Have you experienced having your two-year–old smartphone kick the bucket sooner than the trusty old feature phone you’ve had for years?
To be fair, feature phones versus smartphones might be an apples vs oranges comparison because, while they both allow you to make calls and send text messages, they are very different animals altogether. However, the problem of newer gadgets giving up the ghost earlier than their older counterparts is real.
For this, most people blame “planned obsolescence”, a term popularized in 1957 by industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Stevens said planned obsolescence is “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” Originally, there was no talk of products breaking down easily, but this doesn’t mean manufacturers didn’t take the hint.
In 1960, attacked by “The Waste Makers” author Vance Packard for making even slightly older products perceived as “old-fashioned, conspicuously non-modern”, Stevens added a clarification: “I simply meant that you didn’t have to wear a pair of shoes until you wore holes right through the soles.”
Currently, ‘planned obsolescence’ means either of two things:
1. Stoke the buyer’s desire to own newer, “improved” things a little sooner than he or she needs (that is, make old products look ugly compared to newer models – the original Stevens definition); or
2. Make things that break down after, say, only two years (the same length of time as a locked phone carrier contract). This is Jeremy Bulow’s definition of planned obsolescence as “the production of goods with uneconomically short useful lives so that customers will have to make repeat purchases” in An Economic Theory of Planned Obsolescence (1986). According to Bulow, monopolist/oligopolistic firms tend to shorten the lives of their products with various tricks but may also, in rare instances, extend the lives of their products just to deter competition.
Vance Packard names these two “obsolescence of desirability” and “obsolescence of function”, respectively – either make new products that would make older products look undesirable or cripple the new products from the very beginning.
Not all products become obsolete equally
Cars don’t become obsolete as fast as smaller gadgets do. There’s usually a whole ecosystem based on second-hand cars.
Among gadgets, it’s usually the portable ones, like smartphones, that become obsolete quickly. Desktop computers can still be useful after 8 years but smartphones seldom work as well after two years.
Even among smartphones of the same brand, not all stop functioning in two years. For example, Samsung has relatively durable earlier versions of its Galaxy series. A friend mentioned his experience with his Samsung Galaxy S II (released 2011) and how it’s still working ‘til now, while his Samsung Galaxy Note II (released 2012) and Note 4 (released 2014) both died within 1.5 years of use – essentially making them very expensive (PhP 60,000) paperweights.
A highly respectable cellphone repair shop owner related to him that a short lifespan is very common with the Samsung Galaxy Note series. To add, a tech journalist at one of the country’s biggest newspapers said that this issue has been around after the Samsung Galaxy S II series – that Samsung flagship phones aren’t built the same way they were (same issue with iPhones, the journalist said). The takeaway is that, unless you have money to burn, you really should buy a cheaper phone that does nearly the same thing as them flagships if you love your hard earned money, or that of your parents, It’s simple the smarter move.
Ways to cripple products deliberately
It is rather difficult to prove that companies are deliberately engaging in crippling their products, especially in a competitive market, because of the backlash a firm would receive if found out. Obfuscation is the name of the game.Here are some ways by which obsolescence of function can be incorporated into products:
OK, this might not be a deliberate sabotage, but OS updates are usually targeted for newer hardware, leaving older hardware to flounder. In iPhones, for example, some older models (like the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S) experience a slowing down when updated to newer OS versions. The iPhone 4 can be updated from iOS 4.0 up to iOS 7.1.2 and, apparently for some, the “sluggishness” is still tolerable.
But the apps can be capricious. For example, even without the iOS 7.1.2 sluggishness, the latest version of the alternative keyboard, MessagEase, for example, will demand iOS 8.1 (released 2014) or later or else you cannot install it. And, since iPhone 4 is unable to update to iOS 8, you won’t be able to install it. The funny thing is, the latest version of MessagEase for Android will still work even if you have Android 2.3 Gingerbread (released 2010). This doesn’t make much sense.
Frail by design
Most high-end phones are designed for their looks as well as function. Current fashion among high-end smartphonesis thin and sleek. But this, along with the fashion for glassy surfaces pioneered by iPhone 4, means the phone will have a shorter battery life (smaller, thinner batteries mean shorter life) and are easily damaged when dropped. Durability and battery life are sacrificed for looks (kinda like how fashion models starve themselves to keep their fashionable waif-like appearance). And now that iPhone screens (starting with iPhone 6) have become larger, more people are unable to grip their phones and balance them on their hands instead. The result? More dropped phones and smashed screens. Also, phones that are advertised as “water-resistant”, versus “water-proof”, tend to be brought to the repair shop for water damage. Or, in case of printer cartridges, the product may have a chip that tells it to stop functioning after a set number of runs. All these shorten a gadget’s life span – the length of which manufactures could have calculated as early as during the product design process.
Unique, hard-to-get spare parts
This would make the cost of repairs almost as high as the cost of buying a new phone. Notice the specially designed screws in the iPhone? It’s a message that says “keep off – no user serviceable parts here”. Sometimes the parts take too long to order such that customers would rather buy a new unit.
This is a kind of cross between obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function. Remember when the first iPhone came out? It had no 3G, no MMS, no universal Bluetooth, no video recording – features standard in other phones at that time. But it was a hit. Then came iPhone 3G that had all that and sales skyrocketed. But the camera remained a measly 2 megapixels – a ‘flaw’ that would leave users pining for the next round of upgrades. These little “flaws”, allowed to remain in an otherwise improved gadget, create a chain of desire that make users look up to the newest hardware versions like the Second Coming.
Planned obsolescence breeds mistrust
In 2013, Al Sacco summed up the state of planned obsolescence in smartphones (and probably tablets and other portables as well):
Your current smartphone, assuming you purchased it relatively recently, probably isn’t very different than the shiny new handheld that Samsung, Motorola, Google or Apple is peddling – as long as it’s still working. In fact, it may be built better and last longer.
Harlan Landes, a Forbes contributor, says “choose products that aren’t designed to fail quickly”. But this is becoming increasingly difficult, since most manufacturers design products to fail.
An actively promoted ecosystem for second-hand smartphones may reduce the pollution and waste somewhat but this requires that smartphones be designed for second-hand use. That is not what the majority of firms are doing at the moment.
Fortunately, technology that grows old so fast find second life in surprising ways:
Among Western countries, France appears to be waking up to the economic and environmental disadvantages of planned obsolescence. In March, 2015, France has introduced a law to combat this profitable but wasteful and environmentally degrading practice.
Still, planned obsolescence may stay with us for a long time to come. The profits to make are very tempting for firms to just give up their habits but we as consumers can no doubt be the wiser until such times that Samsung and these “in” brands get their act together.
To end, have you had a Samsung Note Series break down on you in less than 2 years? Any other flagship phone that you feel is disposable? Please check on the poll below and share your experiences on the comments.