France is trying to outlaw planned obsolescence.
Light Bulb Obsolescence
Since planned obsolescence is about products wearing out, let’s start with a lightbulb that has been burning for 114 years.
Located at a fire station in Livermore California, the bulb was turned on on 1901. During several power outages and its relocation to the firehouse, the bulb went out temporarily. Otherwise it has remained lit.
You can see the bulb in this brief video.
A long life light bulb was precisely what its manufacturers wanted to avoid. When the world’s major light bulb manufacturers met in 1924, they not only wanted to diminish competition by determining who sold what and where but also by dimming the life of the light bulb. From 1500 to 2500 hours, they brought it down to 1,000 hours, charged more and said it was a better bulb.
Imagine the details. Their venture into planned obsolescence involved developing a bulb that would die after 1000 hours and enforcing the rule among multiple competing manufacturers. It required technological development and a debate that continues today.
Where are we going? To France and our new iPhones.
Stage One of a 2015 French regulation requires manufacturers to tell consumers how long their cell phone or TV–any appliance–is likely to last and how long spare parts will be available. Next year the law adds a free replacement or repair mandate for items that are “faulty” within two years of their purchase date. You can see that their goal is for products to last longer.
It appears that Brazil might agree with the French approach. In 2013 Apple was sued by Brazil for planned obsolescence when it introduced an iPad 4 that they said harmed customers who owned the iPad 3. (I am trying to discover the verdict–Please let me know if you have heard what happened.)
Our Bottom Line: Planned Obsolescence
From a Harvard undergrad’s article, I discovered a perfect brief summary of different types of planned obsolescence. 1) We have functional obsolescence with items like a light bulb that stops working so you need a new one. 2) By contrast, systemic obsolescence takes us to new systems that nudge you to update your equipment. An example is when Apple takes us from Snow Leopard to Lion to Mountain Lion to Leopard. I discovered I had to upgrade to continue using other programs. 3) Finally, we have perceived obsolescence which just involves our taste making a perfectly functional style seem tired or dated as with changing clothing styles.
Deciding whether all of this is good or bad reveals no easy answers. Sometimes planned obsolescence encourages innovation, creates jobs and spurs growth as new products render the old ones obsolete. At other times, it is wasteful, inefficient and might be all about conspicuous consumption.
So, is it okay to want the iPhone 6 when your 5 is fine?