There is much talk going on these days about the first law suits, started in France due to the country’s current legislation, regarding the supposed speed reduction of some older iPhone models implemented through system updates. According to the charges it is a clear case of programmed obsolescence.
Let’s face it, we’ve all experienced the feeling that our smartphones lost speed or performances following an update or after some time – a loss not justified by usage or some app – and in any case, much quicker than any of the traditional electronic devices we’ve used up to now (from videogame consoles to home computers). But is this really true? And how can consumers defend themselves from such practices?
Let’s start by saying that the topic of programmed obsolescence has been a long-standing bitterly disputed and debated large-scale matter, difficult (or even impossible) to address with laws and regulations.
• Long-standing: the first “historic” case of programmed obsolescence was lightbulbs (the so called “bulb conspiracy”) whereby four major manufacturers at the start of the last century colluded to restrict lightbulb life (thus guaranteeing themselves a substantial replacement market), as opposed to a product that could easily have been engineered to last much longer (www.centennialbulb.org).
• Large scale: first of all, because of the amount of products subject to this issue (practically all, and including myths claiming washing machines break down immediately after the end of the warrantee period). Secondly, for the amount and complexity of engineering decisions made when designing a product which, to be evaluated and assessed, would require the same level of competence of the pool of experts that made them in the first place. As an example, what is the configuration and therefore the optimal duration of a car engine air filter, considering that it impacts the efficiency of fuel combustion as well as how space is managed within the engine compartment, therefore design, production, maintenance costs and, as a result, expected sales? In other words, how much would a washing machine designed to last forever cost, and what market would it have?
• Difficult (or even impossible) to regulate: beyond obsolescence determined by the natural evolution of a good’s “functional competitiveness” there are elements that make continuous product replacement preferable. An “everlasting” washing machine would in fact operate for its entire life with water and energy consumption determined by decades-old technologies; the same goes for cars (for which in addition to fuel consumption, safety would have to be considered). This factor is so sensitive that in some fields the legislator saw fit to intervene when competitive evolution failed to produce the expected renewal, to incentivise or ban the use of obsolete devices (cf. progressively banned more polluting and unsafe vehicles).
Beyond these considerations, the truth is that every manufacturer with a purchase-waste-buyback business model faces a strong and intrinsic conflict of interest. The inclusion of electronics in products have obviously enabled software (less visible and more protected than other design elements) for programmed obsolescence and other unfair practices (cf. Volkswagen ) to proliferate, to the extent of lawsuit cases. Such as in France, against inkjet printer manufacturers because the software notifies users to replace ink cartridges though (according to charges) it actually still contains 15% of ink. So, again, who’s right? Is it a prudent warning that gives users the time to purchase new cartridges and make some emergency/last minute printouts, or is it a malicious way of increasing sales?
If technology brings new ways of complicating the scenario it also brings the ultimate solution to the problem, that will eliminate the conflict at its root causes: we are talking about the internet of things and its ability to shift the market towards servitization business models no longer based on purchase-waste-buyback.
In these new scenarios the customer / consumer purchases and pays for the service provided by the good, no longer the good itself, it is therefore in the manufacturer’s full interest to optimize product life since all extra costs will fall on them while the customer is free to choose the most competitive supplier of “pay per use” goods in terms of quality, service and, obviously price. In some sectors this is already a very widespread practice, for example in the printer sector office solutions: office printing contracts are based on printed copies, which means companies can forget about “time bombed” breakdowns because solving them is part of the supplier’s responsibilities. In the industrial sector this model is quite common – from the historical Rolls Royce case that sells hours of operation of its aircraft engines, to more recent industrial air compressor cases where companies don’t pay for the good but pay for the m3 of fluid actually processed over time. The same can be said, for the consumer market, of shared cars or bicycles: the tendency is that consumers will not have to worry if a filter or a component has been designed to their disadvantage anymore, because the only cost they will have to pay is the amount of km they actually make.
This is therefore the defence consumers can truly fall back on, much more than any legal action (individual or class). When the market will have fully shifted from product to service and when, thanks to the internet of things we will have reached the umbrella sharing state, finally each one of us won’t have the impression that the umbrellas we are being sold are designed to break at the first wisp of air and the concept of programmed obsolescence will have, itself, become … obsolete.