If you ever had the feeling that products don’t last as long as they used to, you might be right.
It turns out that in order to keep consumers buying products year after year, some companies are actually deliberately reducing the quality of their products.
In some especially nefarious situations, these companies may be updating their products through software even after you bought them, in order to make the performance worse.
This is what is known as planned obsolescence.
It is where a manufacturer deliberately designs and manufactures their product in such a way that it will only work as it did initially for a limited (sometimes predetermined) amount of time, or order to encourage (or force) the consumer to purchase replacements again in the future.
Now normally we would expect that in an open market, innovation and competition between companies would work to continuously improve the quality of their products, resulting in a better selection for consumers.
But in some cases, monopolies which dominate an industry may in fact conspire together to deliberately make the experience worse for consumers, but more profitable for themselves.
Check out the video at the top of this article for some amazing insights into how this happened in the very symbol of innovation for many people: The lightbulb industry.
The first electric lightbulb was invented in 1835, but it was not until 1879 that Thomas Edison’s patents and electricity grids led to the wide adoption of electric lights. During this time, new materials for the glass, filament and gases in the bulb were leading to constantly improving quality of bulbs, based on how long they lasted before the burned out and needed to be replaced.
However, by the early 20th century, this constant innovation was leading to a problem, where the bulbs were becoming so good that people needed to replace them less and less frequently. Even though the number of people using electric lighting was increasing as cities grew and the rural countryside became electrified, the 1920s actually saw a decline in sales of lightbulbs for some manufacturers year on year, since the bulbs from the previous year were still working.
As a result, in December 1924 business leaders from some of the world’s largest lighbulb manufacturers met in secret in Geneva and agreed to change their research and manufacturing processes in order to decrease the lifespan of their products in the coming years.
These companies called themselves the Phoebus cartel, named after Apollo, the Greek god of Light.
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers:
Over the course of nearly a decade, the cartel succeeded in this quest. The average life of a standard reference lightbulb produced in dozens of Phoebus members’ factories dropped by a third between 1926 and fiscal year 1933–34, from 1,800 hours to just 1,205 hours. At that point, no factory was producing bulbs lasting more than 1,500 hours.
Rarely has there ever been an example so clear where companies across an entire industry would conspire against their customers, right?
Well it still happens all of the time with electronics nowadays.
Recently, Apple was sued after it was shown they used a software update to slow down older models of their iPhone. Apple claimed it was to preserve battery life (where they had previously gotten in trouble for designing the iPods warranty to run out almost exactly before the battery began losing its charge), but settled for $113 million instead.
Another example was tractor maker John Deere lobbied the California government to only allow repairs through the manufacturer’s dealer network, trying to prevent owners from repairing their own machines themselves.
And even fashion houses try to create planned obsolescence in their clothes by promoting new “seasons” of clothes every few months (or now, even weeks), and making people feel like their existing clothes should not be worn anymore.
Yes, planned obsolescence might be in the financial interest of a company.
But it completely goes against delivering the best, most innovative and highest quality version of a product for their consumers.
And in many cases, those consumers are now demanding the ability to repair their items, and keep control of how long they should last.
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This article clearly shows the conditions under which planned obsolescence can appear: a main product value based on novelty (passing fad), an agreement between competitors or the creation of a monopoly situation.
Let us also think that during the design phases in industry, endurance tests are carried out to verify that the product lifetime will be acceptable for the consumer (years of use) and for the industrialist (period warranty, brand image).
This minimum depends on the quality rules of the company. Thus the minimum lifetime will generally depend on the brand (low cost or high-end) and is based on a typical daily usage rate (cycles) adopted for the type of product (ex: 1 hour 2 times a day every day)
Until the endurance tests prove that the service life will be reached, the product must be improved or else it will not be marketed.
In 25 years in the consumer industry, I have never personally seen a product be deliberately degraded to limit its lifetime.
On the other hand, it often happened that the design teams scrambled to improve the product so that it exceeded the minimum required lifetime.
As far as I know in industry the concern is the minimum service life, not the maximum.
Ever own a GM?
Another problem for customers is where companies deliberately take on too much work. It’s better to get lots of money coming in and lose a few unhappy customers along the way than have less customers than you need. I paid up front for some printing and they are sitting on the job, presumably because they are too busy and/or have more important clients that come first. Maybe this is worth a blog post?