Collins English Dictionary defines planned obsolescence as “the policy of deliberately limiting the life of a product in order to encourage the purchaser to replace it”. Talks about planned obsolescence were revived when Apple admitted it slowed down older iPhones last December. READ: Apple admits slowing older iPhones because of ageing batteries.

For clarity, Apple’s reason for throttling down older iPhone’s processors in its new software updates is to prevent older models, with aged batteries, from suddenly shutting down. Apple considers this as a feature, not a bug. Users have long been suspecting that Apple slows down old models, but were only made aware of the deliberate nature behind it until now. Hence, Apple received backlash for this and eight lawsuits have been filed in the US alone.

Whether this counts as planned obsolescence is debatable, and will be up for the courts to judge. But with the throttling down of their phones, users of older models will have to buy newer iPhone models or new batteries for their old phones to enjoy peak performance. Or they can ditch iPhones altogether and buy a smartphone from other brands. To be fair, Apple issued a statement addressing user concerns, and have reduced the price of new batteries.

In any case, users will still have to buy a new gadget.

Historical Examples

In 1924, the car market in the US started reaching saturation as more people owned cars. Back then, there was no point in buying a new car as long as the old one works. There just wasn’t any difference between the old and new ones. Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., the president of General Motors, established changing the style of car models annually. The idea was to suggest to car owners that they need to buy replacements each year as “new” cars roll out. He is one of the people credited to have given birth to planned obsolescence.

Sloan’s idea of planned obsolescence for the automobile industry may be argued to have simply been taken from the fashion industry. Though utility remains the same, it still requires effort from the manufacturers to improve the car models’ design. It may be limited to aesthetics, but there are still some hints of innovation.

A more destructive and backward example of planned obsolescence is in the shortening of the lifespan of lightbulbs in the 1920s. The Phoebus cartel, a collusion among top lightbulb manufactures such as Germany’s Osram, United Kingdom’s Associated Electrical Industries, United States’ General Electric (GE), and Japan’s Tokyo Electric among many others; also started to form in 1924. One of its key contributions to the concept of planned obsolescence is the engineering of lightbulbs that reliably failed after 1,000 hours from its previous burning time of 1,500 to 2,500 hours.

Then we compare this to the Centennial Light still shining in Livermore, California since 1901, and we’re left thinking of how many more other products should be lasting us longer than they currently do.

Planned Obsolescence Today

Planned obsolescence is definitely still widely practiced today. Many products are easier to replace than to maintain or repair, giving birth to disposable versions such as pens, cameras, watches, razors, printer cartridges, and many more. Avoiding the cheap, disposable versions obviously goes hand-in-hand with spending more to buy the longer lasting ones, some of which are in the luxury market.

Accidental or planned, it is only natural that most things will become obsolete in time. I purposefully said most, since some things in life are timeless. A few examples I can give are music, learning and teaching, the human desire to be understood, and the need for a common language. These things, while intangible, do not go out of style; they cannot be rendered obsolete.

Many things become obsolete in time and there’s no arguing in that. Technology will always move forward and companies will always come up with new and better products to replace old ones. There’s also the idea that we live in a consumerist society where we are driven to buy what’s new, what’s trending, what’s stylish, and whatever else. So the next time you see that latest phone model you’ve been dreading to buy, ask yourself first if it’s really going to be worth your hard-earned money to splurge just to keep up with what’s hip. Be reminded that not all necessities in life come with a price tag. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery puts it, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”