An Obsolete Business
by Karina Le | published Feb. 8th, 2021
Recently, I had to replace my iPhone despite the fact that it was only a year old. It was stuck in something called a ‘bootloop,’ where the phone kept restarting over and over. I took it to all the Apple-related stores I could find, and they only said one thing: we can’t do anything for you, it’s time to replace it.
These conversations made me confused. My iPhone was, in reality, perfectly fine. The problem was that the solution to my issue was primarily a hardware one and required opening the phone itself up. However, when I took it to third-party technicians, they also told me there was nothing they could do. Apple had made their phones so that even third parties wouldn't be able to fix their products.
What Is Planned Obsolescence?
Alan Reddig, an adjunct professor in RIT's Industrial Design program, explained the history of the practice of planned obsolescence.
“It’s a practice of making a product ‘obsolete’ for other than practical purposes,” Reddig explained.
“It’s a practice of making a product ‘obsolete’ for other than practical purposes.”
To put it simply, some companies design their products, so that at one point during its lifetime, there will be a pressing need to replace it. Some companies may actively make products with short lifespans. You can see this not only in phones but in cars and appliances too.
Alex Lobos is another professor of Industrial Design who was also able to weigh in on the topic.
“The goal is consumers will replace their old goods with new ones and generate new revenue,” Lobos explained.
The practice of planned obsolescence is a bit murky. Reddig noted that though the term didn't begin circulating until the 1950s, the idea itself has been in action since as early as the 1920s.
The pivotal point where manufacturers really started using the practice was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Lobos added.
Car manufacturers were concerned that they were reaching ‘saturation’ — the point where they couldn’t do anything to improve on cars with the technology they had.
So General Motors decided on a new strategy: they would start to release new car models each year. But the catch was that everything internally was about the same, while the car’s style and finish was different. This strategy became the beginning of planned obsolescence.
“It’s ironic since [planned obsolescence] initially sounded sustainable,” Lobos said. “But now it’s become more of a marketing strategy.”
Why Do Companies Utilize Planned Obsolescence?
Thomas Hall, a fifth year Computer Science student, answered this concisely.
“To put simply, it’s money,” Hall said.
Tech companies, for instance, utilize planned obsolescence as a means to sell newer products. Apple is one company that is infamous for its use of planned obsolescence.
“There’s a number of strategies to planned obsolescence. One is to reduce the quality of the product so it’s more likely to break down ... or to limit the performance of products. It’s a common strategy with Apple,” Lobos explained.
At times, planned obsolescence in action can cause a disruption in consumers’ daily lives, and legal action is taken against companies.
"Phones break, it happens ... But companies are actively working against people's ability to use this [product] that they paid for and that they own," Hall said.
Take the lawsuit against Apple that happened in March 2020. Apple had to pay up to $500 million in settlements for “quietly slowing down older iPhones” to make people buy newer models. Though they denied the purpose put forward in the lawsuit — that they slowed down older models to get people to buy new ones — it’s undeniable that the direct consequence of what they did led to people ultimately buying another expensive phone.
Planned obsolescence is also popular among other big tech companies, and even with the settlement, it is extremely likely that Apple will continue their practices.
“It’s a proven strategy that [companies] use,” Reddig said. “They can and they do come out with new products that people will buy, simply because [consumers] want to be with the leading edge of technology.”
Does It Benefit the Consumer?
Depending on how one looks at the situation, possibly. For some people, they naturally have a craving for newer models and potentially newer technology. It continually sets a standard that, to be with the times, you constantly have to upgrade.
“It works both ways ... naturally, people have the urge to get something new, and you’ll always have the choice,” Lobos stated.
“It works both ways ... naturally, people have the urge to get something new, and you’ll always have the choice."
However, for some people, they find the practice incredulous. Right-to-Repair advocates stand by the idea that they have the right to try and fix their items, regardless of the company they received it from.
The Right-to-Repair community believes that companies are obligated to have parts, tools and information about their products available to the consumer populace from the get-go. This will allow repair shops to be able to fix devices and allow consumers to keep their products even when their items are damaged.
“I believe an individual has a right to get what they paid for fixed whenever they want or improve it in the potential ways you want,” Hall said.
Ultimately, even if there is a choice given to the consumer, there is still something about forcing consumers to replace their products. Even with older products, companies like Apple could still find ways to continue their services, just like Kodak did with its older film reels.
In the wake of Apple's use of planned obsolescence, other companies have tried to provide alternative products. Take Fairphone, for instance. Fairphone is a brand of mobile cellphones that are specifically designed to be easier to repair. They are also made of greener materials than commercial cellphones, in their goal to provide a 'fairer' product.
“I think there is absolutely no reason companies like Apple could not release patches to their operating systems that would allow older stuff to work ... but I guess I’m old school,” Reddig concluded.