Built-in obsolence

Not enough consumers know about built-in obsolescence, which would inform their shopping habits.  Built-in obsolescence is the deliberate limiting and shortening the useful life of products.

The latest example is Apple’s confirmation that it deliberately slows down some models of its iPhone as they age.  It explains and justifies doing so in order to match the diminishing performance of the phone’s battery.  It does not help its explanation that Apple has stumbled twice in one month.

Built-in obsolescence has a long history, and was popularised in the American car industry.  It became known as planned obsolescence and means that manufacturers deliberately and artificially limit a product’s useful life, so that it will become obsolete (either unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time.

When I was young in the 1960s, Britain prided itself in ‘building things to last’, whereas the Americans built cars to last only for a few years.  The American attitude prevailed because fashion and consumerism took hold of the popular mind.  Its aim is to make more money for business, to make ‘the economy go round’ and in the process to please consumers.

Consumerism is the addiction to continue buying products to brighten up one’s dull life.  It contrasts with Christian teaching: ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ 1Tim 6:6; ‘for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’ Php 4:11, ‘having food and raiment let us be therewith content’ 1Tim 6:8 and ‘let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have: for God has said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ Heb 13:5.

The love of fashion allowed the promotion of the fashion element of obsolescence.  However, the computer age helped to move the topic from unfashionable obsolescence to functional obsolescence.  People became familiar with software programmes and ‘drivers’ needing to be upgraded to fix problems; it was no longer simply fashionable to upgrade but also it was necessary to do so.  In this milieu, it was easy to build-in functional obsolescence in addition to unfashionable obsolescence.

Many people have discovered that their computers became slower and slower when they become bloated with larger and larger computer programmes.  Unwary consumers have experienced the growing bloatedness of Windows technology, gave up and bought a new computer.

When buying a new product and assessing its worth, a consumer has to ask how long it will last before it needs to be upgraded.  This is now so common that many do not buy a mobile phone but take out a contract that allows them to automatically upgrade their mobile phone.  The concept of continual upgrading is now fixed in the public mind.

The populariser of ‘planned obsolescence’ described its use as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”  It corresponds with social media consuming more and more of one’s time.

Light bulbs and batteries fail easily and it is difficult to prove built-in obsolescence, but some early light bulbs were built to fail and anyone can test the claims that rechargeable batteries have a capability of being recharged hundreds of times, and will discover for themselves how woefully untruthful are these claims.

This complaint and blogpost should not be confused with neo-Luddism.  Rather, one has to acknowledge the surprising and even wonderful advances in engineering and design which are truly advantageous.  However, real and true advances disparage and disgrace those businesses involved in artificial and planned obsolescence.

2 thoughts on “Built-in obsolence

  1. With modern electronics it is a very important design parameter as to how long the item should last for, because components have their reliable lifetime. Longer lifetime components are much much more expensive to design and manufacture, and then once the item is more expensive you then need to spend even more making it repairable and upgradable (lest a single component breaking writes off the whole more expensive device). Often then the economics shift for the consumer in favour of something more limited but vastly cheaper.

    “The tradeoff between these two selections is that the Al e-caps will cost about $10 total but have a rated lifespan of 10,000 hours, while the film capacitors will cost about $120 total but have a rated lifespan of 60,000 hours.
    If we need this battery charger to last at least four years, it appears that we will have to select the far more expensive option.”

    Also with the current pace of technological progress if the cost of upgrading in 2 years is noticeably less than the ROI from the extra incremental improvements, then there’s little value to making devices last longer if the consumer appetite is to upgrade anyway. This is especially the case in mobile phones.


    1. Donald

      Thanks James for this technological explanation, which is quite understandable. However, I think that built-in obsolescence is a deliberate shortening of the life of a product, not merely accepting the limitations of the product, with the aim of forcing the consumer to purchase a new product. The links I made seem to support this, but they also show that there is a debate on the subject.

      My blogpost is simply to draw attention to what many consumers do not know, far less consider, especially older ones of my generation’s mindset. Possibly the younger generation does not even think in terms of things ‘built to last’.


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