Aug 18 2014

Planned Obsolescence and Attribution Fallacy

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42 Responses to “Planned Obsolescence and Attribution Fallacy”

  1. BillyJoe7on 18 Aug 2014 at 9:04 am

    SN: “When mining large sets of data for correlations or trends, it’s easy to get fooled”

    Ronald Coase was more graphic:
    “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”

  2. Bruceon 18 Aug 2014 at 9:47 am

    Not sure if I have posted this before on this blog, but Tim Harford gives a pretty good rundown of the perils we encounter when dealing with Big Data:

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/21a6e7d8-b479-11e3-a09a-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3AkPPjmc9

    The BBC podcast “More Or Less” is a great resource for anyone even mildly interested in stats and numbers and how they relate to real world problems.

  3. Kawarthajonon 18 Aug 2014 at 10:04 am

    “Finally, as any computer user will know, operating systems tend to slow down over time as new apps are added and the system gets a little clogged.”

    I wonder if aging hardware has something to do with it as well. Efficiency of the battery and the hardware probably declines with age as well and I would assume that people have had their old version phones for a couple of years or more once the new version comes out.

    Having said that, I don’t think that it is beyond reasonable to suspect that Apple, Samsung, or any other large company, would plan on making the old phones obsolete. The stakes are so high in the cell phone world – sell phones or your company will die a horrible death. At the very least, these phones are not designed or made to last and Apple and Samsung do not provide reasonable and practical support for fixing, upgrading or servicing the phones. They have obviously calculated that it is better for profits to sell people a new phone, rather than provide the infrastructure and support to service, upgrade and repair the phone, as they have done with cars. Also, Apps and software are often designed to run at the top edge of the performance level of the phone. Therefore, new apps and operating systems will not run well on the old hardware, making them obsolete, as you mentioned. This is part of the plan, imo, to encourage people to buy new phones. It is all a finely tuned operation to squeeze out more profits and every decision they make has the bottom line in mind. This is not a conspiracy – it is standard practice in companies and it makes business sense.

  4. SARAon 18 Aug 2014 at 10:36 am

    Do we have any hard evidence that the phones are slowing down? Surely the correlation of other big data searches to facts and events, does not equate to every spike in searches correlating with actual events.
    Or if that turns out to be fact, is there a study that shows what specifically is causing the slow down?
    All the suggested reasons are very logical, but there isn’t any reference to a hard study.

  5. Kieselguhr Kidon 18 Aug 2014 at 10:59 am

    Bruce gave that link above to TIm Harford’s article on big data, which is excellent, and is one of many places you can hear Big Data critiqued in a way I find very, very relevant (full disclosure: I’m a biophysics guy and pretty much I hate every “-omics” except genomics; I think a lot of woefully misguided, statistically wacky science is being done). But it’s worth following Bruce’s link because I was going to respond to Dr. Novella’s “Tracking search terms related to the flu, for example turns out to be an accurate predictor of flu outbreaks” with, well no it doesn’t. In fact that example has become one of the paradigm critiques of “big data” approaches, and looking at why it fails so badly is instructive.

  6. Mr Qwertyon 18 Aug 2014 at 11:19 am

    I’m so glad you’ve covered this topic Steve, I just recently had a discussion with a friend in regards to an appallingly bad BBC documentary “The Men Who Mad Us Spend” by Jacques Peretti (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zxmrv). Although my friend is not a “trained skeptic” (for the lack of a better word :P ), and accepted most of the premises presented in the show, she was appalled by the unfair and unprofessional way Jacques interviewed people from IKEA and some other companies. The way he sneakily implied malice without actually claiming anything was horrible – a sensationalist interviewing style based on false premise, straw men and false dichotomies, all in the service of FUD.

    Nowhere in the whole show there is a mention of a simple market force that creates, for many consumer items, a price race to the bottom. In ’50ies a household fridge (praised for their longevity) costed more than an average monthly salary. When the unit cost is so high compared to labor cost and there is little competition in the market, you can afford to go with best materials and craftwork. Also, did anyone really check the premise that the old fridges ARE so reliable? Maybe it’s simply that those which survived so far are reliable, but those might be a small percentage of the number built.

    On the other hand, nowadays a good fridge costs about 10-15% of an average monthly salary and competition is fierce. If you try selling one that lasts a century, it will cost 20 or 30% or will have less features than a competing one, so no one will buy it, and your company will go bust. It’s the inevitability of the market forces – there’s no malice behind it. Still, you try to make it work as long as it can, as there is little guarantee that your consumer will buy from you again if it dies within few years (I’d argue the opposite).

    It’s similar with the electronic devices and many other consumer items. Different market conditions create different pressures.

    On the iPhone slowing thing – well, the claim is (and I agree with it), that the old iPhones become slower AFTER upgrading them to the latest operating system, which always brings lots of new features that are designed with the new hardware in mind. Major software upgrades do often happen before new hardware releases, as a convenient way to test and tweak the software.

    However, if you stick with the older version of the OS, nothing changes – the device works in the same way it worked when purchased. So, what’s the problem? I don’t think there is any implicit promise made by the manufacturer about the performance of the device running any new software in the future? Maybe there is – I don’t know, I haven’t been an iUser for years.

  7. _Arthuron 18 Aug 2014 at 11:56 am

    Apple’s individual phone models are MUCH longer lived that any other company. Apple launches one or two new iPhones a year, compared to, say, 15 new models for Samsung.
    And Apple practice is to reduce last year’s flagship model by $100, and the two year ago model becomes the cheap entry-level model, at a price point of, say, $99 subsidized.
    All the 3 or 4 selling iPhones models can run the lastest iPhone IOS, no software fragmentation.

    It all cames down to: iPhones models are actuallyn the market longer than any other company’s phone models. The phones themselves are long-lived and I know Apple has extended on its own (without being compelled by lawsuits) its warranty on parts that were failure-prone. Try that with a generic phone model!

    I cannot say if older phones ARE slower, feel slower or seem slower after a rumor campaign, but the new model is very likely to contain a faster CPU and other new hardware features. Buy one and enjoy it for 5 years, or hand it down to a relative and buy next years’ model as soon as it is available. Your happy choice.

  8. Steven Novellaon 18 Aug 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Regarding refrigerators, the rule of thumb is to replace them every 10 years, even if they are still working. This is because they become less energy efficient over time,and upgrades in newer models are even more energy efficient. Holding onto an old refrigerator may not be cost effective in terms of electricity costs.

    This is just another example of considerations that do not necessarily favor engineering a product to last as long as possible.

  9. Pugg Fugglyon 18 Aug 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Another area where the conspiracy falls apart is that ALL iphone-related searches spike around the time of a release. “iphone fast,” for example, shows spikes in the exact same places as “iphone slow,” but a bit less pronounced.

    In fact, “iphone + random word” generally shows the exact same trend.

    I think scientists have a word for when they perform this sort of rigorous control. You know, running the test on multiple things to see if the effect is real.

  10. Steve Crosson 18 Aug 2014 at 2:27 pm

    As Dr. Novella has pointed out, we need to look at ALL the factors before reaching any conclusions about any question. Complex questions rarely seem to have simple answers.

    I worked in the automotive industry for much of my career as well as several other manufacturing fields earlier on. I can assure you that “planned obsolescence” (as commonly defined) is a myth.

    There is no doubt that most, if not all, industries want you to buy their products on a repeat basis. But the only really effective way to accomplish that is by somehow creating desirable intangibles such as fashion, style or design. Better performance and greater functionality are really just slightly different types of an intangible which will (hopefully) appeal to consumers.

    Obviously, the automotive industry creates stylistically different models every year for precisely those reasons. But when it comes to factors such as longevity and reliability, the situation is reversed.

    For starters, it would actually be more difficult to try to engineer a product to reliably “wear out” after a specified amount of time than it would be to just try to make it last as long as possible. Any product failure rate will exhibit typical bell curve behavior with some specimens failing early on while some seem to last forever.

    Any sensible manufacturer quickly learns to try to get the “main hump” of the curve out as far as possible. Everyone wants to avoid warranty repairs not only because they are unduly expensive, but also (and probably primarily) because they negatively affect the perception of reliability — one of those intangibles that is very important to get right. Certainly, cost/benefit comes into play as there will inevitably come a point where increasing reliability just a little bit will wind up costing a lot, but the general trend is clear.

    Most of you “youngsters” (and I’m including the Novella brothers, Evan, Rebecca, etc.) may not realize this, but cars, PC’s and virtually any product you can name have gotten dramatically more reliable over the years. Almost without exception, you don’t “need” to buy a new product — you “want” to because it is faster, has new (and presumably useful) features, or simply looks better.

  11. Bronze Dogon 18 Aug 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Ronald Coase was more graphic:
    “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”

    That quote is a keeper, and for me, it’s kind of a twofer. First, it conveys the problem with fishing expeditions. Second, the metaphor is built on an important point about torture, a hot issue for me: You can torture an innocent person to extract a false confession, hence even if you don’t look at the victim’s suffering, torture is still unethical because its results are inherently dubious. Data may not scream or bleed, but it’s still misleading and deceitful to assert conclusions based solely on fishing expeditions.

    I believe it was here, but I remember an article about rumor mongering, narratives, and memory: Someone posted a CAD image of a weird screw without any context and it developed into an urban legend about Apple developing an “asymmetrical screw” to lock people out of modifying their iThingies. Someone pointed out in the comments that the term for an asymmetrical screw is “rivet.” A rivet goes in, but it doesn’t come out so easily. Apple has no need to reinvent the wheel if they ever want to lock people out like that.

  12. steven johnsonon 18 Aug 2014 at 2:49 pm

    A couple of nitpicks.

    First, Hanlon’s Razor is wrong. Pretending to be stupid is a very common deceit.

    Second, strictly speaking, the fundamental attribution error only applies to mistaking the motives of intentional acts. Sometimes the question is whether the unpleasant consequence was even intentional.

    Perhaps the rule should be, “Never assume an unpleasant consequence for you was intentional.” I suppose you could dub this Novella’s Razor?

  13. Karl Withakayon 18 Aug 2014 at 3:15 pm

    @Mr Qwerty “However, if you stick with the older version of the OS, nothing changes – the device works in the same way it worked when purchased. So, what’s the problem?”

    The problem there is that mobile device operating systems are generally not supported the way desktop operating systems are.

    Old versions of desktop OSs tend to be supported with bug and security patches for years after they are superseded by newer versions, (Mainstream support for Windows XP just recently ended, 13 years after its release and 7 years after its replacement debuted.)

    In contrast, support for older versions of mobile OSs (both Android and iOS) is relatively rare and limited. For major, serious security patches, Apple has released patches for older iOS versions, but usually only for devices that do not support the current version of iOS. Generally, if you want your device to be up to date on security patches and it supports a newer version of iOS, you must upgrade. Sticking with the older version of iOS means sticking with the (now widely known) security holes/vulnerabilities.

    For various reasons, I stuck my with previous android phone for about three years. For quite some time, I chose not to apply the last system update, and it was a very annoying experience because multiple times a day the device would promote me to accept the update, and there was no option to permanently decline the update.

  14. Kawarthajonon 18 Aug 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Steve Cross: “I worked in the automotive industry for much of my career as well as several other manufacturing fields earlier on. I can assure you that “planned obsolescence” (as commonly defined) is a myth.”

    Yes, I agree, but it is a very different industry. As I mentioned above, the automotive industry has set up an elaborate infrastructure to service, repair and maintain those products, whereas the smartphone industry actively discourages people from repairing or servicing their phones. Different products require different strategies. The automotive industry feels they can improve their profit margin by offering service to the vehicles they produce. The phone industry does not. That’s planned obsolescence.

  15. Mr Qwertyon 18 Aug 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Kawarthajon: “…whereas the smartphone industry actively discourages people from repairing or servicing their phones.”

    I actually disagree with this statement – there is no >active< discouragement per se (please correct me, with evidence, if I'm wrong). Doing something like that actively would a.) require money to spend; b.) harm the manufacturer (there is competition on the market after all).

    It's rather that it's cheaper and easier to design a device that cannot be easily (or at all) repaired, among other things.

    Think about removable battery for example – there is a number of obvious trade-offs for designing a removable battery:
    – you have to design the phone internals so that the casing protects the phone without the battery; you have to design the lock in system on both the case and the battery that allows for easy removal but still holds it in place; you need a back cover that also locks in, allowing for relatively easy opening but otherwise holds the phone firmly closed and doesn't sacrifise phone looks; and finally, you have to design the battery itself so that it has hard and sufficiently protective casing so that it can be safely carried in your pocket without sustaning any damage or endangering the user.

    – or, you can have a unibody design with a soft unprotected battery glued internally

    First option not only costs more to design and testing but also adds to the weight and is detrimental to the looks and sometimes durability of the case.

    It's like that with serviceability in general – there are trade-offs to everything and consumers vote with their wallets.

  16. Hyperionon 18 Aug 2014 at 6:07 pm

    There’s another explanation as well: most phones are using the same (or substantially similar) hardware “under the hood”. So you’ll see a general trend of increased speed of ARM processors over time, and these processors will be purchased by all of the major phone manufacturers. Samsung and Motorola and other phone manufacturers will base their business model on having phones that are cheap and fast, so as newer and better hardware comes out, they’ll try to put out new phone models quickly to keep up with the competition, because they lose customers quickly if their phones aren’t as cheap or as fast as the competition’s.

    Apple’s business model is based on design, brand loyalty, and marketing campaigns. So when a new generation of ARM processors is released, Samsung and Motorola and others will rush out new phone models as quickly as possible (and of course, they simply have to license their OS from Google). Apple might put out purchase orders for the new processors at the same time, but they’ll also put a lot more time and effort into creating new designs for the new phone model, and a new version of their OS to match. And they can’t begin their ad campaign until that’s finished. So around the same time that the new Motorola and Samsung phones hit the market, Apple is only just beginning to unveil their ad campaign for the new iPhone that will be released several months in the future.

    So one fairly obvious possibility is that several of your friends buy new smartphones from other manufacturers that have the next generation hardware in them. You still have your older iPhone, and its hardware is objectively slower compared to their new phones, and the resulting performance differences might be readily visible. Around the same time, you hear the advertising campaign for the “newer, faster” iPhone that will be released in a few months. The combination drives home the feeling that your iPhone is slower. It’s not that it is objectively slower than it was previously, but it is slower than the new phones on the market.

  17. Steve Crosson 18 Aug 2014 at 7:52 pm

    @Kawarthajon

    Yes, I agree, but it is a very different industry. As I mentioned above, the automotive industry has set up an elaborate infrastructure to service, repair and maintain those products, whereas the smartphone industry actively discourages people from repairing or servicing their phones. Different products require different strategies. The automotive industry feels they can improve their profit margin by offering service to the vehicles they produce. The phone industry does not. That’s planned obsolescence.

    Sorry, but you are confusing apples and oranges (no pun intended), as well as cause and effect. As “Mr Qwerty” has already pointed out, the economics of the repair/replace question are completely different.

    Very early in my career, I spent about 10 years doing field service on dictating and word processing equipment. At that time it was reasonable and economical to repair devices which were comprised of MANY different components which, individually, were a fraction of the total cost of the product — which itself was at least an order of magnitude more expensive than any similar product today.

    BUT that entire paradigm was made obsolete by the very reason that makes cell phones (in general) not economically reparable. $50,000 dollar dedicated word processing systems were superseded by general purpose computers that were not only more versatile, but that consisted of fewer, comparatively more expensive parts.

    For a (relatively short) time, there was still a market to repair $5K or $10K computers that still had a motherboard with perhaps half a dozen RAM and I/O cards, but even that niche was quickly made obsolete by the march of technology.

    Now, virtually all modern electronic devices are little more than a single electronics board attached to a display device — for good reason! Devices are significantly cheaper and vasty more reliable, and like it or not, the marketplace has spoken. If there really was a market for easily reparable devices (which inevitably would cost more up front), rest assured that someone would fill that market niche.

    BTW, even though vehicles are an inherently more complicated mixture of mechanical and electronic devices and therefore it has taken longer, EVERY automotive manufacturer is trying to incorporate more modular construction techniques for exactly the same reasons — lower cost and greater reliability. In addition, the necessity of stocking literally millions of different parts (in thousands of locations) in order to ensure convenient and timely repair is mind-bogglingly expensive — to the consumer. Every single repair part must be priced to take into account the innumerable OTHER parts which will never, ever be sold but must be manufactured and kept in stock “just in case”.

  18. tmac57on 18 Aug 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Maybe we need a more encompassing…(let’s call it) Skeptic’s Razor,such as:

    “Never assume that you fully understand any phenomenon until you have all of the facts*”.

    *Of course,even then, you have the tricky task of discerning what are the actual “Facts”. (sigh!)

  19. Steve Crosson 18 Aug 2014 at 8:40 pm

    tmac57on 18 Aug 2014 at 8:00 pm
    Maybe we need a more encompassing…(let’s call it) Skeptic’s Razor,such as:
    “Never assume that you fully understand any phenomenon until you have all of the facts*”.
    *Of course,even then, you have the tricky task of discerning what are the actual “Facts”. (sigh!)

    Sounds like a pretty good description of the scientific method, plus peer review.

    :P

  20. grabulaon 18 Aug 2014 at 9:25 pm

    It’s a complex issue to be sure but I’ve always viewed it as an attempt to drive the costs down that makes equipment less reliable than it used to be.

    15 years ago a big screen TV was a luxury item, my family couldn’t even consider it. These days I own two, and didn’t pay more than a couple of hundred for either. Of course one has had to be replaced after just a few years use.

    I like to think of it as the walmart generation – cheap stuff for cheap.

    Having said that I’m sure some companies – like phone companies rely on a business model where they cycle through their products every few years. I have a no technological example of this that might be apropos. I’m a gaming nerd who’s played tabletop wargames for decades. I play Warhammer 40K, a game that is now in its 7th edition. New editions aren’t’ always designed to ‘fix’ prior edition. In fact Games Workshop has admitted that new editions are released every 4-5 years in order to re-generate interest in the short attention span theater that is our culture. This extends to certain types of technology. Apple is more than happy to sell new phones at 5-600$ a pop every couple of years for the same reasons – to keep interest up, to keep up with competitors and technology.

    It’s business, I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy to make products prematurely obsolete but they certainly want to generate capital, and they need to do that by making the product cheap enough to be as attainable by as many people as possible. I’m betting even in Apple that cycle of renewing technology is built in to thier business model.

  21. Steve Crosson 18 Aug 2014 at 10:22 pm

    grabulaon 18 Aug 2014 at 9:25 pm
    It’s a complex issue to be sure but I’ve always viewed it as an attempt to drive the costs down that makes equipment less reliable than it used to be.

    I do agree that it is a complex issue, but I think it would be tough to make the case that “comparable” devices are less reliable than they used to be. Sure, sometimes it is obvious that manufacturers of really “low-end” devices sometimes cut a few too many corners, but in general, high and mid-range stuff is better than it has ever been, at least IMHO.

    Every product will tend to have a certain percentage of infant mortality issues, but the better manufacturers will even eliminate most of those by “burning-in” every device before it leaves the factory. After that, the biggest issue, BY FAR, is mechanical failure — that includes not only moving parts, but connections between different components.

    Back when I was in field service, it was no exageration to say that MOST repairs could be accomplished by simply re-seating circuit boards, chips (socketed integrated circuits) and various plugs and connectors. Vibration and oxidation do terrible things to electrical connectivity.

    Which is why todays all-in-one type circuit boards tend to be much more reliable and long lasting (albeit less reparable at the component level).

  22. BillyJoe7on 19 Aug 2014 at 12:50 am

    steven johnson,

    “Perhaps the rule should be, “Never assume an unpleasant consequence for you was intentional.” I suppose you could dub this Novella’s Razor?”

    Or Stevens Johnson Syndrome. :D

    (Look it up)

  23. eeanon 19 Aug 2014 at 12:07 pm

    This whole conversation seems unnecessary. Bananas have “planned obsolescence” – they rot just by sitting there. Similarly lithium-ion batteries don’t even have to be used, they will get worse while sitting on the shelf (why buying cheap batteries is a perilous process.) iPhone and Nexus phones don’t have removable batteries, therefore they have clearly planned obsolescence, or at least planned expensive servicing which certainly makes the latest gen phone more attractive. Pair this with people getting phones on a rent-to-own basis (rather strangely) and the planned obsolescence is quite clear. No need to look at Google searches.

  24. Karl Withakayon 19 Aug 2014 at 12:43 pm

    @ eean :

    “This whole conversation seems unnecessary.”

    Apparently not since you seem to have entirely missed the point. The key word here is PLANNED.

    Is the obsolescence intentional or a consequence of other factors?

    “iPhone and Nexus phones don’t have removable batteries, therefore they have clearly planned obsolescence”

    Unsupported conclusion/ non sequitur/ assuming that any inherent obsolescence must be planned.

    Did the manufacturer make the battery imbedded and not user serviceable for the intended purpose of forcing the user to buy a new phone when the battery will no longer hold a charge, or was the embedded battery a consequence of other factors, such as high quality metal/glass case design or the fact that an embedded battery can be better shaped to fill available space and need not be ruggedly constructed to resist bending/deformation as a removable battery needs to be?

  25. Karl Withakayon 19 Aug 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Obsolescence can be built in inherently or by a consequence of design without being intended or planned.

  26. tmac57on 19 Aug 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Judging from the way my grandkids go through (tear through) their cell phones through abuse,neglect,carelessness,etc. ,planned obsolescence wouldn’t even register on the list of ‘Why I have to replace my cell phone’.

  27. BillyJoe7on 19 Aug 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Karl,

    I had a similar response while reading eean’s post.
    If the phone becomes obsolete for unplanned reasons before the battery runs out…

  28. stereoblueon 19 Aug 2014 at 8:01 pm

    In the case of a new OS slowing down an older phone, it would be nice to have a less bulky version available for owners of older phones that would allow apps to run (for instance) but not add the new features. The lack of said option proves the insidious planned obsolescence theory by default. ;)

  29. grabulaon 19 Aug 2014 at 8:57 pm

    @Steve Cross

    “Sure, sometimes it is obvious that manufacturers of really “low-end” devices sometimes cut a few too many corners, but in general, high and mid-range stuff is better than it has ever been, at least IMHO.”

    To some extent I’d agree and I meant to add that whenever I can buy something high end that’s covered by a warranty and all that I’m more inclined to do so if I care enough about the product, because as you say high end products tend to be made with higher quality – those companies have to bank on their reputations and they can’t do that and build crappy products.

    I think the mentality has changed over time from making quality long loved products to acceptable shorter life spans. A lot of companies will freely tell you how long they expect their products to last. Just look at how many things are marketed – the car industry expects to see the average customer every 2-4 years, phone companies expect to see you every 1 to 2 years. People are expected to live in a home an average of 4 to 7 years. I don’t think there’s anything malicious behind this for the same reasons I don’t believe in planned obsolescent. People like new things so companies give them those new things, and they do so by doing things ‘on the cheap’ – some cheaper than others.

    I’d also argue that some items last preternaturally long but I’m willing to bet the numbers have shortened over time on the life expectancy say of the average kitchen appliance and whatnot. Anecdotally my family had one of those giant floor TV’s until I was nearly an adult, at which time we got rid of it not because it stopped working but because it was just too heavy and ugly to want to keep. I know several other people who grew up with those TV’s as well.

  30. ParrotSlaveon 20 Aug 2014 at 3:36 am

    An issue you might not have considered is that users are not all in possession of the immediate predecessor of whichever new one is coming out, and might upgrade to the predecessor instead of waiting for the “new and improved” one.

    For instance, I have an iPhone 4s, and Verizon has tried to give me a “free” 5s twice, once a few months ago, and again a week or so ago. I’m still debating: should I take the 5s, which will cost me a two year contract but no cash, or should I wait for the new one and probably have to spend at least a hundred bucks or two, with the same two year contract. (I’m not in contract at this moment.)

    I don’t think Apple will gain financially if I go with the 5s. I have noticed a little bizarre behavior from the phone lately, but I don’t remember the slightest problem with my phone’s performance preceding the release of the model 5.

    It is improbable, but within the realm of possibility, that they might be “gimping” the phones to try to coerce people into upgrading, not out of a direct monetary motive, but because Apple views their new phones as being more secure and they don’t want to be blamed for things that happen with older models. Imagine, for instance, that you have a computer running, say, Windows 9x: if something happens to it, you will probably blame Microsoft, even though you really should have ditched 9x more than a decade ago. Many of us seem to have a mindset that companies should service whatever they make until the end of eternity, and when they don’t do so, we have a tendency to badmouth them. You’re going to get angry at Apple when you see what the new, improved one can do compared with your nasty old one. Additionally, in this, the Millennium of the Hacker, planned obsolescence might be a necessity for survival.

  31. Karl Withakayon 20 Aug 2014 at 10:46 am

    stereoblue,

    “In the case of a new OS slowing down an older phone, it would be nice to have a less bulky version available for owners of older phones that would allow apps to run (for instance) but not add the new features. The lack of said option proves the insidious planned obsolescence theory by default. ;)

    I know you used a winky face there, but for the sake of discussion, not really. Apple is keen to not have to maintain multiple versions of iOS. Development and support is greatly simplified for them by maintaining only one current version of iOS. It takes resources to maintain & support an OS, and maintaining multiple version take more resources. It either costs them more money for the extra resources, or it diverts resources from other functions/projects, though they’re probably more worried about the latter. I’m sure they really don’t want to have to support their mobile platform OS the same way they way they do the desktop OS.

    One could argue that obsolescence is planned into iPhones in that Apple knows ahead of time that at some point, there will be a version of iOS they don’t support on the device, and they’ve made the decision to generally only support the current version of iOS for updates and patches. They intentionally plan to not support certain generations of devices on the next version of the OS. They plan on not constraining development of the OS by requiring it to run on all prior versions of the hardware. But that’s not quite the same kind of planned obsolescence we’ve been discussing here.

  32. Steve Crosson 20 Aug 2014 at 5:57 pm

    @grabula,

    As Dr. Novella and many others have pointed out, there are LOTS of factors that impact every product design choice. Sure, there probably are some product categories where longer product lifespan is not a high priority, but I would argue that the reason is because the incremental cost of increasing lifespan is greater than the perceived benefit to EITHER the manufacturer or the consumer.

    Inevitably, some product categories tend to evolve faster than others — in ways which may be beyond any individual manufacturer’s ability to control. In the case of cell phones, during the recent past (and probably for the foreseeable future), performance and functionality has been increasing significantly every year. And, it seems to be increasing fast enough that a very large percentage of consumers seems to be willing to “upgrade” on a regular basis — in spite of the fact that their old phone typically has virtually no trade-in value.

    At first glance, Apple iPhones would seem to be an exception because they often are worth several hundred dollars on the resale market, but they also generally cost more upfront and are very rarely discounted or otherwise incentivized. In other words, the free market has determined exactly how much longevity they are willing to pay for.

    I have to take a bit of an exception to your comment that the automotive industry “expects” to see the average customer every 2-4 years. There is no doubt that they WANT to see every customer as often as possible, but they are fully aware that for that to happen, the customer must want to buy a new vehicle.

    In a mature market like automotive, it is very difficult to offer significantly improved capabilities — certainly nothing comparable to 50% performance increases or completely new functionality that is common in the cell phone market. One thing the automotive industry CAN offer is improved reliability and longevity — both to keep current owners happy enough to be repeat customers and (even more important) to ensure that the older vehicle has enough resale value that the customer can afford to buy a new one.

    But this exactly illustrates why the whole “planned obsolescence” question is more complicated than it first appears. Cars and trucks have gradually improved reliability, fuel mileage, creature comforts, and crash survivability for decades. At each step of the way, the “improvements” that consumers have been willing to pay for are the features that get produced. And yes I know that some of these things have been governmentally influenced, but the basic principle remains.

    So, rather than accusing any manufacturer of deliberately planned obsolescence, I think a better working hypothesis would be “manufacturers will make products as economically (and profitably) as possible while still maintaining an adequate level of customer satisfaction as to promote the continued existence of the company”. Not as elegant or pithy perhaps, but probably true in most cases for most (reasonably intelligent) companies.

    Particularly in regards to your example of the giant screen TV, this perspective is relevant. Those early large Tvs were extremely expensive, and the manufacturers literally could not afford to have many dissatisfied customers. When the target market is that small, even just a few complaints have a huge impact — especially when the cost of the product is well above most people’s disposable income level.

  33. grabulaon 20 Aug 2014 at 8:43 pm

    @Steve Cross

    I think for the most part we agree though there seems to be some confusion as to my overall message. I’ve already stated I don’t believe in planned obsolescence for the most part, especially on high dollar products like vehicles.

    However, business build marketing and product schemes based on cycles, the smaller that cycle gets the more money they make ongoing. A car manufacturer doesn’t make a car to break down every few years so you HAVE to buy a new one. They do however entice you with new models to upgrade to something newer. These business understand the human desire for things new and shiny and they utilize that to their advantage.

    So, a car manufacture does not plan on their products becoming obsolete within a few years, however the average consumer will begin looking at trading in, or up within a few years of buying a car. That whole business model is what eventually turned into the leasing model. In most cases these companies will try to value add to their newer product in order to give you more reason to purchase it. Phones are a great example of this. I don’t believe the technology has advanced quick enough that it warrants 1-2 year turn around but I see how you could feel that way. Most products are buggy and need a shakedown period before becoming solidly reliable and by that time the new product has come along, or is already being advertised. In fact, advertisement is almost wasted money in some cases since consumers already anticipate the usual turn around time and so prepare themselves to upgrade within that time frame.

    I’m not making a value judgement on this behavior, it’s business and the point is to make money. From a personal perspective, I don’t really care. I tend to buy a new car when I feel I need one or when I see something I really like. I upgrade phones, computer and game consoles a little behind the typical time frame since I like to see the product become more stable and supported before I purchase it.

    ““manufacturers will make products as economically (and profitably) as possible while still maintaining an adequate level of customer satisfaction as to promote the continued existence of the company””

    I’m certainly on board with this line of thinking. That was the gist of my posts but maybe I wasn’t as clear as I thought I was.

  34. Steve Crosson 20 Aug 2014 at 10:57 pm

    @grabula,

    I agree that we seem to be saying virtually the same thing. I apologize if it appeared otherwise.

    I chose your particular comments to respond to because you gave two examples (autos and first-gen giant TVs) that I tried to elaborate upon as useful illustrations of the underlying complexities that are all too often overlooked in any superficial analysis.

    These are basically the same points that Dr. Novella has already made, but I hoped that a few more examples might help to get the point across to the few remaining “skeptics”.

    I’m being a little snarky when I say “skeptics” because I really think that they are acting more like cynics. While I freely admit to my own cynical impulses, I try to ignore them because a “true skeptic” should never allow any preconceptions to affect their judgment.

    I realize that it takes some hubris to lecture people on good skepticism on this site in particular, but I feel that overcoming our own biases and preconceptions is probably the most difficult thing we have to accomplish in order to discover the truth about anything. Regularly reminding ourselves of this fact is a good idea for everyone.

  35. grabulaon 21 Aug 2014 at 12:19 am

    @Steve Cross

    “I realize that it takes some hubris to lecture people on good skepticism on this site in particular”

    Don’t feel bad, we’re constantly trying to educate some on good skepticism here, in fact it’s really what Dr. Novellas blog is all about. Some of us have our sacred cows and lose sight of good skepticism when it comes to those on occasion but the vast majority of the regular commentors here seem to be pretty good about it.

    You have to be careful about the tarpit of what ‘good’ skepticism is. Good skeptics know it, and skeptics who are figuring things out are well, figuring it out. However a common tactic these days with woo proponents and cranks is to accuse skeptics (usually using scare quotes – “Skeptics”, or some other crazy variation on the word) of not being skeptical because what they see as close mindedness is usually a demand for solid and reasonable evidence.

  36. mikelaughson 21 Aug 2014 at 3:57 am

    Great post! your reasoning is sound and refreshingly exhaustive

    I offer this analogy for you conspiracy die-hards…

    I sell the most popular trucks in the west and give away horse trailers for free. If I swap out your single horse trailer for a double horse trailer to allow you to bring both of your horses to the rodeo, but you haven’t upgraded your truck yet, to the newer, more powerful model there are two truths:

    1. Your existing truck will not pull the double trailer as well as it did the single, and there’s nothing I can do about that…though I cry a small tear on my pillow at night thinking about it.
    2. You will soon realize that in order to take advantage of your new features and expanded capacity, you’re going to need a new truck…ring->nose->pull-> and now I’m selling everybody a new truck.

  37. SteveAon 21 Aug 2014 at 4:59 am

    Mr Qwerty

    I agree with your comments about “The Men Who Made Us Spend”. Unfortunately Jacques Peretti seems to have found a niche churning out “The Men Who Made Us…” programmes and has to scrape barrel bottoms to come up with enough footage to keep the production line humming.

    “Did anyone really check the premise that the old fridges ARE so reliable? Maybe it’s simply that those which survived so far are reliable, but those might be a small percentage of the number built.”

    Absolutely. I saw a design show where the presenter commented on the solid grace of Georgian houses; then reminded us that the not-so-solid ones had all fallen over and the less attractive ones had been demolished.

    It’s a bit like a miracle quack cure, you only hear the hype from the few people who took it and survived – the uncured majority are silent. Dead.

  38. Bruceon 21 Aug 2014 at 5:35 am

    “It’s a bit like a miracle quack cure, you only hear the hype from the few people who took it and survived – the uncured majority are silent. Dead.”

    Growing up in a country that had its economy built on the tobacco trade people would often point to some 90 year old that someone they know knows of who has smoked 40 a day his whole life. It seemed irrelevant when I pointed out that 2 of my 4 grandparents died before the age of 65 to smoking related diseases and the another to a heart attack due to smoking related issues in his early 70s.

    Just googled it and found something called Survivorship Bias:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias

  39. BillyJoe7on 21 Aug 2014 at 8:34 am

    “Did anyone really check the premise that the old fridges ARE so reliable? Maybe it’s simply that those which survived so far are reliable, but those might be a small percentage of the number built”

    We’ve got one of those buggers.
    I’m dying for it to die so we can get one of those beaut new models that deliver cold water and ice cubes straight out of the door.

  40. Steve Crosson 21 Aug 2014 at 10:34 am

    BillyJoe7 on 21 Aug 2014 at 8:34 am
    “Did anyone really check the premise that the old fridges ARE so reliable? Maybe it’s simply that those which survived so far are reliable, but those might be a small percentage of the number built”
    We’ve got one of those buggers.
    I’m dying for it to die so we can get one of those beaut new models that deliver cold water and ice cubes straight out of the door.

    As Dr. Novella pointed out, new fridges are more energy efficient so you will save on electricity costs. And don’t forget the cost of all the food that will inevitably spoil when your old refrigerator fails and it takes a few days to get a new one. You can’t afford not to get a new one. Quick, start shopping before it is too late!

    You’re welcome.

  41. BillyJoe7on 22 Aug 2014 at 7:55 am

    Steve Cross,

    Believe me, I’m with you on this.
    But it takes two to tango and she’s not. :(

  42. Graham Nicolon 24 Aug 2014 at 12:20 pm

    The idea that Apple would gimp their phones doesn’t make sense. Apple doesn’t only make money when they sell a phone – they make money over the life of the phone from purchases on iTunes, iBooks, App Store etc. The worse a phone performs, the less people will use it and the less purchases the owner will make on it.

    I’d suggest that a part of the slowness is caused by developers dropping support for older devices as the release of a new device approaches.

    It doesn’t mean their software won’t run on older devices, but developers no longer see the need to make it run well – i.e. quick and responsive.

    As the iPhone 6 is about to be released, a lot of developers may well not see the need to spend time making their software run well on the iPhone 4/4s, let alone the iPhone 3G, as the pool of such devices will only continue to dwindle.

    Instead, they can concentrate on utilising all the power of the iPhones 5/5c/5s/6, to deliver a better experience on those phones – which leaves their apps sluggish on older models.

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