Planned obsolescence

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In economics and industrial design, planned obsolescence (also called built-in obsolescence or premature obsolescence) is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable. [1] The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as "shortening the replacement cycle"). [2] It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force people to purchase functional replacements. [3]

Contents

Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly. [4] Before introducing a planned obsolescence, the producer has to know that the customer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them (see brand loyalty). In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer, who knows how long the product was designed to last, and the customer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. [5] [6] For example, when Japanese vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products. [7]

History

The 1923 Chevrolet is cited as one of the earliest examples of annual facelifts in the car industry, because it had a restyled body covering what essentially was nine-year-old technology. 1923 Chevrolet Superior Series B, National Road Transport Hall of Fame, 2015.JPG
The 1923 Chevrolet is cited as one of the earliest examples of annual facelifts in the car industry, because it had a restyled body covering what essentially was nine-year-old technology.

In 1924, American automobile market began reaching saturation point. To maintain unit sales, General Motors executive Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual model-year design changes to convince car owners to buy new replacements each year, with refreshed appearances headed by Harley Earl and the Art and Color Section. Although his concept was borrowed from the bicycle industry, its origin was often misattributed to Sloan. [9] Sloan often used the term dynamic obsolescence, [10] but critics coined the name of his strategy planned obsolescence.

This strategy had far-reaching effects on the automobile industry, product design field and eventually the whole American economy. The smaller players could not maintain the pace and expense of yearly re-styling. Henry Ford did not like the constant stream of model-year changes because he clung to an engineer's notions of simplicity, economies of scale, and design integrity. GM surpassed Ford's sales in 1931 and became the dominant company in the industry thereafter. The frequent design changes also made it necessary to use a body-on-frame structure rather than the lighter, but less easy to modify, unibody design used by most European automakers.

Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence, by Bernard London, 1932 London (1932) Ending the depression through planned obsolescence.pdf
Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence, by Bernard London, 1932

The origins of phrase planned obsolescence go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London's pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. [11] The essence of London's plan would have the government impose a legal obsolescence on personal-use items, to stimulate and perpetuate purchasing. However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954. Without giving it much thought, he used the term as the title of his talk. From that point on, "planned obsolescence" became Stevens' catchphrase. By his definition, planned obsolescence was "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."[ citation needed ]

The phrase was quickly taken up by others, but Stevens' definition was challenged. By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. In fact, the concept was so widely recognized that in 1959 Volkswagen mocked it in an advertising campaign. While acknowledging the widespread use of planned obsolescence among automobile manufacturers, Volkswagen pitched itself as an alternative. "We do not believe in planned obsolescence", the ads suggested. "We don't change a car for the sake of change." [12] In the famous Volkswagen advertising campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach, one advert showed an almost blank page with the strapline "No point in showing the 1962 Volkswagen, it still looks the same".

In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers , promoted as an exposé of "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals". Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function.

"Obsolescence of desirability", a.k.a. "psychological obsolescence", referred to marketers' attempts to wear out a product in the owner's mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote:

"Design... is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is 'styling!'"

Variants

Contrived durability

Contrived durability is a strategy of shortening the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate quickly. [4] The design of all personal-use products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications. Since all matter is subject to entropy, it is impossible for any designed object to retain its full function forever; all products will ultimately break down, no matter what steps are taken. Limited lifespan is only a sign of planned obsolescence if the lifespan of the product is made artificially short by design.

The strategy of contrived durability is generally not prohibited by law, and manufacturers are free to set the durability level of their products. [4] While often considered planned obsolescence, it is often argued as its own field of anti-customer practices.

A possible method of limiting a product's durability is to use inferior materials in critical areas, or suboptimal component layouts which cause excessive wear. Using soft metal in screws and cheap plastic instead of metal in stress-bearing components will increase the speed at which a product will become inoperable through normal usage and make it prone to breakage from even minor forms of abnormal usage. For example, small, brittle plastic gears in toys are extremely prone to damage if the toy is played with roughly, which can easily destroy key functions of the toy and force the purchase of a replacement. The short life expectancy of smartphones and other handheld electronics is a result of constant usage, fragile batteries, and the ability to easily damage them. [13]

Prevention of repairs

Pentalobe screws used in an iPhone 6S. Critics have argued that Apple's use of pentalobe screws in their newer devices is an attempt to prevent the owner from repairing the device themselves. IPhone 6s - Lightning connector with pentalobe screws-92677.jpg
Pentalobe screws used in an iPhone 6S. Critics have argued that Apple's use of pentalobe screws in their newer devices is an attempt to prevent the owner from repairing the device themselves.

The ultimate examples of such design are single-use versions of traditionally durable goods, such as disposable cameras, where the customer must purchase an entire new product after using them a single time. Such products are often designed to be impossible to service; for example, a cheap "throwaway" digital watch may have a casing which is simply sealed in the factory, with no designed ability for the user to access the interior without destroying the watch entirely.[ citation needed ] Manufacturers may make replacement parts either unavailable or so expensive that it makes the product uneconomic to repair. For example, inkjet printers made by Canon incorporate a print head which eventually fails. However, the high cost of a replacement forces the owner to scrap the entire device. [14]

Other products may also contain design features meant to frustrate repairs, such as Apple's "tamper-resistant" pentalobe screws that cannot easily be removed with common personal-use tools, overusage of glue, as well as denying operation if any third-party component such as a replacement home button has been detected. [15] [16]

Front loading washing machines often have the drum bearing  a critical and wear-prone mechanical component  permanently molded into the wash tub, or even have a sealed outer tub, making it impossible to renew the bearings without replacing the entire tub. The cost of this repair may exceed the residual value of the appliance, forcing it to be scrapped. [17]

According to Kyle Wiens, co-founder of online repair community iFixit, a possible goal for such a design is to make the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or to prevent any form of servicing of the product at all. In 2012, Toshiba was criticized for issuing cease-and-desist letters to the owner of a website that hosted its copyrighted repair manuals, to the detriment of the independent and home repair market. [18]

Non-user-replaceable batteries

Throughout normal use, batteries lose their ability to store energy, output power, and maintain a stable terminal voltage, which impairs computing speeds and eventually leads to system outages in portable electronics. [19] [20]

Some portable products highly relied upon in the post-PC era, such as mobile phones, laptops, as well as electric toothbrushes, are designed in a way that denies end-users the ability to replace their batteries after those have worn down, therefore leaving an aging battery trapped inside the device, which limits the product lifespan to its shortest-lived component. [19] [21]

While such a design can help make the device thinner, it makes it difficult to replace the battery without sending the entire device away for repairs or purchasing an entirely new device. [22] On a device with a non-openable back cover (non-user-replaceable battery), a manual (forced) battery replacement might induce permanent damage, including loss of water-resistance due to damages on the water-protecting seal, as well as risking serious, even irreparable damage to the phone's main board as a result of having to pry the battery free from strong adhesive in proximity to delicate components. Some devices are even built so that the battery terminals are covered by the main board, requiring it to be riskily removed entirely before disconnecting the terminals. [23] The manufacturer or a repair service might be able to replace the battery. In the latter case, this could void the warranty on the device.[ citation needed ]

As such, it forces users who wish to keep their device functional longer to limit their use of energy-demanding device functionality and to forego full recharging.[ citation needed ]

The practice in phone design started with Apple's iPhones and has now spread out to most other mobile phones. [24] Earlier mobile phones (including water-resistant ones) had back covers that could be opened by the user in order to replace the battery. [25]

Perceived obsolescence

Obsolescence of desirability or stylistic obsolescence occurs when designers change the styling of products so customers will purchase products more frequently due to the decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable items.

Many products are primarily desirable for aesthetic rather than functional reasons. An example of such a product is clothing. Such products experience a cycle of desirability referred to as a "fashion cycle". By continually introducing new aesthetics, and retargeting or discontinuing older designs, a manufacturer can "ride the fashion cycle", allowing for constant sales despite the original products remaining fully functional. Sneakers are a popular fashion industry where this is prevalent - Nike's Air Max line of running shoes is a prime example where a single model of shoe is often produced for years, but the color and material combination ("colorway") is changed every few months, or different colorways are offered in different markets. This has the upshot of ensuring constant demand for the product, even though it remains fundamentally the same.

Motor vehicle platforms typically undergo a midlife "facelift" - a cosmetic rather than an engineering change for the purpose of cost effectively increasing customer appeal by making previously manufactured versions of the same fundamental product less desirable. The most simplistic way to achieve this outcome is to offer new paint colors.

To a more limited extent this is also true of some personal-use electronic products, where manufacturers will release slightly updated products at regular intervals and emphasize their value as status symbols. The most notable example among technology products are Apple products. New colorways introduced with iterative “S” generation iPhones (e.g. the iPhone 6S’ “Rose Gold”) entice people into upgrading and distinguishes an otherwise identical-looking iPhone from the previous year's model.

Some smartphone manufacturers release a marginally updated model every 5 or 6 months compared to the typical yearly cycle, leading to the perception that a one-year-old handset can be up to two generations old. A notable example is OnePlus, known for releasing T-series devices with upgraded specifications roughly 6 months after a major release device. Sony Mobile utilised a similar tactic with its Xperia Z-series smartphones.[ citation needed ]

Systemic obsolescence

Planned systemic obsolescence is caused either by the withdrawal of investment, or a product becoming obsolete through continuous development of the system in which it is used in such a way as to make continued use of the original product difficult. Common examples of planned systemic obsolescence include changing the design of screws or fasteners so that they cannot easily be operated on with existing tools, thereby frustrating maintenance. This may be intentionally designed obsolescence, a withdrawal of investment or standards being superseded by newer standards than those that were current at time the product was originally designed. For example, serial ports, parallel ports, and PS/2 ports have largely been supplanted or usurped by USB on newer PC motherboards since 2000s.[ citation needed ]

Programmed obsolescence

In some cases, notification may be combined with deliberate artificial disabling of a functional product to prevent it from working, thus requiring the buyer to purchase a replacement. For example, inkjet printer manufacturers employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (number of pages, time, etc.), even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled (with ink toners, up to 50 percent of the toner cartridge is often still full). [26] This constitutes "programmed obsolescence", in that there is no random component contributing to the decline in function.

In the Jackie Blennis v. HP class action suit, it was claimed that Hewlett Packard designed certain inkjet printers and cartridges to shut down on an undisclosed expiration date, and at this point customers were prevented from using the ink that remained in the expired cartridge. HP denied these claims, but agreed to discontinue the use of certain messages, and to make certain changes to the disclosures on its website and packaging, as well as compensating affected customers with a total credit of up to $5,000,000 for future purchases from HP. [27] [28]

Samsung produces laser printers that are designed to stop working with a message about imaging drum replacing. There are some workarounds for users, for instance, that will more than double the life of the printer that has stopped with a message to replace the imaging drum. [29]

Software lock-out

Another example of programmed obsolescence is making older versions of software (e.g. Adobe Flash Player or YouTube's Android application) [30] unserviceable deliberately, even though they would technically, albeit not economically, be able to keep working as intended.

Where older versions of software contain unpatched security vulnerabilities, such as banking and payment apps, deliberate lock out may be a risk-based response to prevent the proliferation of malware in those older versions. If the original vendor of the software is no longer in business, then disabling may occur by another software author as in the case of a web browser disabling a plugin. Otherwise, the vendor who owns a software ecosystem may disable an app that does not comply with a key policy or regulation, such as the processing of personal data to protect user privacy, though in other cases, this does not exclude the possibility of "security reasons" being used for fearmongering.

This could be a problem for the user, because some devices, despite being equipped with appropriate hardware, might not be able to support the newest update without modifications such as custom firmware.

Additionally, updates to newer versions might have introduced undesirable side effects, such as removed features [30] or non-optional changes, [31] or backwards compatibility shortcomings which might be unsolicited and undesired by users.

Software companies sometimes deliberately drop support for older technologies as a calculated attempt to force users to purchase new products to replace those made obsolete. [32] Most proprietary software will ultimately reach an end-of-life point—usually because the cost of code maintenance, testing and support exceed the revenue generated by supporting the old version—at which the supplier will cease updates and support. As free software and open source software can usually be updated and maintained at lower cost, the end of life date can be later. [33] Software that is abandoned by the manufacturer with regard to manufacturer support is sometimes called abandonware .

Legal obsolescence refers to the undermining of product usability through legislation, as well as facilitate purchasing a new product by offering benefits.

For example, governments wanting to increase electric vehicle ownership through purchase subsidies mechanisms could increase the replacement rate of cars.

Several cities such as London, Berlin, Paris, Antwerp and Brussels have introduced low-emission zones (LEZ) banning older diesel cars. LEZs force people owning cars affected by these legislations to replace them. [34]

Laws and regulations

In 2015 the French National Assembly established a fine of up to 300,000 euros and jail terms of up to two years for manufacturers planning the failure of their products in advance. [35] The rule is not only relevant because of the sanctions that it establishes but also because it is the first time that a legislature recognized the existence of planned obsolescence. [36] These techniques may include "a deliberate introduction of a flaw, a weakness, a scheduled stop, a technical limitation, incompatibility or other obstacles for repair".[ citation needed ]

The European Union is also addressing the practice. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body of the EU, [37] announced in 2013 that it was studying "a total ban on planned obsolescence". It said replacing products that are designed to stop working within two or three years of their purchase was a waste of energy and resources and generated pollution. [38] The EESC organised a round table in Madrid in 2014 on 'Best practices in the domain of built-in obsolescence and collaborative consumption' which called for sustainable consumption to be a customer right in EU legislation. [39] Carlos Trias Pinto, president of the EESC's Consultative Commission on Industrial Change [40] supports "the introduction of a labeling system which indicates the durability of a device, so the purchaser can choose whether they prefer to buy a cheap product or a more expensive, more durable product". [41]

In 2015, as part of a larger movement against planned obsolescence across the European Union, France passed legislation requiring that appliance manufacturers and vendors declare the intended product lifespans, and to inform purchasers how long spare parts for a given product will be produced. From 2016, appliance manufacturers are required to repair or replace, free of charge, any defective product within two years from its original purchase date. This effectively creates a mandatory two-year warranty. [42]

Critics and supporters

Shortening the replacement cycle has critics and supporters. Philip Kotler argues that: "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." [43]

Critics such as Vance Packard claim the process is wasteful and exploits customers. With psychological obsolescence, resources are used up making changes, often cosmetic changes, that are not of great value to the customer. Miles Park advocates new and collaborative approaches between the designer and the purchaser to challenge obsolescence in fast-moving sectors such as personal-use electronics. [44] Some people, such as Ronny Balcaen, have proposed to create a new label to counter the diminishing quality of products due to the planned obsolescence technique. [26]

In academia

Russell Jacoby, writing in the 1970s, observes that intellectual production has succumbed to the same pattern of planned obsolescence used by manufacturing enterprises to generate ever-renewed demand for their products.

The application of planned obsolescence to thought itself has the same merit as its application to consumer goods; the new is not only shoddier than the old, it fuels an obsolete social system that staves off its replacement by manufacturing the illusion that it is perpetually new. [45]

Camille Paglia characterizes contemporary academic discourse influenced by French theorists such as Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault as the academic equivalent of name brand purchasing. "Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are the academic equivalents of BMW, Rolex, and Cuisinart." [46] Under the inspiration of the latest academic fashions, academic planned obsolescence is to manufacture content with little merit for the same reason fashion designers come out with new fashions.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Original equipment manufacturer Company that fabricates parts used in another companys products

An original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is generally perceived as a company that produces parts and equipment that may be marketed by another manufacturer.

Crippleware has been defined in realms of both computer software and hardware. In software, crippleware means that "vital features of the program such as printing or the ability to save files are disabled until the user purchases a registration key". While crippleware allows consumers to see the software before they buy, they are unable to test its complete functionality because of the disabled functions. Hardware crippleware is "a hardware device that has not been designed to its full capability". The functionality of the hardware device is limited to encourage consumers to pay for a more expensive upgraded version. Usually the hardware device considered to be crippleware can be upgraded to better or its full potential by way of a trivial change, such as removing a jumper wire. The manufacturer would most likely release the crippleware as a low-end or economy version of their product.

Multi-function printer Office machine

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Obsolescence is the state of being which occurs when an object, service, or practice is no longer maintained, required, or degraded even though it may still be in good working order.

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Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) products are packaged or canned software which are then adapted to satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, rather than the commissioning of custom-made, or bespoke, solutions. A related term, Mil-COTS, refers to COTS products for use by the U.S. military.

Ink cartridge

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In economic literature, the term "aftermarket" refers to a secondary market for the goods and services that are 1) complementary or 2) related to its primary market goods. In many industries, the primary market consists of durable goods, whereas the aftermarket consists of consumable or non-durable products or services.

Diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages (DMSMS) or diminishing manufacturing sources (DMS) is defined as: "The loss or impending loss of manufacturers of items or suppliers of items or raw materials." DMSMS and obsolescence are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, obsolescence refers to a lack of availability due to statutory or process changes and new designs, whereas DMSMS is a lack of sources or materials.

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Toner cartridge

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Fairphone 2

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Batterygate is a term used to describe deliberate processor slowdowns on Apple's iPhones, in order to prevent phones with degraded batteries shutting down when under high load. Critics argued the slowdown amounted to planned obsolescence as older phones were at one point slowed down without explanation or other options provided to the user.

The right to repair electronics refers to government legislation that is intended to allow consumers the ability to repair and modify their own consumer electronic devices, where otherwise the manufacturer of such devices requires the consumer to use only their offered services. While a global concern, the primary debate over the issue has been centered on the United States and within the European Union.

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Further reading