When Apple admitted that it uses software updates to save battery life by degrading the performance of older phones it triggered quite a bit of outrage. Planned obsolescence, or the intentional shortening of a product’s lifespan, sounds a lot like the company is telling you, “We could make this product better, but we’re choosing to make it worse because we want to get your money again in a few years.”
That’s not an unfair interpretation – many companies have used planned obsolescence purely as a profit mechanism – but it’s also not the whole story, especially when it comes to tech. Indeed, one could argue that planned obsolescence is both necessary and inevitable in this sector, despite the waste and environmental issues surrounding this low-cost, high-volume model. There’s a constant cycle of improving and upgrading, partially driven by the continuous demand for new products, and if your phone breaks in a few years, that might have been the limit of its useful lifespan anyway.
Different types of planned obsolescence
Durable products are all alike, but products with an artificially-limited lifespan are all planned to become obsolete in their own way. Some of the most common strategies you’ve probably encountered are:
- Contrived durability: When a product is intentionally built with low-quality or fragile parts that are likely to degrade or break with repeated use. The Phoebus Cartel, a consortium of lightbulb manufacturers, used this strategy to limit lightbulb lifespans. This wasn’t so common in early smartphones, since there wasn’t really an expectation that the underlying technology would change fundamentally, which is why the phones themselves were famously durable.
- Repair prevention: When a product is built in a way that is hard to fix. Hard-to-reach screws, glued-together pieces, inaccessible batteries, unswappable screens – it can often be easier just to buy a new phone than to get your old one fixed.
- Perceived obsolescence: A strategy used to get consumers to think that their products are out of date, whether they are or not. New designs, slightly upgraded hardware, and shiny advertising campaigns can get users to think that the new product is a bigger upgrade than it actually is.
- Systemic obsolescence: This is when the product becomes less useful because the system it’s used in changes. This mostly pops up in the form of compatibility issues. You can’t run new apps or games on your old hardware, so you have to upgrade.
- Programmed obsolescence: When a product’s lifespan is determined by a specific setting. The most famous example is HP’s printer lawsuit, where it was argued that they had programmed their printers to send “low ink” error messages and stop working when there was actually plenty of ink remaining in the cartridges.
These sound like pretty sneaky strategies, and while there is some rationale behind them, a little outrage over planned obsolescence is certainly justified.
Why planned obsolescence isn’t great
1. It’s more expensive
Planned obsolescence often means building things with lower-quality parts in order to guarantee short lifespans and keep customers coming back for the next model. Think of it as more a subscription model than a one-time purchase: at random intervals when your technology fails, you have to pay a fee to continue using it. Depending on your habits, this can get fairly expensive. This is especially a problem when a product could still be useful, but a company forces it to fail in some way. A natural lifespan is one thing; intentionally breaking something is another.
2. The waste is bad for the environment
The sooner a product fails, the sooner it gets into our waste management chain, which, for the moment, is not great. If we’re lucky, our e-waste gets recycled and reused somewhere; more likely, stuff ends up in landfills, oceans, and incinerators, causing quite a bit of damage to the environment, especially in the developing countries that often deal with it. Planned obsolescence speeds up the rate at which products get thrown out, which exacerbates this whole issue.
3. Higher rates of natural resource extraction
Our phones seem like magic, but inside the box, it’s all just pieces of our planet that we took out and made into things we can use. This can be bad for the environment, but it’s also bad for the people who extract these resources. Many components in our modern technology come from unstable developing nations, and the money typically goes to some unpleasant, oppressive regimes.
Why planned obsolescence in tech actually makes sense
So consumers are forced to spend more, the planet gets to deal with more trash, and we’re supporting military dictatorships with every purchase. That’s all true, but even though it looks bad, there are some convincing counterarguments.
1. It’s cheaper
Technology prices are low, and they only seem to get lower. That’s probably due, in part, to the economies of scale enabled by planned obsolescence. Because there’s a huge and constant demand for new technology, it can be produced and distributed in large enough volumes that the price of buying a cheap new phone every few years is probably still less than buying a more expensive, durable phone at less frequent intervals. Short lifespans also mean the manufacturers don’t have to invest the extra time and materials in producing long-lasting products, cutting prices even more.
2. It keeps technology moving forward
Sure, there’s not much of a difference between generation six and generation eight as far as most of our technology goes, but there’s a pretty sizeable gap between, say, four and ten. The incremental changes in processing power, features, and software add up, and those small steps are possible because there’s a market for them. Someone out there is at the end of their technology’s lifespan and is looking for the next best thing, which may actually be a big upgrade if they had their last product for a few years. Short product cycles basically translate to faster technological progress.
3. It’s the circle of life
At our current rate of technological progress, you don’t want to be using the same machine for ten years (even the above Bell advertisement promoting ultra-durable phones agrees). It’ll be pitifully underpowered, things won’t run on it, and it might not get security updates anymore. That’s not because money-grubbing corporations designed your machine to fail; it’s because technology in general got better while yours stayed the same. It just doesn’t make sense to make more expensive, capital-intensive technology when it’ll be irrelevant in about the same amount of time anyway. We may actually be using fewer resources.
Planning for a less obsolescent future
They don’t make them like they used to, but they also probably don’t make them like they will in the future. As much as our system seems to depend on a constant stream of innovation and upgrades, it does lead to a lot of waste, and there could arguably be a better way.
One idea that’s slowly gaining ground is modularity: what if we could buy a phone with upgradeable hardware? Several, like the FairPhone and the Moto Z, allow you to swap out components if you want extra power or functionality. The FairPhone, in particular, lets you replace pretty much whatever you want, from the battery to the circuit boards. They also source their materials as ethically as possible and promote recycling.
This isn’t a catch-all solution, but a relentless process of innovation and upgrading seems like the way the future is going to play out, and short, throwaway product cycles, while arguably not as bad as they’re made out to be, aren’t a very sustainable path.