Is Planned Obsolescence A Thing Of The Past?

from the thanks-to-software-and-the-internet dept

For years, people have talked about the concept of planned obsolescence, where gadgets you buy are designed to basically wear out or need to be replaced, in an effort to get you to upgrade to the latest version. More recently, we noted that the continual advancement of new features meant that in some areas, people were upgrading even before the old devices hit that "obsolete" stage. Yet, it appears that planned obsolescence may be facing something of an unexpected challenge: easily updating old gadgets to have new features.

Thanks to the fact that many devices these days are connected to the internet in some manner and that many features are software, rather than hardware-dependent, it's possible for companies to continually upgrade "old" hardware, even at the risk of making you perfectly happy with that old hardware, instead of upgrading to the new hardware. Of course, smart companies recognize that this actually makes that old hardware more valuable, meaning that people are more willing to pay for it, knowing that it will be functional (and useful) for a longer period of time. It's unlikely that planned obsolescence is going anywhere soon, but it's nice to see some companies recognizing that people like things that not only last, but that get better with time.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Dan (profile), Aug 12th, 2008 @ 10:18pm

    Obsolescence is alive and well for now.

    Maybe once we reach the point of computer generated hyper-realistic graphics in portable videogames, planned obsolescence will be, well, obsolete. But as long as the hardware can improve, PO is still all too viable, even if a software update as easy as one, two, three. And Apple managed to prove that it still isn't that easy with they're clusterfuck of a 2.0 launch.

     

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  2.  
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    The Red Monkey, Aug 12th, 2008 @ 10:31pm

    Software updates FTW

    I have an HTC Touch on the Sprint Network and they stripped features off. Well several months ago I enabled the GPS, EVDO Rev A and loaded a programs for MMS messaging since none of those were available.

    With a nice phone you can upgrade before they "let" you. Now the official EVDO rev a and GPS rom is out so I loaded that but kept the MMS software. Its great. I still buy the newer stuff but I think when I grab a Touch Pro it will be with me for some time. The processors for the WinMo phones are not getting faster so what's the point of getting a new one?

    For laptops I just throw Linux on and I have a very capable desktop. One laptop I regularly use is a 500 mhz IBM 240x, which has a 10 inch screen and no optical drives. I think its crazy to keep throwing all of this stuff away, even if parts are recycled I am sick of them expecting hundreds of dollars a year for the newest.

    Apple is the worst for this. Every year if not sooner they add a feature to something. The iPhone 3G is a joke. My HTC Touch had those features a long time ago and its less stable than any WinMo device I have every owned.

     

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  3.  
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    cc, Aug 12th, 2008 @ 10:51pm

    instead

    we now have planned incompleteness. download "additional features" for $5 a piece. small downloads! only 1KB each.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 12th, 2008 @ 11:08pm

    Re: Software updates FTW

    part of the problem with hardware that old, is it cant support modern programs anymore (sounds like you know that, thought). but you dont have to upgrade every year, just everytime there is a new, rather large leap in the hardware, just to keep running your home systems.

    I have had my computer since 2005. i built it for around 1300 and its still kicking. i see no reason to upgrade it or build a new system until SSDs and quad core computing is the norm. and then wait for those prices to fall to reasonable levels

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous of Course, Aug 12th, 2008 @ 11:32pm

    Pay More?

    Sounds like a quality that could be difficult to
    sell to the majority of consumers. Though given
    two devices of approximately equal cost, with
    similar features and performance, I suppose it
    could be used to gain some marketing advantage.

    I didn't consider it when I purchased a digital
    camera a couple of years ago but I have downloaded
    new firmware for it several times and this did add
    some features and improve performance.

    The project I'm working on now uses a dsp pic and
    much of what was a jungle of analog stuff is now
    in firmware. This reduces cost and adds flexibility,
    which is good for the manufacturer but I don't think
    we could get a customer to pay more.

    More manufacturers are doing this because of the
    benefits they reap, so it becomes unremarkable.
    Coupled with a growing expectation that upgrades
    will be available, there's not much product
    differentiation to be had.

    Even so, it's a good trend. I'm loath to throw
    out stuff that still works. I'd rather upgrade
    than replace if possible.

     

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  6.  
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    Alen (profile), Aug 13th, 2008 @ 12:02am

    no, it's still there

    Planed obsolecense is still there in the background. It's just that by leaving out features (@CC planned incompleteness, I like it!) they can engineer a shorter replacement cycle. - there's a limit to how unreliable you can make something before people stop buying from you.

    But all sorts of people are happy to replace a year old phone because the new model supports "3G", even if you still cant change the battery, the case is prone to developing cracks and the 3G chipset under delivers.

     

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  7.  
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    Da_ALC, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 1:30am

    I have been talking allot about this recently, but not in the sense of items becoming obsolete, but services.
    Cable based phone companies should be obsolete in the UK.
    Electricity companies should be obsolete;
    http://www.genepax.co.jp/en/
    and
    http://www.hytechapps.com/aquygen/generator

    With that, petrol/diesel motor cars should be obsolete.

    My doctor should be obsolete.

     

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    c9mcguyver, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 3:26am

    Though I doubt it made as big an impact that Samsung had hoped, their P2 pmp device made big noise about firmware updates.

    They called the system Bluewave where every couple of months, they would release a firmware update containing new features for the touchscreen media player. The first added bluetooth pairing for mobile phones, the second added some games and changed some functionality in the video and music play, the third added Radio recording and made some further minor enhancements and the fourth added the ability to use customised themes and voice recording.

    Now, there is a question whether the device was rushed to market before it was fully ready as there was no reason why most of the functions couldn't have been added in the first place. For example, the microphone on the device was effectively useless until the 1st Bluewave and even then voice recording was only added in the 4th.

    However, the promise of future updates (for free) increased the value of the device, especially when most buyers(including myself) were actually extremely satisfied with the performance of the basic functions of the player - ie watching videos and listening to music.

     

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  9.  
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    hegemon13, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 4:51am

    Definately changing

    For the casual computer user, meaning those who are not gamers, programmers, graphic designers, or other power users, computers have far surpassed the point of diminishing returns. If the purpose of the the computer is to fetch email, browse the internet, and create documents, there is no difference in user experience between a six-year-old, 1GHZ machine with a 40GB hard drive and a brand-new, quad-core machine with a 1TB hard drive. Both systems will do what is needed and do it well.

    I am what would be considered a power user, but I am not a gamer, and nothing I do requires lots of graphic processing power. I use a desktop that is five years old, and the only reason I have to upgrade is tat video encoding would go faster on a new system. Since I generally start an encoding before I go to bed, and it is done by morning, even that is not a compelling reason.

    The fact is, obsolescence depends on usage. For a gamer, obsolescence will continue to be a factor for the foreseeable future. For the average home user? I think it is already a thing of the past. Computer sales are driven more by poor quality hardware that breaks down and spyware infestations that an owner mistakenly thinks is the computer "getting slow because it's old.

     

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  10.  
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    Ajax 4Hire, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 5:23am

    One word: HP11c

    Anyone who has used the HP11c moved up a level in calculator operation. Legend in its time, revel in design, not the first or most powerful but easily the best.

    HP obsoleted this jewel.
    To better understand its value just look to eBay under calculators - HP11c.

    My personal HP11c finally gave up the ghost 3-years ago.
    Still waiting for a good replacement, I have bought others but none (even the ones from HP) are as good.

    Imagine 1980s technology that is -better- than today's techno-wow-flash designs.

    Change is not always good.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 6:57am

    Come on . . . really?

    I find it ironic that this question would be posed so soon after the "3g iPhone" was shipped . . . LOL

     

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  12.  
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    Yakko Warner, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 9:12am

    Re: Obsolescence is alive and well for now.

    But is that "planned obsolescence"?

    It seems the post is confusing PO with genuine advances in technology. If innovation in battery technology comes up with, say, a cell phone battery that can go an entire month without charging, and then they figure out how to mass-produce it, does that mean they *planned* on current batteries to be obsolete?

    Further, PO, strictly speaking, suggests devices *must* be upgraded and *will* not work unless you do. The linked article talks about newer iPods getting bigger hard drives and more storage. Well, sure. Newer models are going to have better features. That's innovation. That's progress. That's not PO. PO would be if, with each upgrade, iTunes refuses to transfer songs to older devices; yet as far as I know, even first-generation iPods still play MP3s...

    Companies have apparently gotten very good at making consumers think they need the absolute latest feature, or else they're worthless and out-of-date.

    Coming this fall: The iPhone 3G v2, only $500 more than the 3G v1, but with integrated app that displays a ruby red gem on your screen!

    I don't doubt that some companies do hold features back, or release a product early with a "we'll fix it later and you can buy the fix then" plan. It just seems like this article makes the assertion that *all* upgrades should be "backwards-compatible", and if they're not, well, the companies just planned it that way so they could get your money.

     

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  13.  
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    DS, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 9:18am

    Why plan obsolesce when you can charge a monthly fee? Nobody seems to mind monthly fees.

     

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  14.  
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    another mike, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 1:32pm

    Re: Re: Obsolescence is alive and well for now.

    planned obsolescence is defined by the old joke about the timer hidden in the clothes dryer that makes it break the day after the warranty runs out.

     

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  15.  
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    Rekrul, Aug 13th, 2008 @ 5:45pm

    Planned obsolescence in software is alive and well. For a perfect example, look no farther than Micro$oft Vista. Millions of people are perfectly happy with XP, but M$ says "No, XP is too old, you need a new OS."

     

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  16.  
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    Seth Brundle, Aug 15th, 2008 @ 7:44am

    Apple is the gold standard in planned obselecence

    How can you say its obselete?

    This is the cornerstone of Apple's marketing strategy.

    Apple does not sell a single computer under $1000 that is user-upgradable - the locked-down, inexcusably overpriced Mac Mini.

    In iPods, iPhones, and the MacBook Air, Apple has made sure the batteries are not user-replacable so that when they lose their juice after a year or two, users need to come into a store - with the hopes of upselling them instead.

     

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  17.  
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    Michael, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 11:08am

    Fix for planned obsolescence in computers

    When computers break, people just buy a new one. They believe it just broke. I believe it was designed to break. In fact this fix proves it.

    Use it or keep buying new at the interval the industry wants you to keep up with. If you keep buying new, you keep sending money to China.

     

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  18.  
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    Thomas Bailey, May 18th, 2009 @ 3:21pm

    We did not always have fragile things

    I have read about organs that are over 500 years old in excellent condition. San Francisco's cable cars are now about 120 years old and still running. The F-line streetcars are 60 years old and in active service. There are cathedrals in Europe well past the 500-year mark that show little sign of aging. Some are nearing the 1000-year mark and usable. I had a (then) 30-year-old bike which I enjoyed riding until it got stolen, and have cooked on a 50+ year-old gas stove. In its last 4-5 years, it needed a barbecue lighter or match to get started. I have read about a 70-year-old radio and a 50-year-old TV that still work.

     

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