Unplanned Obsolescence in Consumer Electronics

Aug 03 2020
by Nirav Patel
Photo by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels

Planned obsolescence is a source of a lot of frustration in consumer electronics.  You might imagine there is a boardroom full of executives smoking cigars and deciding how to make products stop working right after warranties expire. The reality is a much more complex sequence of failures, with the outcome that obsolescence is usually unplanned.

Device Failures

These failures usually come from an assumption that consumers care more about how a product works on the day they buy it than over the years they own and use it.

One of the most common failures is the slow death of a product through battery degradation.  Modern lithium-ion batteries can go through 500 to 1000 recharge cycles before they wear down to 80% of their original capacity.  For a product you use daily like a phone, smartwatch, or headphones, that’s 16-32 months before battery life is noticeably shorter, and life will continue to decrease beyond that point.  Most devices have useful lifetimes much longer than the batteries they contain.  The AirPods you bought in 2016 still have all the features you need in 2020, but battery degradation has made them unusable.  Unfortunately, exceedingly few current products are designed to allow battery replacement.  Even if they aren’t welded and glued shut like AirPods, original-quality batteries are almost never made available.  The result is that products feel as though they were designed to wear down, forcing you to buy new ones.

A second example is when software obsoletes hardware.  Recently, Sonos announced that their pre-2015 products would stop getting software updates and could be optionally software bricked to get a discount on a new device (a position they partially walked back from).  To Sonos, this likely felt like a perfectly reasonable move.  Hardware that is several generations old and probably designed by people who no longer worked there is challenging to maintain and limited the ability to bring out new features and products.  To the consumer though, it felt unreasonable for a 6 kilogram speaker to stop working because a few grams of chips were out of date.

There are specific design and engineering solutions for both of these issues, but we need behavioral changes by both creators and consumers to truly fix consumer electronics.

Actions Product Makers can take

There are a couple of straightforward but powerful shifts a company can take to go from unplanned obsolescence to planned non-obsolescence.  Modern technology companies and the people in them are massively data driven.  An enormous amount of energy goes into capturing metrics and optimizing against them.  Internal goals and performance incentives in consumer electronics typically revolve around meeting schedule targets, sales volume, review scores, return rates, and so on, but rarely consider what happens to the hardware over its full lifetime.  A simple improvement is adding environmental impact and device longevity metrics to the list to ensure the teams building products consider those in the overall optimization balance.  Tying compensation to battery replaceability and long software support lifespans is a great way to make sure it gets done!

Another key action to take is avoiding cargo cult design: copying the leaders in the space without understanding what made them successful.  A common tactic in consumer electronics is to do something because Apple does it.  Because Apple glues in their batteries and Apple is successful, consumers must be ok with glued in batteries, right?  Instead, designers should take the time to understand both what their target audiences want out of their products and what is truly feasible from a design and architecture standpoint.  There is almost always a better optimization for your product and audience than attempting to replicate Apple’s success by following their design ethos.

Finally, it’s hard to predict the future and your ability to support a product years after launch.  Preemptively designing for longevity may not always be possible.  As a mitigation though, you can open up specifications around your hardware and software interfaces or even open source parts of your designs to allow your customers to find their own ways to extend product life.  Often, they will find ways to do this even if you don’t, like the recent example of making a Flywheel exercise bike work again after the service was shut down.

Actions to take as a Consumer

Crucially, the actions above rely on companies actually wanting to make their devices last longer.  The best way to drive that change as a consumer is to focus your purchases on companies that already do that.  Check how long previous products from a company were supported with software updates.  Browse ratings on iFixit and EPEAT for the product or similar ones from the same company to see if:

1. The battery is end-user replaceable.

2. Original replacement parts are made available to consumers and repair shops.

3. Key modules likely to wear out, break, or go out of date are accessible and not glued or welded in.

4. Repair manuals are made available.

Of course, another way to convince device makers that device longevity is both important and feasible is to build products that way and compete with them!  This is exactly what we’re doing at Framework.  If that sounds interesting to you, we’re hiring across a range of roles to fulfill our mission.

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