Apple did not invent Planned Obsolescence. It just got great at it.

Apple ObsolescenceI just love this iPhone I bought three years ago”… said no one ever.

Any Apple user knows that there is no way to keep an iPhone or iPad for more than 2 or 3 years and still be happy about it. If you’ve ever bought an iPhone or iPad you know how it goes: you buy the new product, you fell in love with it (it works just great, it looks awesome and everybody wants to see or touch it) and before you know it someone at Apple unveils the new version.

The new version is never something revolutionary. It’s usually just  “innovative”.It does have some small, incremental upgrades, just enough to call it a “new” product, but there is no actual need to switch over, unless you are one of Apple’s executives. However, next thing you know you start loosing your signal, apps crash, and you’re not feeling so good about your once loved device. But nothing changed. It’s the same device, it has the same specs but all of a sudden – it’s not good enough.

So you go and buy the new one (it’s never cheap) and you feel this is the device you are going to pass on to your children. Buuut… Apple decides to launch another next year and it’s back to the Apple Store.

Well – there is a reason for this cycle to happen. The reason is profit. In order to keep the cash coming Apple, and any other large company for that matter, needs to keep its customers coming back to buy more.  There is no stopping the money-making machines. Profits need to keep coming, people need to keep buying. Otherwise we stumble upon recessions.

Actually, that’s how the term “Planned Obsolescence” got coined. Mr. Bernard London wrote “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence” in 1932 as a method to stop the chaos resulted from overproduction and surpluses. He stated that the Government should impose a certain Planned Obsolescence on products, so customers would keep coming back and buy more, therefore restarting the economy.

The Phoebus Cartel

Although the theory was not the smartest and most popular thing written in that period it was one of the ideas floating in the mainstream. Such an idea was pretty good for a bunch of companies to form the Phoebus Cartel in 1924.

Some of the companies that formed the Phoebus Cartel you probably have heard of: Phillips, Tungsram, Osram, General Electric. What did “Team Light Bulb” stood for? You guessed it. Profits. The companies agreed, among others, to impose  an 1000 hrs lifetime threshold on all light bulbs sold. Those that allowed their light bulbs to run for more than 1000 hrs were fined by the corporation controlling the cartel.

You may recognize this as what we now call “Planned Obsolescence”. Yes, the concept has been incorporated 89 years ago.

Good thing  the Government stepped in and saved the world. Oh wait… it didn’t. The Cartel’s operations were only stopped when WWI started.

Planned Obsolescence makes its cross-industry debut in 1954…

… when industrial designer Brooks Stevens used the term to show that people want the “new thing”, whether it is a newly designed car, or the latest TV. He showed that companies can and should integrate, first and foremost, stylistic upgrades to their products in order to keep their clients coming back to the store and buying more.

You should note that planned obsolescence comes in many forms but the most popular and cost effective is style obsolescence. You can see this in the automotive industry (where companies redefine their stylistic approach every 3-5 years), the fashion industry (yearly cycles of stylistic obsolescence) or the IT industry where Apple seems to be the undisputed champion.

Apple is not the only company using planned obsolescence to sell more. It’s just the best at it.

the iphones
The differences are, of course, startling. Source: PC MAG

All companies that look forward to survival and profit need to have some kind of obsolescence built into their products. The alternative, in the present economic system, is the company’s demise.

Apple understood this early on when Steve Jobs came back to the company with a vision for the connected ecosystem. He thought of a network of devices that would serve the customer’s every day needs for information and connectivity.

With the Apple connected home all of the products work seamlessly with one another. Once the customer has bought the iPod, he will buy the iPhone, than the iPad, than the Macbook. And that is just the hardware. There is an army of developers that use the AppStore to offer the newest apps. iTunes brings the world’s library of music and movies closer. As a result, in time, the customer gets locked-in and has little or no option to move his data or purchase options to the competition.

This was the big innovation Apple brought to planned obsolescence. It usually works within monopolies or at least oligopolies. You need to have very little or no competition to make sure the customers don’t just switch sides when you force them to upgrade their products. Apple has managed to bypass this: it’s not a monopoly, it’s just a monopoly for it’s own customers.

One more thing: Can the world handle planned obsolescence?

There are many reasons this practice isn’t helping anyone in the long run. First off –  it leaves customers/people ever dissatisfied and unhappy. There is now settling for a certain product, and there is no lasting pride or meaning in acquiring so much (in time) useless objects.

Secondly – the environment can’t handle so much waste. Even though some countries have started regulating the disposal of old electronics and home appliances we are a long way from a real solution for the waste our consuming habits leave behind. We keep buying, losing interest and throwing away our old products. We are still decades away from product cycles that plan recycling and reusing as part of the product’s life cycle.

Last but not least we cannot afford to buy so much products. Planned obsolescence is a direct cause of consumer habits we cannot afford. Credit has left present and probably future generations in debt yet most companies still think they can thrive on this fake growth. But for how long?

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