When I was a kid, I remember my parents complaining when something broke down that it was “all planned”, i.e. there was such a thing as “planned obsolescence” in that devices were given a predetermined life-span and when their time was up, well, their time was up. Based on what I saw growing up, I’m not so sure the companies were that good at planning obsolescence since most things my parents owned went on almost forever…their first fridge lasted 35 years, the washing machine about the same, and the first B&W TV bought in the early ’50’s had to be thrown out when color arrived, even though it was still working quite well after 20 years.
Movements such as “Total Quality”, Six Sigma, and Kaizen, all served to dramatically improve product quality over the years. I remember a time in the ’70’s when buying a car that was a “lemon” was a very real possibility, if not a probability. Frankly, one doesn’t hear much about lemons anymore, and I would bet my 2008 Toyota Yaris is a far better car than my 1979 Corolla….or frankly, most cars I owned in the years between 1972-1990.
So what is a manufacturer to do when his products (and his competitors’) are increasingly better built and longer lasting? Three things:
1. Build in technological obsolescence, whereby the “software” no longer supports the hardware. A case in point, I wanted to pass on my 6 year-old laptop to my 85 year-old Mother-in-law who only uses it for email, Word, photo viewing, and web-surfing. The device is in pristine condition and works like new, especially after doing a full system-recovery back to original factory settings. However, upgrading the software to something that could support current programs and external devices (printer, scanner, etc.) was a nightmare. Many a time I said to myself, “just dump it and get her a new one…after all they’re so cheap today”. I finally managed to get it all done but it took a solid day of work (which if I looked at it from a productivity standpoint, probably would have been cheaper to buy a new one!). But I also know, that very soon, the existing software platform (Windows XP) will probably no longer be supported by Microsoft and the machine won’t be able to work with newer devices or programs. Eventually it will be thrown away, despite being in good working order.
2. Build in style obsolescence. No sooner do you buy the latest and greatest, before the next model comes out looking totally different, and with dozens of supposed “improvements”…usually in things few people would use. Advertising conveys the very perverse subliminal message that you must have been some sort of fool to buy that model, and that the new one is so much better and “hipper”. I bought a new iPod Video two years ago when it first came out. But now there is the iPod Touch to tempt me with a sleeker, sexier, interface. This of course is a double-edged sword because manufacturers know that a substantial segment of the population will develop a “wait and see” attitude, hoping to catch just the right model at the right time. This time, of course, never comes, because the “newer” version is always waiting in the aisles.
3. Have the machine tell the customer when it’s time to replace or maintain it. Very perverse! Most of us are used to this from automobile “maintenance” schedules. Six thousand kilometers? Time to bring the new car in for “service”….$200 to change the oil and do the “inspection”. The indicator-strip on my son’s Fusion razor cartridge just turned white…oops, time to change the cartridge…even if it still shaves well. The battery on my 2 month-old Oral-B Pulsar just died? Too bad…throw it out, even though the bristles look like new..after all, how could I brush my teeth without a vibrating toothbrush?! Examples of this phenomenon abound. It no longer matters what condition your device is in, when its time has come, well it will let you know! What a scam!
The result of all this is product life-cycles that are measured in months not years. A terrific profit-generating machine that is no longer predicated on quality, durability, or even performance, but rather on a constant flow of consumption and disposal. No wonder the freaking landfills are overflowing and we are drowning in our own garbage and pollution.