The common belief is that big companies are out to get the little people by making products that break after a short period, or with substantially new features or accessories that make previous models obsolete, requiring the user to purchase a new model. This conspiracy theory isn’t true; there’s a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and it was caused by the consumers, not the manufacturers.
When we buy the hottest, shiniest, smallest, and cheapest new thing we join the wave of consumer demand that is the cause of what often gets labelled as “Planned Obsolescence”. In truth, we’re all to blame for the signals our buying habits send to manufacturers. Dig in and get your flamewar fingers fired up.
The idea makes sense; some bigwigs in marketing realized that if they sell a product that will expire, break, or become unserviceable after a certain period of time (long enough that people won’t complain), then the consumer will return and buy a newer, better product. Why build a product that lasts a long time and only get one sale when you can build a product that breaks after a few years and get a few repeat sales?
We can point to microwaves that are older than we are that still function fine and say “see, back then they built gadgets that last, why don’t they do that anymore?” There are lots of manifestations of this phenomenon. You see products that break after a period of time. You see products that don’t have user-serviceable or replaceable parts. You see parts or consumables that are discontinued, rendering the product useless. And especially (I’m looking at you, Samsung and Apple) you see products that are upgraded every year or two with fancy new features and operating systems that make the current version look like a potato. So how is this NOT planned obsolescence?
It’s Consumer Demand
The entire conspiracy is explained away when you consider that manufacturers are giving consumers exactly what they’re asking for, which is often compromising the product in different ways. It’s always a tradeoff, and the things that make a product more robust are the things that consumers aren’t considering when they make a purchase, so they are the first to go when a company designs a new product.
The biggest, baddest, most important aspect of this is price, and Harbor Freight is the poster child for this concept. If consumers valued quality products that don’t break more than they do price, then Harbor Freight wouldn’t exist. After all, it’s easy to get the feeling that Harbor Freight is a store composed entirely of shelves that scream “we know this is a crappy product that will break if you look at it wrong, but it’s cheap.”
So product developers make cuts everywhere they can to reduce the cost of the product. They replace metal parts with plastic parts, screws with snaps, and everything they can do to shave pennies off the cost. All of this is just so that you’ll begin to consider their product.
This isn’t a game of increasing their own margin by keeping prices the same and reducing the quality of the product, this is a game of adding features while reducing the cost so that you’ll see that this product costs $.57 less than the competitor and buy it on price difference alone. The Harbor Freights are the obvious ones, but every company does this. Sure you can find good companies that make quality products, but you’ll pay dearly for it.
Next is size, and here the cell phone industry is our best example. When cellphones first hit the scene, batteries were replaceable by users. This was great, except that it added bulk, and it turned out that people weren’t keeping their phone long enough for the battery replacement to be necessary. Cell phone technology was advancing so fast that people didn’t want to keep their phone running for years; they wanted the latest and greatest and smallest. So the easily replaceable battery was compromised so that we could have skinnier smaller phones.
You could still unscrew the case and replace it, but it wasn’t as easy. But that wasn’t skinny or small enough, and in the effort to reduce costs even further, the screws were removed so that we could have smooth glass on both sides, requiring even more difficult methods for replacing the battery. It wasn’t a conspiracy to make phones obsolete more quickly; it was a direct response to different demands that made compromises necessary.
Then we have to consider the compatibility of accessories. Here again the cell phone is a great example. Consider the monstrosity that is the old iPhone cable. It had so many pins it could be mistaken for a DIMM memory connector. An industry of accessories sprouted up around this connector, with chargers and audio receivers and all kinds of things having this docking connector. Then Apple announced a new connector, the lightning connector, and immediately all these products were obsolete and a whole industry had to redesign and retool.
The same thing happened with USB (Mini->Micro->C), so the Android fanbois can’t point fingers. With both lightning and USB-C, the committees tried to make a connector that was tiny (consumer demand), reversible (consumer demand), cheap (consumer demand), and forward thinking, with lots of flexibility for the future. These connectors aren’t designed to be short lived. Manufacturers don’t want to have to spend a lot of time and energy re-engineering stuff when they could design it once and sell it forever. They’re forced into these types of redesign by consumer demand for improved features and reduced cost.
It’s hard to put this delicately, but it seems users are less patient and willing to learn than they used to be. Manuals are tossed directly in the garbage without consultation, but users don’t hesitate to write a bad review and complain that it doesn’t work because they didn’t charge it first. Manufacturers are marching steadily towards products that are easier and easier to use, with fewer serviceable parts, less friction on the first use, and simpler interfaces.
As an example, a product I helped develop has a non-user replaceable coin cell battery because. The reasons that drove this decision are pretty eye-opening:
- We couldn’t get the users to be interested in keeping the device running longer than the battery lifetime.
- Even if they were, we couldn’t get them to order the right battery (CR2032).
- Even if they did, we couldn’t rely on them to have the dexterity to remove the battery tray and replace the battery.
- They complained that the battery door made the product look cheap and flimsy.
- They complained that water and dust ingress was more likely.
- Sadly, all this complaining was only possible among the users that understood that their wirelessly communicating device had a battery in the first place.
How Do We Fix It?
Manufacturers need to be given feedback on what to prioritize when designing new products. When the only feedback they receive is that it will be purchased in higher volumes if they reduce the price, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that the consumer cares about price more than any other aspect. The way to fix it is to support companies that develop high quality products that are more expensive but designed to last.
Another important bit of feedback is to use open standards so that integrations between products are easier, and interfacing with a product past its expected lifetime is still possible. Even publishing schematics or repair manuals after a product is considered obsolete and no longer available for sale would be helpful, and builds good will among a certain demographic. We write countless articles about the challenges of hacking older gadgets to extend their useful life or find new purposes, but the world would be a better place if that hacking was assisted by documentation from the manufacturer.
Finally, and I know I’m preaching to the choir in this community, but we need to educate people more about how stuff works, and get people interested in understanding the products they use on a daily basis, and to believe that the stuff inside the plastic box is not just magic pixies.