The practice of deliberately designing products to require replacement after a specified length of time, with the objective of forcing higher sales of the product. For example, machines might be designed with synthetic gears and cams which wear out in a matter of years, rather than metal ones, which generally last decades. Singer sewing machines, and Dodge transmissions are cases in point. Often, a high quality product will contain a single cheap and cheezy part which, once broken, is more expensive to replace than the newer version of the entire product. Witness the button thread on even the most expensive garments...designed to hold the unique and unmatchable buttons in place until the wearer passes strategically close to a bridge railing or sewer grate, whereupon, they are released with gentle abandon into oblivion...rendering the garment a candidate for replacement.

Also, the practice of genetically designing seeds for agricultural crops so that the resulting plants in turn produce seeds which do not inherit or maintain all of the desirable qualities in the original seed. Rather than reserving a portion of the crop for the next year’s planting, the farmer must purchase new seed from the supplier.

Also, the practice of re-designing perfectly satisfactory products so that they have different superficial features, prompting the consumer to discard serviceable products in favor of newer ones. Typically, the new features are driven by fashion and marketing design, rather than by true functional requirements. One example of a company which resisted the siren call of planned obsolescence was Volkswagen, who from the 1950’s to the mid 70’s continued to market a funny little bubble of a car with an “outdated” air cooled engine and an outmoded body style, while American automobile manufacturers churned out a plethora of fins, tails, gills, grills, and bezels which did little to make the machines run better or last longer, but did a fine job of boosting sales. In an ironic turnaround, another example is the recent resurgence of “retro” home appliances. Consumers are abandoning their 1970’s and 80’s white plastic toasters and avocado green blenders in favor of the same toasters and blenders repackaged in 1950’s chrome and bakelite.

Also, the practice in the software industry of designing increasingly rich sets of functionality and user options into popular products, but failing to provide full backward compatibility for the data formats produced by earlier versions. Lack of support for older data formats presents a ready market for IT consultants in eventual legacy data migration projects which will be required as the intellectual property and historical records currently committed to electronic media continue to age.

The most charitable view of planned obsolescence is that it is a sensible response to matching the design of a product (and therefore, its cost) with what the market will pay for it.

Sources:
“The New Engineer: Is planned obsolescence socially responsible?”, by Sharon Beder, article published in Engineers Australia, November 1998
“Planned Obsolescence and Plant Breeding: Empirical Evidence from Wheat Breeding in the UK (1965 – 1995)”, by Dwijen Rangnekar
“The Waste Makers”, Vance Packard, 1963
“Titanic 2020 – A Call to Action”, report from CENSA (the Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Association), 2000

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