Thoughts On Planned Obsolescence

With the arrival of the iPhone 5 came a lot of praise and a lot frustrations. A lot of those frustrations were directed at the new Lightning connector. The fact that pre-iPhone 5 peripherals would no longer work with the latest generation of Apple’s devices without an adaptor revived the debate on planned obsolescence.

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

First, we need to differentiate obsolescence from planned obsolescence. While obsolescence is “the state of being which occurs when an object, service or practice is no longer wanted even though it may still be in good working order”, planned obsolescence is “is a policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life”. Obsolescence happens. It is normal. Disruptive innovations, by definition, will render many products obsolete. But planned obsolescence is a strategy where a business makes a deliberate attempt at reducing the life of a product or a service by making it obsolete before time. We’ve all heard that the life cycle of appliances has greatly been reduced in the last decades because of this planned obsolescence.

It Is Not Only Functional

In fact, there are many ways a product or service can become obsolete. Functional obsolescence being well-know, it is, however, not the only kind of obsolescence.

  • Functional obsolescence: a product wears out. The classic example is the appliance wearing out after 5 years when it is expected to last more than 10 years. Usually, planned obsolescence here takes the form of high repair costs compared to a lower replacement cost. In the cellphone industry, difficult to change batteries can be another example. In this case, the cost of upgrading the phone is usually inferior to the cost of having the battery replaced.
  • Style obsolescence: a product is no longer desired. Clothes are a very good example. Last year garments are made to be replaced next year. The iPhone would be too. While there is a performance and technology improvement from one version to the other (let’s say, from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5), there is also a very strong “fashion” effect, where customers might feel some kind of social pressure if they do not upgrade to the latest version.
  • Systemic obsolescence: a product’s use becomes difficult because its system has been altered. Software upgrades are often available, however they may break compatibility with other software. This makes the old software unusable and it must now be replaced with a newer version. This can be the case with operating system upgrades (peripherals or software not compatible with Microsoft’s Windows 8, for example).

And there are many more.

The Impact On Perceived Quality

Product quality, from a marketing perspective, can be a powerful differentiator. There are many dimensions to quality, and quality is not only about the components and the material used, it is also a lot about perceptions. If a customer expects a smartphone to last 3 to 4 years before becoming unusable and is forced, for some reason, to replace it only after 1 year, there are good chances the customer will perceive the smartphone as a “low-quality” product. On the other hand, if the smartphone is still usable after 5 years, maybe it will be perceived as a “high-quality” product.

In The Long Run

Planned obsolescence is a profitable strategy for boosting short-term sales. However, this is a very risky strategy. If the products and the company are perceived as “cheap”, this can have a very negative impact on the business and its relation to the market. Consumer resistance may set in. What if consumers start buying from the competition? Is switching worth the cost?

The Impact On The Environment

Obviously, pushing on obsolescence as a way to reduce the life cycle of products to increase demand can have very adverse effects on the environment. In an era where consumers can easily access information, where they care about how people and the planet are being treated and where they are more than ever aware that their purchasing behavior has a lot of weight, will business taking advantage with such strategies live long?

Sources and inspiration:

Picture by Michael Lorenzo

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