Frontiers of Planned Obsolesence

Our iPad was new in the summer of 2010: first generation. It was top-of-the-line, with 64Gb of storage and 3G connectivity. And it still works well. But the number of apps it runs is going steadily down. Here’s the current list:

All those apps ran in the past. But both Apple and the app developers decided at some point that first-generation iPads would no longer be supported. There’s a name for this: planned obsolescence. In less fancy terms, it means made to break. Planned obsolescence became a design strategy in the 1950s with cars. (Here’s a story of my family’s encounter with it in 1963, when our purposefully-defective 1957 Ford blew up in Iowa.) But it’s as much a feature as a bug for many kinds of products, including (and perhaps especially) consumer electronics.

Here’s an idea for Apple and everybody else: just lease the stuff. Really. That’s the way it works anyway. Let’s say this iPad’s useful life is one more year. Given the original price ($800-something), it will end up having cost about $200 per year. Would I pay $250/year for an up-to-date iPad with a service agreement? I dunno. But it is clear we are headed toward a subscription economy. I’m sure planned obsolescence must be driving it, much as anything else.

So I just went looking, and it turns out Apple itself leases stuff to business. Prices aren’t there (far as I can tell). But it’s still a harbinger.



  1. Andrew Donoho’s avatar


    I think you’re reading too much into the early demise of a v1 product. The v1 iPad was under-resourced. It had half the RAM than the contemporaneous iPhone 4 but sported a larger screen. The iPhone 4 is making the jump to iOS 7 while the iPad 1 is stuck at iOS v5.1.1. Hence claiming that this was planned obsolescence rather than just the normal engineering SNAFUs associated with a v1 product is a bit of a reach. I don’t think the evidence supports your claim of planned obsolescence.

    Whether apple should lease items is, of course, an orthogonal issue to whether they planned to prematurely obsolete this hardware.


  2. Rob Martin’s avatar

    My fiancée and I were talking about this just a few days ago. We both have original iPads, too. She downloaded an e-book app about a year ago, when we got cards at our local library, but I didn’t at the time. When I tried to the other day, I found they’ve moved to a newer version that I can’t install.

    She can keep using the current version as long as she doesn’t try to upgrade, but I can’t install an earlier version. Our library has integrated their e-book offerings with this app, so I have to go through gyrations to get a book on my iPad with the Kindle app.

    I know I gave up control for the i-experience, but this just seems silly (Dave Winer would say he told us so).

  3. Mike McBride’s avatar

    Maybe it’s just because I work for a company that sells forensic tools, but while your logic makes perfect sense, I can’t help but wonder about the unintended consequences of leasing consumer technology. Namely, how do you get the typical consumer to take the necessary steps to protect their data when turning in the older device?

    We’ve already seen some issues with recycled cell phones containing some personal information, I can’t imagine how much of a problem that might be when we talk about tablets and laptops. So it’ll be incumbent upon whatever company is going to be doing the leasing, act in a trustworthy way to wipe the devices before reusing them.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Andrew, point taken on the V1 product point. I wasn’t eager to get the first generation iPad at the time, and I was aware of the risks. (I even wrote somewhere that nothing would be older a year from its introduction than a V1 iPad.)

    But my point was about actually planning for obsolescence, whether the Apples of the world have a policy about it or not.

    And in fact I believe they do. Somewhere on the Web Steve Jobs says Apple’s policy is to support five generations of product: the current one, two before, and two after. Wish I could find it, but I can’t. (It was a criticism of Android, as I recall, if any of ya’ll feel like looking.) While that isn’t a bad policy, it is in the very literal sense planned obsolescence. If the company comes out with a new version every year, your three-year old product is no longer supported. That is planned obsolescence.

    Another point I was making, and maybe I should have been clearer about it, is that obsolescence, whether planned or not, is endemic to consumer electronics. Hence my suggestion about subscriptions.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, I’ve turned in one old iPhone so far, and watched a number of others being turned in — at Radio Shack, at Apple Stores, at Best Buy. In every case the person behind the counter made a point of showing the user how to obliterate the data on the phone, as a matter of policy. Obviously some people and stores won’t bother. But I’ve been impressed at the level of diligence I’ve seen so far.

  6. Julian Bond’s avatar

    I hate this. I have a top of the range Ipod Touch 64Gb[1]. But because it’s 3rd generation, its excluded from iOs 6 and 7 which in turn means it’s excluded from an increasing number of apps, including most of Google’s apps. The battery has pretty much died now and of course replacing that is tricky. So here we have an expensive 3 year old device that is effectively land fill.

    Now try and imagine how old a PC or laptop has to be, to be unable to run Windows 7 and the latest Chrome/Firefox/Thunderbird/Photoshop or whatever. It might be a bit slow, but I bet a 10 year old laptop would do all these things.

    [1]It was given to me by work, and that company has now died. All things must pass, eh?

  7. Foursteps’s avatar

    It’s very similar with phones. I have an early Android phone (Sony Xperia u20i) which has Android 2.1 as its last release. Software written for later versions of Android will sometimes run on it but some of the software features are disabled so in reality it’s not much use for new aps.

    I guess that’s part of the penalty for being on the “bleeding edge” of new technology. Manufacturer’s seem to abandon their older products after a couple of years. I am not sure what the solution is other than accept the planned obsolescence. Frustrating.

  8. John’s avatar

    Apparently the ios App Store will now suggest and allow you to install the latest compatible version of an app. Not a solution to obsolescence but an obvious and overdue fix to extend the useful life of earlier generations of hardware that have changed hands and thus been wiped of those functioning apps.

  9. Ferdi’s avatar

    You are right 3 years are a bit too short for a device to stop running all the standard apps. If Apple woud have leased the iPad for say 200$ a year (instead of buying for 800$), what would it do with all the outdated devices that do not run any proper Apps anymore? I don’t think that would be a great business for Apple in the long term.

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