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The Wall Street Journal on Planned Obsolescence (2002)
Commenters have raised some good questions about the veracity of author
Giles Slade’s claims, so I thought I’d post this 2002 article on planned
obsolescence from those radical rabble-rousers at the Wall Street Journal.
As of Tuesday, July 16, 2002
Companies Slash Warranties, Rendering Gadgets Disposable
By JANE SPENCER
Staff Reporter of THE
WALL STREET JOURNAL
A combination of shorter warranties and design changes means that
buyers of even relatively expensive gadgets now have little choice
but to throw them in the trash if anything breaks.
In the past year Dell Computer has slashed warranty periods from
three years to one. Apple Computer’s hot iPod digital-music player
comes with only a 90-day warranty. And Sony requires purchasers to
register to get a full year of support on a Clie organizer —
otherwise, they, too, get 90 days. In addition, many contracts on new
consumer electronics are riddled with strict conditions: The one-year
warranty on RCA digital camcorders, for example, covers only labor
costs for 90 days.
Even if people want to pay for repairs out of their own pockets, some
gadget makers are cutting off that option as well. Many hand-held
organizers from companies such as Handspring, Palm and
Hewlett-Packard have built-in rechargeable batteries that generally
can’t be replaced without sending the entire unit back to the
company. (Typical cost: $120.) Two earlier Palm models, the V and Vx,
were actually glued shut; the heat required to open them risks
damaging the unit. Some Qualcomm cellphones also have batteries that
are sealed inside the unit. But sealed units aren’t limited to the
small portable realm. VCRs throughout the ’80s were built with a
removable bottom plate. Now, they are typically made out of one
plastic shell that is tricky to open even for a professional.
"We joke that we design landfills," says Darren Blum, a senior
industrial engineer at Pentagram Design, which builds portable
devices and computers for companies like H-P.
It’s the latest chapter in the story of planned obsolescence, the
term coined to describe the trend of building things not to last. As
tech companies focus on pumping out new models, they aren’t doing as
much to help customers retain their current ones. They spend less
time on product testing, and offer customers less help when the
products break or malfunction. The result: Many cellphones, PDAs and
other gadgets are essentially becoming disposable devices.
The pace of new-product development plays a big role. Palm, for
example, introduced just six new PDA models from 1996 to 1999. Since
then, it has come out with 16 new models. As the time allotted to
designing electronics has dropped from years to weeks, testing
cycles, too, have been compressed. "No one that I know exhaustively
tests anything that’s built," says Prabha Gopinath, executive vice
president at TestQuest, which creates testing software used by
Handspring, Palm, Motorola and Nokia. "That goes for PDAs,
cellphones, any software that’s out there."
Manufacturers say they do extensive testing and add that prices on
gadgets have dropped so much that it’s cheaper to buy new than pay
for repairs. Between 1990 and 2001, average cellphone prices dropped
from $600 to $162. The average price of a CD player fell from $220 to
$85 over the same period.
But the newer the product, the shorter the life span: A
black-and-white TV sold in 1979 lasted for about 12 years; today, a
cutting-edge LCD-screen TV is replaced after five. Laptop computers
need to be fixed every 16 months on average, while hand-held
organizers last an estimated two years.
Faster than Peanut Butter
Kareem Shehata, an engineering student from Ontario, Canada, goes
through Palm organizers faster than he goes through jars of peanut
butter. He has had seven Palms in the past three years. One was
"flaky," he says, and worked only if he shook it. Several developed
"this digitizer schizophrenia thing" where the screen wouldn’t
register his stylus taps. Mr. Shehata opened up his seventh Palm and
temporarily fixed a loose component with a piece of Scotch tape, but
eventually, that one choked too. Palm replaced six of his broken
hand-helds with refurbished units, since the failures began under
Warranty lengths tend to be standard within product categories. But
some lesser-known companies are offering longer warranties to ease
concerns about the reliability of their products. Budget PC maker
Atlas Micro offers a three-year warranty on most parts, and a
lifetime guarantee on labor. On the flip side, established companies
may try to leverage their brand image to get away with unusually
short warranties . Apple’s iPod digital-music player offers just 90
days — against a full year for many lesser-known MP3 makers.
Sony adds extra hurdles, requiring some hand-held customers to jump
online and click through a battery of questions about their
electronics-buying habits in order to get a full year of support.
Tech companies have taken the area of product support, once a
standard service, and turned it into something customers have to pay
extra for. The result is the current boom in the extended-warranty
industry, with profits going to tech companies and the retailers that
administer these programs.
High Repair Costs
Another way tech companies encourage upgrades is by setting repair
costs prohibitively high. At Palm, getting a replacement for a
cracked screen costs $125 — even though Web-based repair companies
like GetHighTech.com manage to fix them for closer to $50. The site
also offers videos and guides to help users make basic repairs on
their units. STNECorp.com, another Web outfit, offers life-extending
repairs for Palms like button replacements.
But few customers know about these sites. In the end, many simply
decide it’s easier to buy a newer-model gadget than run the service
gauntlet thrown down by the tech companies.
Updated July 16, 2002
Posted by Carrie McLaren on 04/08/2007 | Permalink
The iPod has always had a one-year warantee for manufacturing defects
and other failures not related to abuse. The 90 days is just for telephone
Posted by: Nick | Apr 9, 2007 2:23:29 PM
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