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What is Planned Obsolescence?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Planned obsolescence is the practice of manufacturing devices, products, or other commercially purchased goods designed with the intent of only having a specified lifetime or cycle of use. The practice can be seen in use in a number of fields and industries, and though it may not be seen as ethical by everyone, it is not illegal. Despite the intention behind planned obsolescence, these products are often still supported or provided with a manufacturer’s warranty for a certain amount of time. The obsolescence comes after this given amount of time, typically determined by what the manufacturers believe the market is willing to sustain.

Many people point to the American automotive industry as first developing and utilizing the concept of planned obsolescence, though a number of different industries have continued to utilize and perfect the practice. Regarding motor vehicles, the practice is generally seen as the use of materials or manufacturing methods that ensure a vehicle will only last a certain number of years before needing replacement. While some parts of a motor vehicle will always need to be replaced due to the nature of the engine, planned obsolescence takes this a step further and ensures that larger aspects of the vehicle, perhaps the entire vehicle itself, will have to be replaced in a shorter period of time. Many people look to how long cars used to last, when compared to newer cars that seem to need replacement within a much shorter time, as evidence of this type of practice.

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The computer hardware and software industries have also built their businesses upon a certain amount of planned obsolescence. While improvements to technology and breakthroughs in developmental processes may explain certain changes in what is provided, there is also evidence to indicate that some of these practices have carried over into the computer industry. This is often pointed to with certain software developers who create computer operating systems (OS) and release a new product every few years. The argument made to indicate that planned obsolescence is being used is especially strong as software developers stop supporting older versions of certain programs, requiring consumers to buy new versions to continue running other programs.

Typically, the practice of planned obsolescence is cast into a negative light, as consumers view it as a way for businesses to force them to spend more money. Defenders of such practices, however, point to the need for businesses to make profits and retain customers. If a perfect product that never needed to be replaced or upgraded was manufactured, they argue, then a business would only have a limited duration in which to sell such a product before every customer had one and would never need to replace it.

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