At an electronics repair industry conference last week, an exec for one of the nation’s largest tech lobbying groups said that he and the industry are “stunned” by the fact that many consumers believe planned obsolescence is real. He added that consumer complaints about device longevity and repairability “are not from any sort of plan, a conspiracy, but frankly because these companies compete with each other today on providing the best value for their customers and for the public demand that’s out there.”
The remarks were made by Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which represents thousands of device manufacturers, throws the annual CES trade show in Las Vegas, and has been one of the lobbying groups most consistently opposing right to repair legislation. Alcorn said this several weeks before Google will officially stop providing guaranteed critical security updates for the Pixel 5, a flagship smartphone that was released less than three years ago.
“Planned obsolescence,” broadly speaking, is the idea that manufacturers plan for the products they sell to break after a certain length of time so that customers will have to buy new products.
“One of the things that has really stunned a lot of us in the industry is the assumption of so many folks out there, just in the general public, that manufacturers are somehow against reuse. There seems to be an underlying assumption that manufacturers want to sell as many products and have them die as quickly as possible,” Alcorn said during a panel at the Electronics Reuse Conference, a repair-and-ewaste industry conference I attended in New Orleans. “That seems to almost be one of the accepted truths out there, and not sure exactly where it came from. Because certainly, I’ve never seen it. Personally, I've been working in the industry for two decades now.”
CTA represents Apple, Samsung, Google, and thousands of other manufacturers, big and small. It spent $3.6 million on federal lobbying in 2022 and has spent $2 million on federal lobbying so far in 2023, in addition to state lobbying expenditures, according to the transparency group Open Secrets. CTA has lobbied against right to repair legislation in multiple states, with Alcorn himself serving as a spokesperson for big tech about why right to repair laws shouldn’t be passed. During the panel, Alcorn added that device reuse and longevity creates challenges for manufacturers who are constantly trying to innovate and make new models of devices that people want to buy.
“I don't think a lot of the challenges that we've seen, and the complaints that we've heard, I think are not from any sort of plan, you know, a conspiracy, but frankly, it's because these companies compete with each other today on providing the best value for their customers and for the public demand that's out there,” he said. “The obsession of these companies is providing the best possible product they can put on the market. And now, we are hearing more and more and some of this is the law, about those issues of ‘Okay, what about everything that's five years old, 10 years old?’ And we're accommodating that but as we do that, let's not, let's not put a damper on the innovation that has gotten us this far.”
Alcorn is seemingly using the cartoonishly evil definition of planned obsolescence, and is assuming that people think that companies are putting kill switches in their devices that are timed to go off immediately after a product’s warranty expires.
This sort of kill switch does not exist (to my knowledge), but manufacturers can and do design products that have a limited lifespan. Take, for example, the Pixel 5, which was released on October 14, 2020 for a cost of $700. Google is ending guaranteed security updates on October 14, 2023, exactly three years after it was released. To a cybersecurity professional, high risk targets, or anyone who cares about their security, the device will become “obsolete” once it no longer gets security updates, a software strategy that was “planned” by Google’s hardware, software, and security teams.
AirPods of all types are another gadget that have a limited lifespan, by design. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have a finite number of charging cycles before they begin to lose capacity, and the battery cannot be replaced without literally destroying them. SoundGuys, a headphone enthusiast website, estimates that AirPods begin to lose capacity after about 500 charging cycles, though other sources suggest they can retain max capacity for 1,000 charging cycles. Either way, any pair of AirPods will eventually become obsolete, in a planned way, due to its product design and the inherent limitations of lithium-ion batteries. There are also countless devices that have died artificial deaths because their manufacturer has stopped supporting them, a software update broke it entirely, the company was sold to a competitor who shut down a cloud service needed for them to continue operating, or were going to stop supporting devices until they faced widespread backlash.
New regulation in both Europe and the United States is requiring manufacturers to support their products for longer and to make them easier to repair, therefore extending their usable life. Consumers are also demanding better device longevity and repairability. Apple standardizing iPhones with USB-C charging ports to comply with European regulations and Google announcing it will provide 10 years of security updates for Chromebooks instead of five years is explicit evidence that planned obsolescence is real and not a “conspiracy” dreamt up by customers, the media, and regulators.
Though some manufacturers are getting better at designing products with repairability and reuse in mind, new issues like “parts pairing” are emerging that threaten any gains that have been made via legislation, regulation, and consumer demand. Parts pairing is, essentially, Digital Rights Management for repair parts, where manufacturers artificially lock the functionality of parts to a specific device, and only the manufacturer can override that lock.
Currently, the French environmental group “The Stop Planned Obsolescence Program,” is suing Apple in France, arguing that its parts pairing program is a form of planned obsolescence.