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New Technology vs Planned Obsolescence

based on an old Google plus article from 2015:

What you observe as Planned Obsolescence is often the natural outcome of fast product cycles that are necessary for any new technology.

When a new thing arrives in the market, it is often barely viable, a minimum viable product. We are remembering the iPhone 1 as revolutionary, but we chose to forget about is slowness, its clunkyness and the very limited feature set it had. And those of us having purchased a car with built-in satnav now have to deal with a car radio where you have to choose between listening to a CD or putting in the outdated CD-ROM with navigation data – and then wait for a minute until you get the route.

We made considerable progress with satnav systems, and because navigation system product cycles are much shorter than the lifetime of a car, it’s a good idea to have them separate and be able to independently upgrade the satnav. Smart people purchased a suction cup satnav, threw that out three years ago and are using their cellphone now for car navigation.

New products in consumer electronics are often have an initial cycle time of 6-12 months. Every further iteration adds about 3-6 months of additional usefulness. Starting with iteration 4 or 5 your can expect a device to have normal lifetimes. If it’s a mobile device it will be good for about 3 years, until it is being destroyed or useless in the course of normal use.

There are people with mobile phones or laptops older than 3 years, but that are often persons that are using their device mostly stationary in a protected environment. But even with stationary use, it’s over after about 6 years.

Why is that?

Moore’s law claims a duplication of compute power in our devices every 18-24 months, or 45% per year. So after 6 years we get about an order of magnitude of improvement. And that’s a completely different class of machine than 6 years before.

Of course you can start a debate on planned obsolescence. The European Parliament in fact just did. But as long as we are dealing with industries and products with a change rate this high, this is of very limited use. Only after stabilizing a technology, when the growth in power is over, when the search for product feature sets is finished and we have a defined and stable set of features, fixed expectations, when the research and innovation are done, we can look at lifetimes and obsolescence.

At this point in time for consumer electronics this is not really useful.

So if it is inevitable that the devices will be obsolescent because of innovation, the focus has to be on recycling in order to win.

Another issue: Moore’s law actually changes the way we access the same product. Checking email once required a desktop machine with a 150W power supply. Then we had laptops, with less than 30W power draw to do the same. Today you are using a cellphone to check mail, with a power draw of 1W or less to achieve the same result.

That is not possible with the same type of device. So todays email reads have no power supply, no separate monitor and no keyboard any more.

They also can’t be opened or extended.

Moore’s law works because of integration. There is no CPU, there is a System-on-a-Chip. You can’t simply replace a blown condenser, it’s now ‘replace the control module’ or even ‘replace the entire device’.

That’s not wrong at all, see my comments on Project Ara (in german). If you want a small and robust device, you have to tolerate that parts that shall not fall off can’t come off. Or at least require proper tools in order to disassemble the thing, see the park of special repair tools available to licensed Apple dealers in order to do proper non-destructive maintenance on Apple devices.

Published inComputer ScienceErklärbärEurope


  1. Yes.

    And no: My first washing machine was a used used one. At the time I chose to replace it with a new one instead of having a wearing part replaced for around 170€ because of energy efficiency it must have been around 15 years old. The last new one my parents bought from the same manufacturer (still the same company, no merger no trademark-was-bought-by-some-other-company) was an economic total loss after around 5 years for some electronics foo. I don’t think, there’s a lot of innovation going on in the field of washing machines. Was this planned? I don’t know, I even guess not. According to the technician there is/was a big quality problem for many when the EU limited the use of lead solder. So the first generations of electronics after 2006 die after 5-10 years.

  2. AndreasLobinger

    “If it’s a mobile device it will be good for about 3 years, until it is being destroyed or useless in the course of normal use.” – oversimplification of the situation.

    I’m reading this blog most of the time with a Google Nexus 5 mobile device that’s now 3.5 years old and doesn’t show any weaknesses in the course of normal use (webbrowsing, messaging, some video etc.).

    The elephant in the room is obsolence (planned or not) by discontinuing SW maintenance. So perfectly fine HW that’s useless because some decision was taken not to support the customer.

  3. Markus

    “Only after stabilizing a technology”
    Yes, but this point was reached for smartphones at least 5 years ago and for PC/Notebooks even earlier. But of course, there are all these new and shiny IoT-devices.

    “Moore’s law claims a duplication of compute power”
    No, it does not. If you had read the linked Wikipedia article you’d know it’s about the number of transistors and not about performance.

    “So after 6 years we get about an order of magnitude of improvement”
    You sure have some examples for that, haven’t you? Because it isn’t true for CPU power or RAM.

    “They also can’t be opened or extended.”
    That’s just because size is of utmost importance. Unlike repairability, which is rather unimportant.

    “There is no CPU, there is a System-on-a-Chip. ”
    Yes, but the difference is almost academic. Nowadays most CPUs have lots of extra stuff built-in.

    “You can’t simply replace a blown condenser”
    Most companies developing electronics have people who build and repair the prototypes. They’re usually able to replace even a SoC or the RAM. In my opinion, the problems are
    a) diagnosis, because you get no circuit diagram and even if you do, diagnosing these advanced digital circuits is often very difficult.
    b) You don’t get single parts.
    c) It’s time consuming and therefore expensive.

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