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Planned Obsolescence: Engineering Our Consumer Obsession

Tech & Innovation | April 13, 2015

Faster. Lighter. Clearer. Thinner. Better. These are just some of the words random street-goers used in 2012 to describe the new iPhone 5 in comparison to their current Apple smartphones. One caveat: they were actually given the iPhone 4s, a prank pulled by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to highlight the American obsession with buying the hottest gadget on the market with little knowledge of whether it is truly innovative . Yet, as it garnered over 17 million views, the clip’s viral success raised a deeper question: is the speedy cycle of technological consumption fueled by ever-heightening  innovation or by strategic corporate engineering designed to make us spend?

“It’s almost as if the new iPhone somehow ruins the old iPhone,” Kimmel told a cackling studio audience. “But it doesn’t—it’s all in your head.”

However, some argue that this engineering is not all mind games—that companies purposefully design products with a limited lifespan so consumers are almost required to spend more. This practice, called “planned obsolescence,” dates back to the Great Depression, when the economist Bernard London proposed artificial expiration dates on every product—cars, shoes, buildings—as a panacea for the economic slump. From 1924 until 1939, the Phoebus cartel, a group of light bulb companies, standardized the life expectancy of bulbs at 1,000 hours. The cartel then fined manufacturers whose products lasted longer while simultaneously raising prices without competition.

Today, planned obsolescence is used in a variety of industries, including printer ink cartridges (smart chips prevent further use after a certain threshold, even when there is still unused ink), coffee machines (Keurig’s newest brewer stops users from re-loading coffee pods), and even cars, long known as playgrounds for those willing to slide under the hood . In Massachusetts, voters passed a law forcing automakers to share internal service manuals, circuit diagrams, and computer codes with independent repair shop owners in response to locked-door policies by auto giants. However, no one is more often accused of planned obsolescence than the tech industry, popping out gadgets with the speed of an assembly line. The biggest culprit? The corporate machine that sits comfortably at the top of the market: Apple.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Cracking the Apple Trap,“ Catherine Rampell expressed frustration with a “sluggish” iPhone 4 that had suspiciously deteriorated as soon as Apple rolled out the iPhone 5s and 5c models. According to the tech analysts she spoke to, the new operating system (iOS 7) caused older models to slow down. As Apple developers spend more time developing new software with enough bells and whistles to satisfy consumer demand, they focus less on updating old versions to fix performance issues. That means older versions of iOS apps crash more often; according to 2013 data by Crittercism, a company that helps manage app performance for major app makers including LinkedIn, Netflix, and Pinterest, crash rates on iOS 6 and iOS 6.0.1 went up dramatically— by 85 percent and 74 percent, respectively—in the eight months before iOS 7 was revealed. It would seem that Apple is making consumers want the newest, latest product, when it may not be necessary or as desirable as people think.

“If you look at the latest iPhones, you can make it a little bit faster and a little bit nicer and you can put gold on the back, but it isn’t actually that different than the generation that came before,” Dan Crow, one of Apple’s chief designers alongside Steve Jobs in the late 1990s, told journalist Jacques Peretti in his BBC docu-series “The Men Who Made Us Spend.” “I think we’re seeing the natural plateauing of the product. It has reached its peak. This is probably about as good as it’s going to get.”

With the introduction of the iPhone 5s and 5c, Apple had little to offer aside from new colors. This was especially evident with the gold-backed iPhone 5s, as it was merely a marketing ploy, a symbol of luxury and wealth.

Others who accuse Apple of planned obsolescence say Apple makes it difficult to hold onto existing products. This is no more evident with the iPhone’s constantly shortening battery life, which, as users point out, often slows far before the phones are due for an upgrade. Since the batteries are sealed into the phone’s hardware with unique five-pointed star-shaped screws that first appeared in the iPhone 4, they are difficult for DIYers to replace. Instead, consumers are advised to set up an appointment at the “Genius Bar,” where Apple employees suggest a $79 battery replacement. The same goes for broken hardware, which employees often say can only be fixed through pricey replacements.

Frustrated by tech companies’ control over the repair process, some have started enterprises devoted to fixing gadgets. IFixit.org, a free online repair manual, is designed “to teach everyone how to fix the stuff they own—whether it’s  laptops, snowboards, toys, or clothes.” The founder, Kyle Wiens, who invented a screwdriver to open the iPhone, describes the organization as “part of a global network of fixers trying to make the stuff we own last forever.” This movement can be traced back to two brothers, Casey and Van Neistat, who made ripples worldwide for their 2003 short film, iPods Dirty Secret. Criticizing Apple’s lack of a battery replacement for the hottest gadget on the market, the Neistat Brothers made a stencil reading “iPod’s unreplaceable  battery lasts only 18 months” and spray-painted it on iPod advertisements throughout New York City.

Though some may be sharpening their pitchforks, garnering the evidence that Apple is duping consumers through planned obsolescence, others argue the company deserves a pat on the back for promoting a healthy capitalist economy.

“Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services,” Philip Kotler, author of Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, Implementation, and Control and Social Marketing: Improving the Quality of Life, told The Economist.

It makes economic sense; Apple is in a highly saturated market, and it may not be in the company’s interest for its consumers to hold on long to its products. A research note from JPMorgan Chase & Co. that was released with the arrival of the iPhone 5 argued that the new gadget might add between a quarter- and a half- percentage point to G.D.P. growth in the last quarter of 2012 because, though iPhones are manufactured overseas, most of what you pay for one is added to the US G.D.P.

“To believe that more spending will provide an economic boost, you have to believe—as you should—that demand, not supply, is what’s holding the economy back,” Paul Krugman wrote in a 2012 New York Times column titled “The iPhone Stimulus.” “We don’t have high unemployment because Americans don’t want to work, and we don’t have high unemployment because workers lack the right skills. Instead, willing and able workers can’t find jobs because employers can’t sell enough to justify hiring them. And the solution is to find some way to increase overall spending so that the nation can get back to work.” According to Krugman, Apple’s system of cranking out new iPhones represents the type of Keynesian economic recovery plan that we need.

Whatever viewpoint one takes, to criticize planned obsolescence is to undermine the basis of our economic system, one that drives our national identity as a country defined by freedom and opportunity.

While theorists argue about whether planned obsolescence is actually

taking place, consumers commonly experience the failings of their smartphone devices, with batteries routinely slowing down, hardware falling apart, and screens becoming prone to cracking. But if consumer gripes are the norm, why does there continue to be a national obsession with the newest gadget, spiraling further with every possible upgrade?

Our phones, like all products we choose to buy, represent the identity we want to create. More important than the nitty-gritty functions of technology is its ability to project an image we desire.

Apple has mastered the tenet of marketing: create fear in the consumer and then introduce the product as the magical solution, the knight in shiny plastic armor for the damsel in distress with a credit card. Apple’s streamlined aesthetic has always appealed to the mass market, its fresh look evoking a sense of creativity and productivity for the modern consumer. In Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial, which reenacts the plot of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984, the company tells viewers “On January 24th, Apple will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The ingenious ad offers the Macintosh as a solution to an increasingly chaotic world, one riddled by Y2K hysteria and fears of technological overload. Ironically, however, the automatons in the commercial eerily resemble the consumers who stand outside Apple stores, waiting in line as they salivate over the newest features of the next iPhone.

Thirty-one years later, it’s quite possible that Apple has created the kind of world it promised to save us from.

Art by Ana-Maria Murphy-Texidor & photo by Misako Ono.