Thursday, November 3, 2005

Innovation and planned obsolescence

Business Times p.B3
Thursday, November 3, 2005

By Moje Ramos-Aquino, FPM
Innovation and planned obsolescence

WHATEVER happened to the typewriter, horse-drawn carriage, betamax, VHS, luksung-tinik, palo-palo, gabardine, Wordstar and other things and processes we used to have?

Yes, there is such a thing as planned obsolescence. Like right now there is a race among automobile makers and enthusiasts to render obsolete gas-guzzling cars and make them run on cheap alternative fuel like water, air, electricity, or even pizza pie. Presently there are many car models that have moved into hybrid fuel efficiency and net-centric electronics for safety, fuel economy and convenience.

According to “Planned or built-in obsolescence is the conscious decision on the part of an agency to produce a consumer product that will become obsolete in a defined time frame. Planned obsolescence has great benefits for a producer. It means a consumer will buy his product repeatedly, as the old one is no longer functional or desirable. It exists in many products—from vehicles to light bulbs, from buildings to software. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers that become aware of such obsolescence; such consumers can shed their loyalty and buy from a company that caters to their desire for a more durable product.”

Wikipedia cites three types of planned obsolescence and describes them as:

Technical or functional obsolescence. The design of most consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. For instance, no auto-parts maker would run the extra cost of ensuring a part lasts for 40 years if few cars spend more than five years on the road. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.

Planned obsolescence is made more likely by having the cost of repairs being comparable to replacement costs, or by actually refusing to provide service or parts any longer. A product might even never have been serviceable. For instance Microsoft no longer provides customer support for Windows 95, creating a greater incentive to buy a more up-to-date version of Windows.

Creating new lines of products that do not interoperate with older products can also make an older model quickly obsolete, forcing replacement.

Style obsolescence. Marketing may be driven primarily by aesthetic design. Product categories where this is the case display a fashion cycle. By continually introducing new designs and retargeting or discontinuing others, a manufacturer can “ride the fashion cycle.” Examples of such product categories include automobiles (style obsolescence), with a strict yearly schedule of new models, and the almost entirely style-driven clothing industry (riding the fashion cycle).

Expiry dates. Many products today have expiry dates long before they become inedible or unusable. Potato chips or soft drinks have dates that if exceeded will not be hazardous, but the date compels people to throw away and buy more, rather than save. Products like milk and yogurt also err greatly on the side of caution, meaning, that vast amounts of perfectly good food are thrown out each year that must then be replaced by consumers. Other products, like razors or toothbrushes, also have dates past which they can be used with no ill effects.

Planned obsolescence could have beneficial or detrimental effects. Most benefits would be expediency, economy, safety, beauty, efficiency and many others.

Is planned obsolescence socially responsible? What about alone or with a driver driving in the horrendous traffic in Metro Manila with a four-wheel drive SUV? Or the copying machine that gives anybody a license to make awful number of unnecessary copies of documents without regard to the trees that have to be cut down to make paper. Or styrofoam that kills fish and other sea creatures.

Or as a good friend laments, as soon as you marry a guy, he becomes useless, unromantic and nonchivalrous. That’s planned diversion so you don’t get in the way of their boys night out or bowling Sunday, r otary activities and watching basketball games on TV.

Accelerated learning workshop for public elementary school teachers. The Rotary Clubs of Quezon City North, New Manila Heights, New Manila South, Quezon City Southwest, Capitol Hills and Diliman are planning to make boring lectures obsolete by sharing with teachers creative and caring techniques of learning. Join us by becoming a sponsor. Our next class will be on four Saturdays starting November 12 at Aurora Quezon Elementary School.

(Moje is president of Paradigms and Paradoxes Corp. and RCQC North. Her e-mail address is

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