Planned Obsolescence Is Why Some Products Aren't Built to Last

These days, it's the most common conspiracy theory out there: Smartphone manufacturers specifically design phones so that they'll peter out in a couple of years, forcing you to buy a new one. So, is it true? When it comes to smartphones, the answer is complicated, but that practice of building products to become obsolete — whether functionally or fashionably — is indeed a thing. It's even got a name: planned obsolescence.

Watch: What Is Planned Obsolescence?

The Light Bulb Moment

Planned obsolescence sounds like a recent stroke of marketing genius, but it's actually fairly old. To find the first product designed to break down, you have to go way, way back to the advent of the light bulb. The incandescent light bulbs unveiled by Thomas Edison around 1880 didn't use the flimsy tungsten filaments of today. Instead, they used thick carbon wires, which lasted much, much longer. How much longer? Just take a look at the Centennial Bulb: a carbon-filament light bulb that's been shining continuously for more than 115 years.

That was perfect for early power companies, who maintained not only city electrical systems, but also the bulbs themselves. But soon, the model shifted to have consumers buy their own light bulbs, and companies realized they could make a lot of money by shortening the lifespan of their products. So it began in 1924 with the infamous Phoebus cartel, where light bulb companies from throughout the world assembled in Geneva to engineer a lightbulb that lasted only 1,000 hours.

This was incredibly illegal, and many of those companies were later taken to court over their violation of antitrust laws, but the damage was done: Planned obsolescence had been introduced to the world. Soon, it cropped up in all sorts of areas, from the garment industry with the use of less durable materials to the automotive industry with the introduction of model years.

Check Out My Shiny Old Phone

Today, planned obsolescence is less of a sneaky tactic than it is a standard marketing strategy. From printer cartridges to nylon stockings to textbooks, it seems like everything we buy these days is designed to kick the bucket earlier than it should. But that's not all nefarious. For one thing, planned obsolescence makes things less expensive for consumers. A car that lasts for 50 years isn't worth much to you if you can't afford to buy it. For another thing, it doesn't make sense for some products to last forever. Children's clothes, for instance, usually get too small long before they wear out. (But there are exceptions.) And finally, some industries advance at such a rapid pace that their products can't help but become obsolete. The next new thing is always around the corner.

That's where smartphones fall. Certainly, there are some strategies companies use to make sure you buy a new, shiny gadget before you have to — some software upgrades are only rolled out to new devices, for example. But at the breakneck pace the technology is advancing, phones can't help but get old fast. "If ever there was true obsolescence, it's in technology," Howard Tullman, CEO of the startup incubator 1871 tells the BBC. "It's almost as if the technology takes care of itself — this will obsolete itself whether you like it or not."

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Written by Ashley Hamer August 6, 2017

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