Planned Obsolescence

This happened a few years ago, and I can’t believe I didn’t write an essay at the time, but I didn’t. So here it is.

We’ve all heard of “planned obsolescence”, and you’re probably run into it from time to time without realizing it. It’s when they build products which are designed to fail after a certain lifetime, rather than building them to last forever (more or less). The reason for this is rather obvious. If they sell you a coffee maker that lasts forever, then you’ll never buy a new one from them, the theory goes. From a consumer’s perspective, this is pretty underhanded. But from the manufacturer’s and retailer’s perspective, it’s just good business. Imagine the car business if you bought a car and hung onto it for twenty years or more (which I’ve done). Eventually, there would be no reason to come out with new car models every year, etc.

Well, I had an example of this the other day which was so blatant, I had to write about it.

Electronics is an area where planned obsolescence is hard to build in to a product. Electronic components often last for decades. This wasn’t always true. Back in the days before transistors and integrated circuits, everything was tubes instead. And because most tubes relied on hot filaments to operate (more or less like incandescent light bulbs), it was guaranteed they would eventually fail. At the time, this wasn’t necessarily by design. It was known that tubes would eventually fail, which was why a lot of electronic devices were built with tube sockets. When a tube went bad, you took the gizmo to a repairman, and he’d track down the bad tube, pull it out and replace it with a new one. If they’d soldered the tube itself straight in to the circuit board, that process would have been a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

But electronic components today are a lot more reliable because of semiconductors and the components made from them. Unfortunately, when they do fail, you don’t typically attempt to replace them. You just buy a new one. You could repair them but the special expertise required to do that and the expense in doing it typically means that it’s not worth it.

But there are times when something electronic cannot be made to fail, must be helped along, at least according to the manufacturer. I ran across this a while back.

Years (maybe more than a decade) ago, my wife and I bought a noise machine. This is a gizmo you turn on which makes a constant sound to cover other sounds you don’t want to hear. We live on a busy intersection, and we used this one to generate white noise to drown out traffic sounds at night while we’re asleep. This thing worked flawlessly for a long long time.

And then one day it just quit. No warning. No sound, no nothing. So I figured, well, it worked for a good long time; I guess we’ll have to buy another one. But being the curious lad I am, I decided that, since the thing didn’t work, it wouldn’t hurt to pull it apart and see what was inside. So I did. I carefully unscrewed the front from that back, and suddenly I was looking at the ciruit board for the whole thing. I’m not a big electronics guy, so all I could really do was say, “that’s a resistor” and “that’s a capacitor” and so one. But I noticed an oddity. Right in the middle of the circuit board was a push button switch. I looked on the outside of the device, and there was no provision for it on the outside of the thing. I remember wondering why you’d put a push button switch on a circuit board, but not make it available on the outside of the device. And of course, I wondered what the switch was for.

So I did what any other goofball would do in my place, I pushed the switch. Nothing obvious happened. But I decided to try to turn the device on and see if it made any difference. Sure enough, the noise maker came back to life. I put it back together, and it’s operated smoothly ever since.

So here was a device which had stopped working after years of faithful service. It hadn’t blown a fuse or anything. It had just stopped working. It had a “reset switch”, but it wasn’t available on the outside of the device, so the typical consumer could access it. So if you were just another Joe Bloggs or whoever, you wouldn’t normally open the dang thing up and look for something like that. You’d just throw it away and, like a good little consumer, buy another machine. It was only because I’m overly curious that I happened to take the thing apart and notice an odd switch inside, that I managed to salvage the gizmo.

But I had to wonder about the manufacturer. They put that switch there, unreachable, for reasons known only to them. And apparently, designed the whole thing to give up after some period, hoping the consumer would just replace it, rather than getting overly curious and working out what the manufacturer had done.

Pretty dishonest and underhanded as far as I was concerned.

But there you have it. A real life example of a device designed to fail after a time. I have to wonder why they even put that switch there in the first place. No telling. But a definite example of “planned obsolescence”.