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Planned Obsolescence in IT Industry

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Planned Obsolescence in IT Industry

That shiny new iPhone 4 and Android phone you just buy are just garbage. Certainly, nothing will last forever; they’ll become unusable, obsolete and broken at some point. The problem is, manufacturers are purposely making devices that won’t last too long, so we will buy another one in less than 3-4 years. This strategy is known as “planned obsolescence”.

Almost all consumer products industries embrace this strategy, by designing a product that won’t last long or too expensive when repaired. Disposable items, such as diapers, razors, and spoons, have become part of our lifestyle, as the result our environment is increasingly being covered by trash.

In consumer electronics industry, the situation is more serious due to the “unplanned obsolescence” factor. For example, Moore’s Law tells us that the amount of transistors inside a chip will be doubled every 1.5 years. It means, we will increasingly get faster hardware, as the result, new versions of OSs and software will be developed to take advantage of the extra performance juice. Eventually, your computers and portable gadgets become unsellable and undesirable, although it still works perfectly.

If you buy a new, low-end $50 printer today, it would be nearly impossible to sell it as a second-hand item after 2-3 years, because if it is broken, the repair costs could be higher than the depreciated value of the printer. So in many cases, it is better to buy another low-end printer. This is only one example, other items such as hard drives, LCD monitors, Blu-ray players and media players are more economical to replace than to repair.

Back in 1990’s, computers are upgraded with new hard drives, additional RAM, faster processor or even a brand new motherboard. But now, laptops, netbooks and tablets are steadily replacing desktops as main computers. These portable devices are difficult and often impossible to upgrade. Solid state components and flash storage suppose to make gadgets last longer, but there are other factors that cause faster obsolescence.

Apple, for example, cunningly uses a tamper-proof screw that can make it impossible for common users to open, making simple upgrade, such as battery replacement impossible to do. This strategy was debuted at 2009 in the MacBook Pro and now we can find the same screw at the latest MacBook Air and iPhone 4 (some earlier iPhone 4 still uses standard screws). The special screw needs a pentablobular screwdriver to open. Another Apple’s strategy is by selling an essential item at a highly marked-up price, for faster turnover. For example, iPod Shuffle’s battery price is nearly equal to the price of the whole device.

TVs are previously products that can last for many years, but now consumers are urged to buy a new one after 2 or 4 years. Those connected TVs, smart TVs and 3D TVs are tempting us to throw away our relatively new TVs that barely pass their warranty coverage period. Current TVs are much more complicated, making reliability potentially lower than TV’s made in 1980’s. For example, new TVs showcased in CES Las Vegas 2011, even run apps just like a computer. This will make those devices even more vulnerable to planned obsolescence. In a nutshell, future TVs will finally subject to the harsh reality of Moore’s Law.

Other than manufacturers and users, the media can also be blamed for this situation, as they are consistently establishing an atmosphere of digital lust. Just open a news site, you’ll be seduced by new products and those product reviews seem to pity you with your old devices. They tend to over-emphasize latest features and deliberately ignore usability and reliability values. Planned obsolescence also occurs in the software industry, in many cases you can still work adequately using software version released 5-6 years ago. For example, most average users won’t get significant improvement in productivity with Windows 7 after upgrading from Windows XP.

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