Planned Obsolescence v2.0

Nick Bilton had a perceptive piece in the New York Times about Apple’s product strategy.

Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s vice president for marketing, strode across the stage of the California Theater in San Jose last week trumpeting the virtues of new Apple products. As he caressed the side of the latest iMac personal computer, he noted how thin it was — five millimeters, 80 percent thinner than the last one. Then he said, with an air of surprise, as if he’d just thought of it: “Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing instantly look old?”

Umm, yes, Mr. Schiller, you design your products that way. It’s part of a strategy that Apple has perfected. How else can the company persuade people to replace their perfectly fine iPhone, iPad, iMac and iEverything else year after year?

It’s called planned obsolescence and it’s an old marketing trick. Mr Bilton traces it back to Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer who specialised in automobile design in the 1950s. He’s the guy who inspired cosmetic changes (tail fins etc) on American gas-guzzlers of the period to ensure that new models always made their predecessors look dated.

But actually the idea goes back even further than that. Wikipedia traces it to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet entitled Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence, the nub of which was that the government should impose legal obsolescence on consumer articles in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumption.

The funny thing about Apple’s strategy is how blatant it is. I have an iPhone 4 which is a perfectly satisfactory device, in the sense that it does everything I need from a phone. But with the launch of the iPhone 5 my handset has suddenly become the oldest iPhone that the company will support. It’s been scheduled for obsolescence, in other words, not because of any functional inadequacy but because its continuation threatens Apple’s corporate need to have me ‘upgrade’ to a device that I don’t actually need.

When researching his piece, Mr Bilton spoke to Don Norman, who is a real design guru IMHO and who observed that consumer electronics companies like Apple

have adopted the same marketing techniques the automobile industry perfected decades ago. Introduce fancy upgrades to the top and then, each year, push them down to lower-tiered products. This way, customers on every level feel the need to buy a newer version. “This is an old-time trick — they’re not inventing anything new,” he said. “Yet it’s to the detriment of the consumer and the environment, but perhaps to the betterment of the stockholder.”

He added: “For Apple, you forgot the other trick: change the plugs!” While the rest of the electronics industry has adopted micro-USB ports, Apple just changed the proprietary ports and plugs on all of its latest devices — laptops, iPads and iPhones included.

Spot on. We laugh derisively at our fathers’ (and grandfathers’) pathetic obsessions with tail-fins and chrome fittings. And then we contemplate the long queues of mugs lining up to buy the latest glass rectangle from Cupertino and ask: are we getting smarter?

Answer: no.