing product stewardship laws (The Product Stewardship Act 2011), hopefully encouraging manufacturers to build more durable products.

But at the end of the day, the onus lies on us, the consumers. We have the habit of wanting more often for the sake of wanting, a trait that fuels such consumerism and waste. Sometimes the newest thing isn’t the giant leap it’s often made out to be. Actually, most of the time it’s really not.



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