The term “planned obsolescence” has achieved negative connotations, but it originally referred to a long-standing tradition of changing designs to sell more products.
It was coined by the car industry in the 1930s to refer to annual model updates. Over the years, however, the term has taken on a darker meaning. But planned obsolescence is a good thing. It’s the driving force behind much innovation.
This morning, New York Times reporter Catherine Rampell accused Apple of breaking her old iPhone 4 with the iOS7 update, which made it unbearably slow. “It seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade,” she wrote in a piece entitled, Why Apple Wants to Bust Your iPhone.
According to Rampell, Apple is feeling the heat from Samsung, HTC and others, and is resorting to sabotaging older iPhones with a software update and force users to upgrade their hardware.
This is bullshit from every angle. The iOS7 upgrade isn’t obligatory, it’s voluntary, and pissing off customers isn’t a good way to keep them as customers. There’s no mention that Apple sold a record-smashing 33.8 million iPhones last quarter.
Truth is, Apple’s products are so far ahead of the curve, it’s a constant criticism leveled at the company: that it is a willing practitioner of planned obsolescence.
Apple is sometimes accused of being guilty of planned obsolescence, for example, because it releases products with batteries and other parts that can’t be easily replaced by users. Because they can’t fix the device themselves, this obliges the customer to pay Apple for an expensive repair or to buy a replacement device.
According to critics, these devices would have been expressly designed with this anti-consumer feature in mind. “The average Apple product has been designed to be unfixable if it breaks.”
The reality is, though, that technology is ever becoming more sophisticated, more minuscule and more complicated to make. The result is that every successive generation of gadget is usually less repairable than its predecessor.
Look at a device as simple as a radio: in the 1930s, they were massive pieces of analog gadgetry that could be repaired by plugging in a new vacuum tube. Now, they are small and sophisticated enough to fit into a fingernail and safely play music in the shower. It’s true that if that radio breaks, you can’t repair it, but it’s also true that a radio in the 1930s couldn’t take a shower with you.
The point is clear. The more sophisticated a device is, the less repairable by amateurs it is, and because Apple is so far ahead of the competition, it is often the first accused of “planned obsolescence” for manufacturing devices using designs that will become the new benchmark for repairability in the next year. The goalpost is ever shifting. One of Apple’s industrial designers told me that the products are very carefully designed to be repaired, but by professional technicians, not consumers.
Even so, Apple does more than most companies to make sure that if your iPhone, iPad or Mac breaks, you can get it replaced. There are almost four hundred Apple Stores with fully serviced Genius Bars around the country that will repair or replace your device in the first year’s warranty, In addition, Apple sells a product called AppleCare which has set the gold standard for extended warranties in the tech industry.
Apple is also often accused of another form of planned obsolescence: systemic obsolescence.
According to critics like Rampell, every time Apple releases a new version of OS X or iOS that doesn’t work with past Macs or iPhones, it’s deliberately making these devices largely obsolete. There’s nothing devious about this, though: the natural result of being quick to embrace the future is to be similarly quick to abandon the past. Microsoft, for example, has largely maintained backwards compatibility with Windows apps for the past twenty years, but the result has been an operating system that is extremely vulnerable to glitches and freezes, as well as malware and security exploits.
The move from the 30-Pin Dock Connector to Lightning might also be described as one engineered out of planned obsolescence. Because Apple changed the dock connector for its line-up of iDevices, critics argue that the hundreds of millions of accessories and cables that use the earlier 30-Pin standard have been made obsolete.
Such a criticism is unavoidable, but when accusing a company of planned obsolescence, intent matters. The 30-Pin Dock Connector was a bulky component to fit into devices that have been ever slimming. The new lightning connector has tons of great advantages. Even so, Apple used that dock connector for almost ten years, and to ease the transition continues to sell affordable 30-pin-to-Lightning adapters for people who want to use their new iPhones, iPods and iPads in their old 30-pin accessories.
The truth is that critics who accuse Apple of planned obsolescence usually don’t understand the nuances of the term. In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard divided planned obsolescence into two categories: planned obsolescence of desirability and planned obsolescence of function. These two concepts are not the same thing, and Apple is only guilty of one of them. Their goal, of course, is to make every product better than the one before, and market it as such. But if Apple is unafraid to embrace the future, that doesn’t make them underhanded: it makes them courageous. It’s a win for consumers.
In an interview with the London Evening Standard in March 2012, Apple’s head designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, gave some thoughts that revealed how he felt about planned obsolescence. He said: “As consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed.”
The hallmarks of planned obsolescence in Ive’s view, then, are cheapness, shoddiness, carelessness and cynicism. There are many words one might use to describe Apple, but not these.
Brittany Morford contributed.
Leander’s new book about Jony Ive and the Apple design studio is out in November. Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products is available for pre-order on Amazon.