The End of Planned Obsolescence?

You know that thing they have each year all of the companies who make consumer electronics get together for a convention to show off their stuff (and apple never comes because they have their own way of doing everything)? Well, it’s called the Consumer Electronics Show & it just happened. Here’s a quick list of 10 winners & losers from – the interesting news is that they think Lenovo has situated itself as a future electronic superpower.

I stumbled onto another interesting strand to the conversation at the CES 2012 via twitter. CES 2012 was trending, so I thought I’d bite. The conversation I was eavesdropping on was happening somewhere deep inside nerd-city, so I only understood a fraction of their language. However, it seems that there is a certain faction of Consumer Electronics experts who believe this year’s show signals a move toward the end of planned obsolescence.
Nothing is more annoying to the consumer than planned obsolescence. And for the Christian, it’s an important ethical issue. Planned Obsolescence is where manufacturers intentionally build gadgets with a limited use life. Sometimes this means gadgets are made so that they will break down within an appropriate time (not so fast people will feel ripped off, but fast enough to where they’ll run out and buy another gadget). Within the world of consumer electronics, they just make new generations that outperform old generations of the same product. It makes companies more money, to be sure. But it crowds the landfills with incredibly harmful and totally worthless electronic junk. Planned obsolescence is a bad deal for everyone over the long term. However, it is sacrosanct among consumer electronics firms; a necessary evil and huge part of the business plan. Yet, some companies might be waking up to the consumers growing distaste for it. Lance Ulanoff, who covered the show, wrote: 

“Samsung smart TVs will actually feature an upgrade slot, making them, in Samsung’s words “future proof”. It’s the closest thing to heresy I’ve ever heard at a CES press conference: Buy these new products and then keep them indefinitely, upgrading only the software with, essentially, bios updates. What happened to the idea that consumers would upgrade their CE products ever few years whether they wanted to or not? Clearly Samsung has discovered that consumers (who once kept the same TVs for two decades or more) are not so keen on dealing with HDTVs that expire or seem wildly outmoded after just a few years of use.”

Nothing would make me happier than if this were true. If you are looking for a TV over the next year or two – ethically speaking – I’d encourage you to look for the Samsung smart TV that is trying to be “future-proof.” You can read Ulanoff’s whole recap here

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  • Anonymous

    fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You should continue your writing. Im sure, youve a great readers base already!

  • Den

    Tim, I wish I could second what you're saying here, but I think it's an illusion.

    Let me illustrate what I mean. For the last fifteen or twenty years, a variety of computer companies have come out with designs that were intended to future-proof their PCs and notebooks. Virtually every one of those designs has failed to achieve what was intended. The reason is that the technology of the PC has been advancing fast enough that yesterday's future-proofed PC is not able to make use of today's hot new technology.

    Look at Compact Flash memory cards. They used to be the standard for removable solid state storage. Have you seen any recently? No, because they've all been replaced by SD, and now micro SD cards. There are 64 gigabyte micro SD cards available now, a capacity that is incredible when you consider the physical size of these things. Oh, there are 64 gigabyte Compact Flash cards as well, but they're not what everyone is using. They'll be around as a niche item for a while, but sooner or later they'll be unavailable for anyone but the most dedicated or special-purpose user.

    Until technology starts running up against some hard physical limitations, I don't see the trend line of tech advancement flattening out. And since consumer technology is all about faster, cheaper, smaller, better, that obsolescence will still be built-in to the tech products we buy. At least we can take some solace in knowing that it's coming in smaller packages, and that means less junk in tomorrow's landfills.

    Oh, and on the TV front, there are already Ultra HDTV technologies in the works, systems with sixteen (16!) times the pixels of our current HDTV sets. Your smart TV today would be swamped by that – no upgrade would handle that data stream. You'd need a new set – again.

  • Den – you could be right. Will it slow down at some point? Will instantaneously ever be fast enough? Will new advances be a matter of such small degrees that caring for the planet becomes more important?

  • Den

    Tim, there are some physical limits that will ultimately restrict what can be done with physical gadgets. In the meantime, it seems that devices are converging, so we need fewer gadgets to get things done. For instance, I used to have a cell phone, a PDA, a camera, and, perhaps, a pager. Now I have a smart phone, which also allows me to play games and do a variety of other things for which I never had an equivalent gadget. Convergence still feeds the obsolescence trend, but we now have fewer things to replace in any given period. Another thing that may reduce replacement of our technology is a re-discovery or re-balancing of our online lives versus our analog (offline) lives. I see more and more articles on how to get control of your digital lifestyle, recommending things like answering email only at certain times of the day, turning your phone off at night when you sleep, etc. I don't see obsolescence disappearing, but it does seem to be waning, for a variety of reasons.