Opinion: Planning to fail shouldn’t be a winning strategy


In this day and age, we all depend on technology in some way. We need those gadgets and we need them to work, but sometimes technology breaks.

Companies count on their technology to break, even depend on the revenue streams brought in by this demand. The real problem, however, comes after that.

From a business standpoint, why should companies be making money selling one good-quality thing when they can make people buy it again by putting out an inferior product?

This is the main idea behind what is now called “planned obsolescence.” Everyone would probably recognize this notion more readily by the phrase “they don’t make them like they used to.” It’s why the iPhone 6 bends in your pocket and tablet screens scratch easily.

Common instances of planned obsolescence are creating a fail switch that breaks the device after a predetermined number of uses or amount of time, or by making a new device and not supporting the old one or its software anymore. Either way, it’s replacement time for consumers and for the manufacturer, it’s money time.

Popular Mechanics has a great list of eight items proven to have such features just so companies can make more money. The list includes ink cartridges designed to stop working once the level of ink depletes enough, textbooks with new covers and no new information, cars with faulty parts and most consumer electronics.

The poster boy of this business model is Apple. The running joke about Apple products like the iPhone and iPod is that consumers shouldn’t bother upgrading their products because the day after they do, Apple starts selling a newer version.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Apple though, or even to this century. It was made popular in the 1950s by a salesman named Brooks Stevens, who gave a talk at a sales convention on ways to get consumers to buy things they already have just because they’re newer. Some say the idea started even before that.

Defenders of the practice point out that in higher end technology, the small pieces are more sensitive on things like phones, which make them prone to breakage. However, focusing on the cutting edge technology when the chip will eventually combust is a smoke screen to actual built-in flaws to make replacement more necessary.

A good example of what a big impact this has in the budgets of students is video games. The Popular Mechanics example also points out the trend of some consoles not being compatible with former models, thus requiring consumers to buy new games to use with the new console. Console lifespans have also diminished. It’s been dropping by half since the 1980s and it turns playing video games into a luxury rather than a nifty hobby.

The Nintendo Entertainment System was supported for 20 years and its successor, the Super NES, for 13 years. The follow-up to the Super NES, the Nintendo 64, ran from 1996 to 2001. This is just five years of being supported. Since then, though the market has become more diversified, the concept has been the same.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. Because money makes the world go round, there actually has to be a product to move for people to continue to buy. With all of these new high-tech devices being made, junked and replaced comes the increased need for raw materials.

With this business model comes conflict minerals. All of these electronics need various metals and natural materials to make not only the chips but also the circuits and resistors. Every time a new product comes out companies ship it in the millions, so while each device has a few grams of these minerals, it adds up very fast. To meet that demand, people are paying anyone and everyone who can get their hands on the stuff so they make smartphones, consoles and other electronic gear.

This has led to greed, corruption and war zones cropping up over supply lines and mines because of all the money being handed out. One region that is particularly hit hard by this is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since the region has naturally occurring supply of these minerals, it has become a hub of warlords looking to make money off of corrupt government officials and business men looking to stock up.

The cherry on top of this, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that last month the Department of Commerce announced its inability to track the smelters and refiners paying for their own private war for minerals. That wasn’t just on the African continent that is home to the conflict, but the entire world.

National Geographic ran a story about how many clean mines there are in the country. According to its investigation, only 10 percent of the mines are not run by rebel militias in the eastern region of the Congo. Granted, this investigation was spurred on by a movement that began in 2008 to stop the violence that was put into law in 2010 by the Dodd-Frank Act. However, this report by the department and the report from the ground shows the best intentions haven’t equaled much at all.

Planned obsolescence has moved beyond being a scummy trick of snake oil salesmen, it has become global evil. Companies exist to make money and they will get it at any cost to people or the environment. Remember that when you are told you need to upgrade something.

Patrick White is a senior in mass communications.