by Greyson Van Arsdale, ’17
Apple’s elimination of the headphone jack and quick update schedule lends some credibility to claims of planned obsolescence
On Sept. 7, Apple unveiled the new iPhone 7, featuring better battery life, long-awaited water resistancy, stereo speakers and a new dual camera which mimics a real telephoto lens. However, Apple is also doing away with the traditional headphone jack and introducing wireless AirPods, priced at $159. This update has called attention to what many have been accusing Apple of for years — the practice of ‘planned obsolescence.’
Planned obsolescence is the production of consumer goods in such a way that they quickly require replacing. This is achieved through frequent aesthetic and design changes, use of non-durable parts and the termination of production of spare parts.
The concept of planned obsolescence has its roots in the 1920s American automobile industry, thanks to Alfred P. Sloan, the CEO of General Motors.
According to Jamie Kitman, New York Bureau Chief for Automobile magazine, Sloan had a profound influence on American industry.
“Sloan brought the notion of annual model changes and exciting colors, and making this year’s car faster than last year’s car,” Kitman said to NPR. “Production had caught up with the demand that was out there. Sloan realized that they had to make people want things that they essentially didn’t need.”
Parallels can be drawn between Sloan’s strategy in the 1920s and Apple’s current business plan.
For example, Apple has used special, ‘tamper-proof’ five-point screws for their products since 2011. They prevent users from accessing the insides of their phones to replace their batteries.
However, an important point about the concept of planned obsolescence is that it can be indistinguishable from good business. It is difficult to determine whether or not a product’s useful life is being purposefully shorted in order to coerce consumers into buying more, or if Apple is simply updating its products quickly.
This is not the first time Apple has been accused of planned obsolescence. In the past, users have complained of their cell phones slowing after updating their operating systems, as Catherine Rampell in her New York Times opinion piece “Planned Obsolescence: Myth or Reality?”
Apple has even been sued on the grounds of planned obsolescence in 2013. The Brazilian Institute of Politics and Law Software claimed that Apple could have made significant upgrades to their third-generation “New iPad,” but instead saved them for a fourth-generation upgrade in order to make the third-generation obsolete much quicker.
It’s unclear whether Apple is deliberate in its attempt to lessen the useful life of its products. The screwed-in, tamper-proof battery can be explained by Apple’s commitment to its sleek and thin aesthetic. New iOS updates could purposefully slow older phones, or it could be an unfortunate side effect. Apple’s lack of transparency doesn’t help their case, though.
Arlingtonian, among many other news organizations such as The New York Times, have tried to contact Apple on the subject, but their answer always remains the same: “No comment.” Until that comment is given, the answer may never be known.