Planned obsolescence or built in obsolescence is when a product is designed to fail or lose its value at a defined point in time. Manufacturers have used this principle to maintain ongoing sales because as appliances or products break, consumers need to replace them. This has always been received with scorn by consumers as they have felt used and sometimes deceived by the quality, or lack thereof, of a product. Yet, I have been haunted by a Sony 32” CRT TV that refused to malfunction. Purchased nearly 14 years ago this monstrosity sat in my bedroom as a functioning relic that I could not dispose of it. After all, it was serving its basic purpose and upgrading it to a new flat screen anything would not have improved upon that purpose. So, for years, I listened with envy as others added 42”, 50”, even 60” TVs to their bedrooms to enjoy widescreen HD video. I patiently, albeit not quietly, waited for my TV to fail. Finally, that day arrived and after soliciting assistance to move the behemoth to the curb for recycling, I sped to the nearest electronics store to purchase the latest and greatest technology in the space.
Oddly, it appears that my approach to this problem is not the shared by very many people. According to Rob Walker, the author of “Buying In”, a growing number of consumers are wishing their gadgets would die and are not waiting for the event. Consider the number of people that purchased the initial iPhone only to quickly go out and purchase the next version as soon as it became available. In Rob’s article he points out that according to J.D. Power and Associates, the typical American gets a new cell phone every 18 months to enjoy the next increase in function or technology addition. Consider that Apple introduces its devices with obvious shortcomings only to address some of them in its next release maintaining a steady stream of returning buyers who have functioning devices.
Clearly, this death wish for devices does not extend to all things. We do not necessarily want our cars, dishwashers and major appliances to fail within 18 months. But technologies that are related to the Internet and IP Communications tend to be in the category of “desired obsolescence” or where product obsolescence is a demand-side phenomenon.
Consider what occurs if this translates to the business world. It would represent the end of the traditional three to five year lease. The requirement for technology guarantees and upgrades would be included in every equipment contract. While I have seen a few leasing arrangement attempting to manage technology obsolescence, the time horizon has not addressed an 18 month window. The trend towards desired obsolescence can best be supported by fully managed services and hosted offerings for businesses, and for consumers perhaps buyback programs such as Best Buy’s will proliferate.
Interestingly, Peter Lang, a former Adviser to the Green Deputy Mayor of London, presents a view that manufacturers should be encouraged to make products that last longer, retain their retail value and are more readily recyclable. He suggests that green initiatives will only be achieved by promoting growth in high-quality goods and the phasing out of "shoddy" products. Of course, I think he is really addressing hard or durable goods because if he has an original iPad or an 8800 Blackberry, he would be anxiously awaiting the chance to upgrade.
See you on Monday with a new recipe and the end of the PSTN.