Sunday, December 6, 2009

The PC Industry and Planned Obsolescense

Planned obsolescence is a wonderful marketing construct for manufacturers. They design products to fail over time rather than last. They can even program in the expected life span of the product.

Planned obsolescence propelled Detroit’s wealth into the 1970’s, long past the time most Americans owned a functioning automobile.

Obsolescence can be promoted by style and image changes. For example, the Ford Falcon was a perfectly excellent, but staid, compact car. Lee Iacocca invested $90 million in style changes, and rebadged the bland Falcon into a sporty Mustang. The only initial change in the vehicle was the external sheet metal. An entire new market was created for “Pony cars.” Mustangs, Cougars, Camaros, Firebirds, Barracudas, Javelins raced out of Detroit. Jazz up a full size car, and you have a GTO, 442, 409, Chargers, and Road Runners.

Detroit hyped the annual model change when prices were low, and then followed with the three year model cycle, eventually stretching to 5-6-7 years.

If style changes didn’t sell cars, then planned quality deterioration could. Thus, Detroit vehicles would have trouble lasting 70,000-80,000 miles without expensive breakdowns and repairs. Those “old”cars could nickel and dime you into economic poverty.

Several critical parts, such as brakes, pads, calipers, and clutches, cannot last because of the forces of friction. Even transmissions, even the fabled Slant 6, wore out. Tires, batteries, wipers, lights, carburetors, and mufflers similarly have limited lives.

Tradeoffs are necessary in the design process. For example, if a patient needing a hip transplant has a 3 year life expectancy, and if the choice is a hip transplant with a 5 year life, or a more expensive one with a 10 year life, then the medical profession will probably implant the 5 year hip.

But that doesn’t explain why the mufflers on our Horizon and Omni would burn off very two years, just like clockwork.

That’s too short a period, just like 12,000 for brakes.

Chrysler designed the Horizon and Omni to save weight in the late 1970’s. Every ounce, or fraction thereof, was cut. Thus, these cars were designed with “feather” clutches. I burnt out three clutches in 16 years, once in a underground parking garage in New York City. Whatever I saved in gas went into the clutch.

The Frost Belt also favored Detroit. Road salt accelerates the normal oxidization process (rust) of the metal in cars.

Planned obsolescence by Detroit confronted the well built German and Japanese cars. The Japanese, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan, built economical cars that lasted.

What a revolutionary concept!

Detroit’s fate was sealed.

Silicon Valley has learnt from Detroit. It utilizes planned obsolescence in both hardware and software.

Our first computer was an Apple II+, extended to 64K (64K, not 6GB), purchased 27 years ago. That Apple did almost everything. The only additional program that was desirable was VisiCalc, the pioneering spread sheet.

The computer with monitor, printer, and speakers sold for $2,750.

It lasted us for ten years, but somewhere along the way Apple stopped supporting both the software and hardware. If it broke, then it was history – a true harbinger of the future.

Apple and the industry discovered the value of orphaning products.

We donated the II+ to a local elementary school, which squeezed a few more years out of it.

We purchased an IBM 486. The 486 had a limited life though because of exponential advances in technology. Intel soon marketed the Pentium chip, and the innards of the 486 could not keep up with modem speeds, software needs, etc.

The rugged HP printer outlived the PC.

Equipment, such as the 486, becomes obsolete when technology is rapidly advancing.

Memory became cheap, and Microsoft software a programming pig, but computers prices dropped sharply from the $2,750 Apple.

Recent years though have witnessed few major changes in PC’s. Apple and Microsoft may be engaged in OS battles, but 5 year old computers function perfectly fine. Business does not need to replace them on a 3 year cycle, and often doesn’t.

Microsoft depends on planned software obsolescence to sell computers, but finally failed with Vista, a true clunker. Apple is the technology pioneer.

5 year old computers serve our needs.

If they last to 5 years!

And if Apple and the PC manufacturers would support them!

Hard drives and batteries have relatively short lives.

The hard drive of our 4 year old HP desktop died last August, and our 4 ½ year old Toshiba laptop celebrated Thanksgiving by dying. Neither was worth fixing with the drop in new computer prices compared to service costs. In the old Apple, the loss of a key necessitated replacing the whole keyplate. The Toshiba would have required a new board.

Sometimes the only way to clean a computer is to wipe out the hard drive and reload the original software. Notice though how the PC manufacturers do no longer include a recovery disk in the purchase. You make your own – maybe,

We didn’t need, much less want Vista, but alas got it with the new desktop. It performs up to expectations.

We did our best to single handily keep Apple, HP, Sony, and Best Buy in business this past year – often through planned obsolescence.

Manufacturers discovered a whole new revenue stream in recent years, the extended service contract. Pay $XXX for 2-3-4 years of protection, for years in which the product should reasonable have expected to not break down. Make sure to carefully read the fine print and deductibles.

Extended service plans, right up there with planned obsolescence.

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