Last month, Nest made quite a few people upset by announcing plans to brick their Revolv smart home hubs. 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 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.
Unlike old TVs, smart TVs have interfaces that slow down and become obsolete 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. 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.
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. 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.
Even if you stick with Windows or Mac, you can try open source alternatives to commercial applications. 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.
Don’t chase after the latest gadgets. 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!