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 yes, it’s actually a thing.
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 it.
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.
Here is a list of the main types of planned obsolescence.
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.
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 at 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.
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 initial design remains fully functional.
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.
As unbelievable as it sounds, in some cases, manufacturers may deliberately program their products to stop functioning after a 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.
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, such as negative environmental impact. 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 should be afforded the option to buy a battery for my mobile phone, instead of being forced to replace the whole device when the battery dies. Is that too much to ask?
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