Technology Explained

Planned Obsolescence: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Bertel King 19-05-2016

Last month, Nest made quite a few people upset by announcing plans to brick their Revolv smart home hubs Facebook Helps Blind People See, Google Bricks Smart Home Devices... [Tech News Digest] Facebook describes News Feed photos, Google bricks Revolv smart home devices, play a 3D version of Zelda in your browser, stream The Beatles Anthology online, and get Chromecast working on an old television set. Read More . The company no longer wanted to support the product, so it decided to pull the plug for good.


Here’s a great example of the risk that exists in using products that rely on remote services provided by untested companies. But even those of us who have never bought anything from a startup can still find ourselves in this trap.

This trend is called planned obsolescence. You may not have heard that term before, but you’ve likely been affected by it at some point. The question we have to ask is, are we okay with this?

It Means “Purposely Built to Not Last”

Planned obsolescence is the process of making a product stop working or be significantly degraded after an amount of time. Instead of making a durable product, manufacturers may use cheap materials that won’t last long. Perfectly good devices may need replacing after a company stops updating older models.

This isn’t a new concept. Companies intentionally design everything — from automobiles to clothing — in a way that encourages or requires replacing often. Have you ever heard your parents complain that companies “just don’t make things like they used to”? This is part of the reason why.

The term dates back to the Great Depression, when real estate broker Bernard London suggested the government place artificial expiration dates on products to encourage more spending and revive the economy. Unfortunately what’s good for the economy isn’t always good for people or the planet.


It’s All About the Bottom Line

In a paper published in Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, Jeremy Bulow contends that monopolies produce products with short lifespans (and those that don’t prefer to rent rather than sell their products).

In a New York Times piece bemoaning the Apple iPhone’s short lifespan, Catherine Rampell wrote:

Economists have theories about market conditions that encourage planned obsolescence. A company has strong incentives to degrade product durability when it has a lot of market power and when consumers don’t have good substitute products to choose from.

In short, why make some money when you can make more? Unsurprisingly, planned obsolescence is all about profit.

Oligopolies — industries where a few companies control the entire market — aren’t much different. Some companies may increase durability to discourage new entries into the market, but this isn’t always the case. Wikipedia lists many ways that oligopolies discourage new competitors.


Its Impact on Tech Products & Services

Enough with the economics. How does this actually look in practice?

Think of the laptops you’ve bought over your lifetime, which probably use different power adapters. Is there a functional reason for this? In most cases, no. Most of them provide the same amount of power. Manufacturers do it just to make you buy new cables — and you have no choice but to comply.

Think of software like Microsoft Office. If you’re still running the version you bought in the 1990s, you likely can’t open modern file formats. Microsoft chose to stop supporting that release in order to push newer versions. Instead of getting free updates, you have no choice but to buy the latest version.

You may prefer to use traditional applications, but that choice isn’t as easy as it sounds. Picasa did a great job managing people’s photos for over a decade… and then Google stopped developing the program Picasa Is Going Away: 5 Reasons You Should Be Disappointed Picasa will be discontinued on 15th March, and there are good reasons to be disappointed that its long run is ending. Here are five reasons why you should be upset. Read More in order to focus on Google Photos instead.


This change affects smartphones more than our computers. Most carriers still sell phones on two-year contracts, and even when they don’t, they only offer two years of support for most phones. Major OS updates tend to come on a yearly basis so that customers have a reason to keep upgrading.

Each release introduces changes that can break compatibility with older apps. And even in those cases where the actual software holds up just fine, we still have to replace the devices anyway due to outdated hardware or irreplaceable batteries that won’t hold a charge anymore.

Seeing the money consumers have poured into the smartphone market, other industries are starting to follow suit.

We have Android Wear smartwatches that aren’t useful once they stop receiving updates. Nest makes thermostats and smoke alarms that are useless if the company’s services stop running. Amazon makes a black voice-controlled cylinder that requires Amazon’s servers to work properly Alexa, How Does Siri Work? Voice Control Explained The world is moving towards voice commands for everything, but how exactly does voice control work? Why is it so glitchy and restricted? Here's what you need to know as a layman user. Read More .


Unlike old TVs, smart TVs have interfaces that slow down and become obsolete 4 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy a Smart TV What is a smart TV and should you buy one? Here's a detailed look at the biggest drawbacks of modern smart TVs. Read More once their support life reaches an end. Android has made its way into fridges, washing machines, printers — and with Android Auto and CarPlay, it’s even making its way into cars.

Like Revolv, SmartThings and Insteon make hubs that can control many aspects of your home Which Smart Hub for Home Automation Is Best for You? For a while, people thought of the idea as nothing more than a gimmick, but recent product releases have shown that smart home automation is starting to live up to its promises. Read More . Some of these products will keep working if the companies go under, but others will turn into overpriced plastic. Fitbit and Jawbone make activity trackers that will be useless if the companies ever go out of business.

All of this pushes us even deeper down the cycle of continuous consumption and waste Thou Shalt Consume: The Story of Consumer Electronics [Feature] Every year, exhibitions around the world present new high tech devices; expensive toys that come with many promises. They aim to make our lives easier, more fun, super connected, and of course they are status... Read More .

Is All of This Truly a Problem?

Yes, and no. Addison Del Mastro, writing for the Property and Environment Research Center in 2012, distinguishes between good and bad planned obsolescence.

If a product won’t last long due to the rate of change in technology, then it’s good to make it out of cheap plastics rather than something more durable. Since a cell phone probably won’t be useful in ten years, there’s no reason to make it out of titanium, so cheap plastic is fine.

However, there are phones from two to four years ago that still run just fine. Many are wasting away in drawers because companies stopped pushing updates — even though the phones are still capable! In this case, the obsolescence is purely arbitrary and undesirable.

With laptops, durable materials would be perfectly fine. Old laptops can still be repurposed with a lightweight Linux distro, making it possible to run modern software on years-old hardware. Laptops are usually tossed due to physical wear and tear, so it’d be better to use something more durable than cheap plastic.

Using planned obsolescence as a reason to use cheaper materials can make products affordable to more people. On the other hand, people may end up spending more money over the long run as they continuously replace what they buy.

In the long run, we have to ask ourselves if amusement and conveniences are worth the resources we spend reproducing the same items year after year.

What Can We Do About It?

Some companies are trying to take a more ethical approach to development. The Fairphone is an Android device built with the intention of putting social values first Fairphone Review and Giveaway The Fairphone was quietly put on pre-order last year for an initial European-only run of 25,000 units. Read More . The device is currently only sold in Europe, but hopefully this mindset takes root and expands elsewhere.

In the meantime, we have to change our own ways of thinking. Green Alliance, a charity and independent think tank in the UK, encourages a circular economy where people repair, sell, and re-use devices.

Hold off on replacing a slow Windows computer when you might be able to fix it instead Should You Refresh, Reset, Restore, or Reinstall Windows? Ever wanted to reset Windows 7 without losing personal data? Between a factory reset and a reinstall, it was tough. Since Windows 8, we have two new options: Refresh and Reset. Which one is right... Read More . This may even be the time to try switching to Linux. (The process may be easier than you think Why Upgrading from Windows XP to Linux is Easier than You Think An ideal way to give Linux a try if you're completely new to it and unwilling to invest in new hardware, is to test it out using some PCs. But how easy is it? Read More .)

Even if you stick with Windows or Mac, you can try open source alternatives to commercial applications 14 Free and Open Source Alternatives for Paid Software Don't waste money on software for personal use! Not only do free alternatives exist, they most likely offer all the features you need and may be easier and safer to use. Read More . This can break you free of the cycle of paying for new versions of software you already have.

Instead of rushing out to buy the latest wearable, try making your own. You can use a Raspberry Pi to make alternatives to Apple Watch, Google Glass, and bike computers 5 Wearable Projects You Can Build With a Raspberry Pi Have you ever thought about wearing your Raspberry Pi? Well no, of course you haven't. After all, you're perfectly normal. Read More .

Don’t chase after the latest gadgets How to Be Frugal While Still Enjoying Tech & Gadgets Just because you're being frugal doesn't mean you can't enjoy tech! Here are some tips on how to not break the bank with tech purchases. Read More . Do you really need to control your home with voice commands? Does everything have to be Internet connected? Companies still make regular watches and appliances. Steer the market in the direction of goods that are built to last.

To make a genuine impact, there’s no dodging the difficult questions.

Do we accept our role in the current wasteful market? Are we willing to cut back on how often we purchase and replace products? Do we even think that this is a problem that needs to be solved? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Related topics: Hardware Tips, Personal Finance, Save Money, Technology.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Eddie G.
    June 9, 2016 at 7:37 am

    I have been a long time IT support professional, but I feel that somewhere within the last 10-20 years technology has gone from helpful to just plain nonsensical. I mean its one thing to have a software-based heart monitoring device in a hospital, that can be considered beneficial to mankind and to society. But a refrigerator? that has an OS!!? I mean c'mon!...exactly what happens when the OS "breaks"? you call a repair man or Tech Support? As for the IoT in the home?, I feel it's just overkill. I think society is getting lazier and more complacent. People want technology to do almost EVERYTHING for therm! (Right down to DRIVING CARS!) I think we all need to take a step back and assess the situation when it comes to technology and humanity.

    As for the constant upgrading of computers, laptops, cellphones, TV's and anything else, I'm an open source advocate, and I believe that if you can repurpose a device, whether it be desktop, server, laptop, tablet or even cellphone, then you should do ALL that you can to do so. Do you REALLY need to open a spread sheet .002 seconds faster than you did a year ago? Can you even HEAR "Hi-def" RADIO!!??...(Last I checked the human ear only picks up a certain range of frequencies, and there's no way to change that!....granted you can "tweak" an equalization system to make things sound BETTER, but to call that "hi-definition radio" is a false moniker, it's the SAME radio...just equalized differently to make things sound better!) The same thing applies to all the "latest and greatest" tech that's coming out now....(I mean 4K TV?....really?....just like your ears....your eyes will only see a certain range of colors, brightness, darkness, shades etc......look it up it's a scientific fact!) but the companies will keep on pushing their wares if people keep buying them. Do you remember the very first generation of flat screen LED and LCD televisions when they first came out?...some of them were going for over SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS!!.....SIX GRAND!!.......for a TELEVISION. I'll let that sink in for a minute, you realize those SAME TELEVISIONS ARE UNDER $200.00 TODAY!?? If we applied common sense to our purchases the companies that charge such crazy prices would be "forced" US the consumer to either reduce their prices drastically, or else they'd eventually have to fold and go out of business since no one would be buying their hardware. And no where is this more pervasive than the Apple company. Now I know....they make a superior product, and it's sleek and ultra-hip, and it has all kinds of software you cannot find anywhere else, but people?...I REFUSE to pay almost $800.00 for a PHONE!!!.....especially one that I'll have to either replace or upgrade later on down the line...and you'd think the people who paid the price of $800+ would get a serious discount on the upgrade, well not so much!...LoL! As for me, I'm not only taking my own advice but I'm training my son to also look the other way when technology comes knocking, as long as it's not broken, there's no need to run out and upgrade to the most recent anything. This is why I use Linux on my PC's and laptops, because when Microsoft states that Windows 10 will be approaching its EOL (E-nd O-f L-ife) and that no more updates will be pushed out for it, then all the people who ran out and bought the latest laptops and desktops will be forced to upgrade to whatever MS throws out there next, meanwhile I'll be comfortable running Linux on my "older" systems. Yeah, it might not be the prettiest hardware, the screens might be not-so-bright-and-vivid, and the memory might be maxed out at 8GB, but at least I'll CONTINUE to receive updates from the distributions I use, and the software I have installed on those systems?...will work for as long as I keep the computer! I guess next I'll have to find a cave, and a foil complete the image of "whacked-out, recluse, who lives in the mountains?....LoL! (P.S. Sorry for the rant!!)

  2. Anonymous
    June 4, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    I'm a Linux user, and have been for quite some time. Even with WINE, I couldn't use the more modern versions of Office, because they simply don't work.

    However, if I want to, I can go into Chrome (my everyday browser), and use Ofiice online. Now; I'm curious; what's the rationale behind this? In other words, what's the catch? I don't buy all this guff about Microsoft suddenly loving Linux, and wanting to embrace it with open arms; it isn't normal, and for Microsoft, it sure as hell ain't natural..!

    Microsoft never does ANYTHING without there being something in it for Microsoft. The user agent in Chrome will identify me to the Office online site as using, I repeat my earlier question. Where's the catch?

    ('Cause there IS one, sure as eggs are eggs.....)

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 11, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Microsoft understands that people are less wed to Windows than they used to be. More are buying Chromebooks or using an Android tablet/iPad. Moving Office online and into app stores keeps users reliant on Microsoft instead of a competitor. This way Office continues to be a huge profit maker even if Windows revenue slows down. As for why Microsoft would give away an online service for free -- there is big money in collecting information on users and using that information to sell ads or to create future projects.

  3. Anonymous
    May 21, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    If it wasn't for 'planned obsolescence' the ivory tower academics would have one less subject to analyze and study ad nauseam and waste millions of dollars in grants on.

    'Planned obsolescence' is a way for 99.99% of all companies in the world to guarantee their continued existence.

    "This can break you free of the cycle of paying for new versions of software you already have."
    Why do we NEED a new version of on O/S every couple of years, obsoleting all previous ones? The O/S COULD be written in such a way that upgrades can be applied through the update process. But then M$ and Apple would not be able to make $Billions on forcing the users to constantly buy new software.

    The way to fix the problem of 'planned obsolescence' is for consumers (look in the mirror) to quit buying the "new and improved" products. However, that is as likely as Bill Gates making Windows open source. WE, the consumers, have to kick the habit of running out and purchasing every new shiny the manufacturers put on the market.

  4. Tom
    May 21, 2016 at 2:16 am

    Planned obsolescence seems fine if we can move towards re-usable or recyclable materials, because then we can just build something new out of them...

    • Bertel King
      May 21, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      I would like to see this happen.

  5. Anonymous
    May 20, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    The amount people are willing to pay for something (repeat purchases included in this cumulative total) is in direct proportion to the total package of convenience they want. Instead of spending less than $10 on a home-cooked meal, people will pay $30 or more for an equivalent meal that they don't have to dirty their hands over or spend time preparing.

    We all have different skills and interests, so many items are better purchased because we simply couldn't make them or repair them ourselves. But where our skills and interests DO lie, I believe we should make every effort to "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". I have that philosophy posted above my desk at home as a constant reminder to be wise with my resources (because they are finite) and to fight the good fight by defying the culture of waste you've written about.

    • Bertel King
      May 21, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      That's true. Though there are some specialty skills today that were considered general knowledge in the past. Instead of replacing our own tires, many of us pay someone else to come and do that for us. Car companies have made it harder to repair many aspects of a vehicle, but this one remains pretty straightforward. That many of us don't know how is mainly a cultural shift.

      Now someone has to burn resources powering the phone call it takes for me to ask for help and have someone drive a vehicle to my location to change my tire. In economic terms, paying someone else to do the service may make sense. But in environmental terms?

      • Kelsey Tidwell
        May 22, 2016 at 1:38 am

        Lol, you're right Bertel, to question the environmental aspect! I look at it this may be easier on the environment for me to pay someone to do something I have no idea about, than for me to try it myself and cause a natural disaster. :)

  6. John Dowe
    May 20, 2016 at 10:48 am

    The biggest issue is that there are very few eWaste recyclers and even less collection programs. Most of the planned obsolete gadgets end up in regular landfill where they will poison ground water over time and turn the supposed clean trash heap into a toxic waste dump. Some municipalities still allow for CRTs to be thrown into the regular household trash.
    As far as cellphones go, they can be repurposed as well. Most of them have working sensors and displays making them ideal for wearables and other small gadgets....if the manufacturers would open up access to the devices.

    • Bertel King
      May 20, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      So true. Even when people want to "do the right thing" with their old gadgets, it's hard to figure out what that is.

  7. Anonymous
    May 20, 2016 at 5:22 am

    The comment about jobs was a very good point.

    For information on "planned obsolescence" see -

    Brooks Stevens, who popularized the term 60 years ago was NOT about making making things that break.
    See the book - Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World

    "It was Brooks Stevens who, in 1954, coined the phrase "planned obsolescence," defining it as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."
    His graphic arts/industrial design firm did work for hundreds of manufacturers of everything from beer to trains. He designed the clothes dryer with a window in the door, the wide mouth peanut butter jar and put the bun on the wiener of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile!.

    The book -

    • Bertel King
      May 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! Though I noticed this in the wiki link you shared about Brooks Stevens:

      “Though he is often cited with inventing the concept of planned obsolescence (the practice of artificially shortening product lifecycle in order to influence the buying patterns of consumers in favor of manufacturers), he did not invent it but rather popularized the term.”

      I have not read the book you’ve recommended, but I would also like to point people who are interested in how designers have made us want to “own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary” to watch “The Men Who Made Us Spend” episode linked in the post. It’s an hour long and provides a good look at how planned obsolescence has developed over the past century.

  8. Anonymous
    May 20, 2016 at 5:00 am

    "Social Values"... That's collectivist HOGWASH!

    Societies don't have values, individuals have values.
    That's what REAL diversity is.

    • Bertel King
      May 20, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Communities *and* individuals have values. You can see this when you compare how individuals within any given area may have a wide range of opinions, but people in one part of the world tend to have similar sets of assumptions compared to people living in another part. To tackle this issue, we need to reflect on both our individual values and the practices we share as a community.

  9. Starr
    May 20, 2016 at 4:16 am

    I really hope you can help me. I've downloaded a drawing app on my iPad that I use to be in love with, it was awesome, gave me what I needed, very organized, was thrilled about it. I've went to the App Store to update it thinking there would be more improvements. Unfortunately the new version of this app no longer has the drawing tools & other features that was on the previous version. I wanted to cry, I was so upset. Well, I would like to know if there is a way to restore the current version of this app to the previous version. Please, please help me. Thank you.

    • Anonymous
      May 20, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      Starr, my best suggestion to you would be a simple search on the internet for the old version of your app. There are several sites out there that do nothing more than archive old versions of apps and programs, and all of the ones I've used over the years were free.

      Here is a simple Google search I did that may help you:

      There are sites there that appear to offer information for both finding the app, and also how to actually get it working on your iPad. Now, that said, it's a wise thing that if this is an app that is near and dear to your heart (as it appears to be), when you find the app again, download and save the actual app file against future needs. Who knows if it may not disappear completely?

      This is simply a start. As I hail from the Windows/Android world, I'm afraid I can't take you further than this. It'll be up to the iOS pros among us for the next questions you may have.

      Good luck in your search!

      • Bertel King
        May 21, 2016 at 3:08 pm

        Thanks Kelsey for reaching out to help Starr. Much appreciated.

  10. Anonymous
    May 20, 2016 at 3:52 am

    Great article. I am writing this comment on a Linux machine that was headed for the landfill three years ago. I buy unlocked used smartphones and use them for years with a pay as you go plan and local wifi. These and other frugal habits save lots of money. My wife and I retired years early by simply being thrifty and investing the savings.

    • Bertel King
      May 20, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      I find your story inspiring. I use Linux, but most of my tech is less than a few years old. These days I'm increasingly trying to plan out my purchases and buy products that will last me a longer period of time. When I'm done with things, I pass them along to family and friends (or sell them), rather than throw things away.

  11. Mick
    May 20, 2016 at 1:12 am

    Really enjoying your articles sir

    • Bertel King
      May 20, 2016 at 3:34 pm


  12. Anonymous
    May 19, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    The phoebus Cartel Was One Of The First Examples, And Found To Be Illegal.

    According To The Old ASTERIX Story - The Long Duration Of A Product Is Not An Ideal Scenario For Sales.


  13. Anonymous
    May 19, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Excellent, well-written article. There is another side of this coin that I didn't see covered here. We find ourselves in a fragile economy where jobs are very hard to find. Planned obsolescence drives demand for new products, which keeps many people working who might otherwise be laid off and lose their jobs. There is very little demand for shiny new toys from those who depend on an unemployment check just to feed their family.

    • Anonymous
      May 19, 2016 at 10:48 pm

      I think the novel "Brave New world" had a similar theme.

    • Bertel King
      May 20, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks! This economic effect you speak of is the reason planned obsolescence got a name. I gave this a one-sentence mention towards the beginning:

      "The term dates back to the Great Depression, when real estate broker Bernard London suggested the government place artificial expiration dates on products to encourage more spending and revive the economy."

      Spending can drive job growth, which is one reason we see business and political leaders alike encourage us to continue being active consumers. It's a form of civic duty.

      The question I try to raise in this piece is whether this practice is sustainable. Are there alternative ways we can produce goods and provide people with stable livelihoods that doesn't require as much of our natural and financial resources?