Why Planned Obsolescence Is a Flawed Plan

By Pat Burke  |  Posted 03-29-2016 Print Email

The digital revolution has succeeded, so device makers should enjoy their victory and cut back on product cycles that offer little added value.

There’s no shame in holding onto a device or gadget for more than one refresh cycle. Just don’t tell that to the good folks at Apple and Samsung.

There is shame (or there should be) at companies that continue to create what essentially becomes junk within several months. I understand technology stands still for no one. The show must go on. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Yada, yada, yada.

I’m a proponent of innovation, disruption, motion, device intuition. Apple created something revolutionary with the iPhone. It’s intuitive, sleek, worthy of keeping the box in which it came. When you’ve created a product that 3-year-olds and 93-year-olds can understand, use without instructions, essentially figure it out from Day 1, you’ve hit the mark.  

And I appreciate how Samsung has matched Apple’s drive for excellence with its Galaxy product line. The videos and photos taken on these devices are truly out of this world.

I enjoy looking toward the future—but truth be told, I don’t always like what I see.

I’ve always had a respect for objects. As a kid, toys and gadgets weren’t heaped upon my siblings and me. We always had enjoyable Christmases and birthdays, but like many families, money could be tight. Still, I managed to get my hands on a Commodore 64, and then a Commodore 128, a Sony Walkman, a Fischer stereo receiver, Kenwood speakers, a Brother word processor, an original Nintendo system. All thanks to my folks and aunts and uncle.

These were electronics that I respected. I took care of them—and they took care of me.

There’s a pact entered by users and their devices, and it’s based on mutual respect. If you respect a gadget by not dropping it on the floor, by not turning the volume to 11, by not unplugging it while bits are spinning, by not storing your magnet collection on top of it—in short, by not manhandling it, it will respect you by continuing to operate for years to come.

I had the same stereo receiver and speakers for 15 years. They served me well and made several cross-country trips. They were built to last.

This is no longer the case. As technology has moved into the digital era, something has changed. It’s not that the quality of components has gotten worse—it’s that the nature of devices has changed. I’m not stating any revelation: What I’m stating is frustration.

I can take care of an iPhone that I bought five years ago, but it will no longer take care of me. I’ve always been a firm believer in using things until they simply can’t be used anymore. It has nothing to do with spending money (I love buying stuff). It comes down to respecting the designers and the company and the things they put out that become yours. And the people who may have saved up to get you these things.

I recently bought a stereo console from the 1960s. It’s about the size of a school’s science lab desk. It has a turntable and an accessory input that allows you to play music from your iPhone via auxiliary jack. The sound is amazing—it’s crisp, has weight and fills a room. And it’s compatible with an iPhone built 50 years after it.

That same iPhone is rendered useless when trying to upgrade to software written three years after its debut. It can no longer download many apps. Its battery, which of course is inaccessible and not swappable, barely holds a charge.

The lives of electronics were once measured in decades. Now, they’re measured in product cycles.

I understand that sacrifices are made in order to provide something that fits in your hand and can provide a world of information in a matter of nanoseconds. Smaller batteries equal smaller—and more appealing—devices.

But we’ve reached a point where smartphones are as good as I need. Any other improvement is done for the sake of improvement, and the sake of sales.

The term “planned obsolescence” came about during the Great Depression as a way to stimulate an economy that quite literally had people starving in the streets of America. Today, it’s used to fatten quarterly earnings and company stock.

I understand there’s a digital revolution, but I say the revolution is over. Digital has won. We’re all mobile, agile, data-driven, head-down, text-reading revolutionaries. And in these heady days of celebrating this victory over…well, over what, I’m not exactly certain…but in these post-revolution days, I ask Apple and Samsung and the other victors and allies in this revolution to please put out the best device you have this year—and then give it a rest. Give your best device some time to let it treat me right, and I will return the favor in kind—until the next revolution.

Which will probably include putting one of your devices in my noggin’.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.


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