Samsung’s Unplanned Obsolescence


Samsung has killed its battery-exploding Galaxy Note 7 phone no more than two months after launching it in hopes of beating Apple’s new iPhone to stores. It’s predicted to lose $9.5 billion in sales, and $5.1 billion in profits through 2017.

It goes to show the kind of money involved in the planned obsolescence racket.

Vance Packard coined the term in his 1960 book “The Wastemakers,” in which he described the economic theory of purposefully limiting the productive lifetime of products, either through design or functional durability. He gave credit to GM for coming up with cosmetic additions for new model year cars that made last year’s models appear old and outdated (the fashion industry had relied on these cycles of “cosmetic” taste).

Planned obsolescence also allows manufacturers to create products that didn’t last as long, in expectation that customers would want to replace them for newer ones. This theory is apparent in iPhone design, for instance, as they seem to have been made to make it nearly impossible to fix them. Planned obsolescence is a component of a throwaway culture that discards things because they no longer work, let alone don’t look right.

It’s a potent business strategy because it focuses development on pre-existing customers and distribution channels, as it’s easier to invent upgrades and enhancements for known uses vs. new functions and benefits for unknown buyers. It also keeps factories humming along, since last year’s cool product will soon be discarded in lieu of this year’s version.

War is the ultimately most efficient application of planned obsolescence, since its bombs and bullets are designed to be used only once.

This is the racket that drove Samsung to rush its defective phone into production.

It had no radically new or important function to share with the world. Curved screen edges instead of flat, more pixels in its image renders, and other adds made it look and perform slightly differently than its predecessor, but those changes were all incremental. The Note 7 wasn’t all that terribly different from the Note 1, actually.

It was simply the newest, which made the most recently new one the “old” version, and was supposed to inspire its existing customers to buy it. It was always intended to blow up, at least symbolically; most tech products come with “sell by” dates.

The immense payoffs that come from playing this silly game moved Samsung to cut corners and rush a defective product to market. After all, it only had to function for two years or so (until customer payment plans were completed), or until the Note 8 was delivered (there have been more than one Note products/year since the line was introduced in 2011).

Instead, Apple will continue to execute its well-known big news/little news planned obsolescence announcement strategy (it’s rumored to be planning a MacBook event later this month). You can see most 2017 model cars and trucks online, and they make the 2016 models seem oh so one year old.

It wasn’t always this way.

Technology devices used to be built to last, getting obviated when true innovation made them obsolete. Sure, black and white TVs got better and smaller as the years went on, but the only really compelling reason to replace one was when color sets became available; in the meantime, there were local fix-it shops that helped you keep them running.

How about Trimline phones? Those things were built like tanks and, even though they did only one thing — you could talk and hear on them — they did it brilliantly and reliably. There was no reason to replace them, and you could have them repaired if there was a problem. There’s a laundry machine in my basement that has run for 15 years without fail (perhaps to the chagrin to the product marketers at Whirlpool).

Clothing was no different; save for the fashion conscious, keeping clothes year after year was considered a virtue, not a faux pas. Clothing was made to last, so it was often handed-down in families from one child to the next. Again, if needed, consumers were adept at repairing it, or there were services readily available to do so.

There’s an argument that shorter development cycles and performance lives means faster, more frequent innovation, and, after all, consumers like to buy new stuff, so who’s to judge it?

I’d counter that limited horizons limit vision; you only invent what can be built and sold in a short timeframe. Planned obsolescence is biased to incremental improvements, modifications, and the slightest of changes that can be labeled “upgrades.”

It’s the opposite of planned breakthroughs.

Imagine if Samsung had taken however many billions it squandered on adding things to the last Note, and instead innovated some stunningly necessary product? I wonder how many truly amazing innovations would happen if companies stopped trying to convince us that what we own is old, and worked to give us things that were truly new?

Or imagine if you chose to keep your smartphone another year instead of throwing it away for another smartphone that’s a different color, or repaired your refrigerator (or whatever) instead of assuming you’re supposed to buy another one. Maybe a patch on the hold in your sweater’s elbow might make more sense than spending money for a replacement?

You can bet that the engineers at Samsung are busily working on the Note 8, which it will get to market as fast as possible…sans exploding batteries, we hope, but with no expectations of giving us a product that’s relevant for more than the briefest of moments.

Manufacturers can plan obsolescence, but we don’t have to buy it.