The new iPad Mini finally hit Apple stores last week, giving Apple fans yet another reason to pull out their wallets. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Apple fans who waited in line could also pick up a new iPad 4, a new iPhone 5 or a new MacBook Pro with retina display. You can look at all these new product offerings, following so closely on the heels of other Apple product offerings, as a sign of Apple’s extraordinary innovation over the past year ... or as yet another example of how planned obsolescence has become the most popular new business strategy in the technology sector.
Under a strategy of planned obsolescence, consumers are being asked to discard their technology devices long before their useful life has ended. If you’re still hanging on to the original iPad, you probably feel like you’re holding on to an artifact from the dark ages of the tablet era. Which, by the way, was all of two-and-a-half years ago.
However, Apple’s not alone in embracing planned obsolescence as a business strategy (as Jimmy Kimmel demonstrates in this hilarious comedy sketch) — nearly any technology company with an ecosystem of products can now play this game. One product upgrade forces your hand to upgrade another product or service. Amazon’s family of Kindle products and Google‘s Android operating system, which powers so many digital devices have two very effective levers to get consumers to upgrade. Consider the Kindle for a second. It’s not just for buying books anymore. It’s a gateway product to buying monthly content subscriptions. That’s because the Kindle Fire — the product that Amazon has positioned as an iPad-killer also forces your hand, getting you to do things such as sign up for an $8/month subscription fee for streaming video.
Unlike the planned obsolescence of 60 years ago, when designers and manufacturers started thinking of new ways to get consumers to upgrade their products sooner than they planned, this obsolescence is all about leveraging an entire ecosystem to get you to upgrade multiple ways at one time. In other words, it’s not just about updating your iPad this time around, it’s also about updating your iOS, which leads you to think about updating all the other digital devices that run on that iOS. And, since all the Apple products are synced together as part of a vast ecosystem, updating your iOS means updating your OSX. And that might just lead to updating your MacBook Pro or iMac. And, if your hardware isn’t supported by the lastest upgrade, well, you know what that means.
This is great for a company’s stock price, but since we’re speaking about product ecosystems here, what about the ultimate impact on nature’s ecosystems? What’s happening to all the digital devices that we’re discarding at breakneck speed? Some are being recycled, certainly, but it’s fair to assume that a lot of stuff is ending up in landfills somewhere. And, as the original critics of planned obsolescence pointed out nearly half a century ago, this changing pattern of consumption might actually be leading tech companies to adopt the types of manufacturing practices, such as low-wage factory work overseas, that are essential to maintaining the shrinking lifetimes of tech products.
While some may argue for the economic benefits of planned obsolescence (like higher GDP and greater innovation), it’s fair to say that others are wondering if our society has struck a type of Faustian bargain, exchanging short-term gain for long-term pain.
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