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Who Plans for Planned Obsolescence?

Molly Heskitt
9/2/2015 08:00 AM EDT

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Consumer Electronics
bobdvb   9/2/2015 8:43:16 AM
I've been involved in or lead the planning, development and deployment of many consumer electronics devices; I also have been involved in the development of standards and the planning of their deployment.

There are a couple of things here that need addressing:
  • Device failures

Devices fail, and we design them with a statistically predictable failure rate, some devices will last much longer and others will fail sooner. You don't want more than a few percent to fail within two years otherwise the product becomes unprofitable, after that you tend to care less because there is little or no legal obligation. You tend to plan for a device to last five or so years, so you keep spare parts and keep training the team, but you know the population is falling off over that period. The consumer gets a legal protection for a number of years and you design it for another number of years, the second period is always much higher than the first. Designing something with a short life actually drives down your brand value because customers think you've given them a PoS™ and won't return to you. 
  • Service obsolescence

When we were planning on deploying DVB-T2 MPEG4 HD television in the UK we had to acknowledge that the current DVB-T MPEG2 SD broadcasts had a limited life ahead of them. Certain broadcasters said they would begin considering migrating their MPEG2 to MPEG4 channels when they felt there was an insignificant number of MPEG2 only households (i.e. not just a majority of MPEG4 receivers but a minority of MPEG2 only). This acknowledges two things: 1) We have a public service obligation to deliver to the vast majority not just the core group. 2) The impact of turning off a service must be minimal at mittigatable.

More recently I received an email from Amazon saying that due to service improvements in Amazon Video their service would no longer be available on my 2013 LG Bluray player and they offered me a discount on their FireTV device. This is the new kind of service obsolescence we are seeing with connected TV devices. Those who develop services don't want to support legacy hardware platforms because they can't use fancier graphics, they don't support the latest codecs, DRMs or some other newly important feature. This is something I am worried about when the drive to be competitive leaves customers behind with obsolete hardware. Offering to give them discounted hardware is great but it sets a precedent that fundamentally forces customers to join the technology escallator.

If only internet based services would just acknowledge that the older version of their app was adequate for those users who have it and concentrate on adding new features that might encourage those who can afford it to upgrade. Upselling by feature rather than by killing their device is a more moral strategy. The problem is that providers have no obligation to continue to support apps on the platforms they offer them on, the only risk for them is loosing a few subscribers. But this approach only serves to drive an increasing digital divide between the rich and poor and perhaps as well as the young and the old.
  • Conclusion

Hardware vendors can't design a product that lasts forever, but what is the compromise? Should we legislate a certain number of years? The UK consumer protection law assures that a device must be "fit for purpose" for a "reasonable" period, the definition of that can be tested at any time. The approach of "reasonable" is actually better than setting some arbitary definition because definitions of products in law are quickly out of date. Competition does drive up quality but consumers also have to accept that they need to stop buying cheap cr@p and expecting it to last, buying badly made products drives respectable brands to cut costs and follow the race to zero profit.

Services need to think about their obligations and to think about the devices they are turning in to landfill. I didn't get my Bluray player becuase of Amazon video, but I am sure there are some people who did and they might be fuming now as a result of Amazon's product decisions.

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