Are manufacturers intentionally shortening the life of their computer products?

planned obsolescence

For several years now, consumers have had to deal with a scourge in spite of themselves that drives them to overconsumption: programmed obsolescence. This is a technique used by manufacturers to incentivize their customers to constantly buy their new devices.

In this article, we tell you more about this mania of manufacturers to voluntarily reduce thelife span of their IT products, and what can be done about it.

I. Programmed obsolescence, definition

Planned obsolescence is a method that manufacturers use in order to maximize the sale of their new models. To do this, they intentionally shorten the lifespan of their product.

They then use various techniques to ensure that the product in question cannot be used for a long time or repaired. One example is today's smartphones, which can no longer be opened as before. As a result, it is no longer possible to replace the battery when the old one is defective. Similarly, various repairs are no longer feasible: when controls are defective, it becomes impossible to solve the problem because the buttons are no longer physical, and therefore cannot be replaced or repaired.

Household appliances are also subject to programmed obsolescence: manufacturers use specific parts for each generation of their appliances. When the new generation of machines comes out, they stop producing spare parts for the old generations, and the latter become irreparable. Consumers are thus forced to buy a newer model.

We can distinguish several types of programmed obsolescence: technical obsolescence, software obsolescence, and aesthetic obsolescence.

  • Technical obsolescence

Technical obsolescence occurs when a product no longer functions because it uses components that have a limited life span and are not repairable. Indirect technical obsolescence occurs when there are no spare parts available to repair the product.

  • Software obsolescence

Software obsolescence applies mainly to computers, smartphones and other devices that rely on their software to function. Software obsolescence occurs when a new version of an application or software (such as a PC operating system) makes the old one obsolete.

This is also the case when the formats of the old version and the new version of the same software or application are made incompatible.

  • Aesthetic obsolescence

The term "cosmetic obsolescence" is used when a company introduces a new product in its promotional campaigns, and touts it as a significantly better model, when it has just done the same thing very recently with its previous product.

The company in question tries to convince us through its communication campaign that the new model is innovative and almost indispensable. This sales technique is also called the "old-fashioned effect".

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II. The iPhone in the line of fire

If one were to cite as an example a brand practicing programmed obsolescence to boost the sale of its new models, Apple would probably be at the top of the list. Indeed, the Apple brand has been known to use this practice for several years, especially with its iPhone.

Thus, the older generations of Apple smartphones, which were considered state-of-the-art when they were released, have now become obsolete. Worse, many models can no longer receive updates and are now almost unusable.

Apple has also developed a (bad) habit of using unique components and technologies not found in other brands. Thanks to this technique, the firm manages to control the production and availability of different spare parts.

This puts consumers in a difficult position:

  • or they simply can't find parts to repair their damaged smartphone, so they have to buy a new model,
  • or they have to pay full price for the repair, since Apple has the exclusivity of the repair part.

Moreover, in 2017, Apple even admitted to voluntarily throttling the performance of some older iPhones, in order to preserve their battery life. Faced with this practice, which is abusive to say the least, some 30 American states as well as several consumer protection associations (such as the French association Halte à l'Obsolescence Programmée) have accused Apple of intentionally programming the obsolescence of its iPhones, in order to make more profits.

In 2020, the firm finally paid a sum of 113 million dollars to end the proceedings. In France, it was also fined 25 million euros for programmed obsolescence of its iPhones.

Apple is now obliged to inform its users when it releases an update that may slow down their smartphone. And yet, despite these measures and sanctions, the Apple still refuses to acknowledge its wrongs.

III. The alternatives

Since 2015, the law has prohibited the practice of planned obsolescence, in order to prevent waste and not push the public to overconsumption. Manufacturers have since responded by offering advice and replacement parts to enable the repair of their products.

It was also found that do-it-yourself workshops are organized to teach consumers and professionals how to repair various broken or malfunctioning objects.

Measures have also been taken concerning household appliances and electronics: these devices now have a label that indicates whether they are easy to repair or not: this is the reparability index.

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IV. The reparability index

The repairability index is a new mandatory ecological indicator set up by the government. This indicator aims to raise consumer awareness in the fight against programmed obsolescence, and to encourage the possibility of repairing faulty products. As part of the anti-waste law in favor of a circular economy, manufacturers are now obliged to inform their consumers about the repairability of the devices they market.

Each electrical and electronic device must have an indicator, whether it is sold in stores or online. The repairability indicator is presented as a score out of 10 and a colored logo. The highest score (closest to 10) and with a green logo means that the device can be repaired easily, and that there are many spare parts. The lower the score, the more difficult (if not impossible) it will be to repair the device in question.

Currently, only 40% of electronic and electrical appliances can be repaired. The government aims to increase this figure to 60% within 5 years. The devices targeted are mainly household appliances, laptops, smartphones, lawnmowers, and televisions.

The reparability index for the above-mentioned devices is based on five criteria:

  • availability of documentation
  • availability of spare parts
  • the price of spare parts
  • accessibility and removability of the device
  • the specific criterion for the category of the device in question.
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V. Making the right choice

So we can see that efforts are being made by the government in an effort to combat programmed obsolescence, and to encourage consumers to have their products repaired, rather than systematically buying new devices.

It is therefore up to us, as consumers, to take responsibility and ensure that the equipment and machines we buy have a long life. But above all, we must ensure that they are repaired as long as it is feasible. It is not only a question of saving money, since it is a real ecological act.

If it was not easy before, opting for durable and repairable products should now be simplified, especially with the mandatory reparability indicators.

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