with Colin Fitzpatrick

In October 2018,  Italy slapped major smartphone manufacturer Apple with a €10m fine for ‘planned obsolescence’.

Coined by Packard in the 1960’s, the term planned obsolescence’ is commonly used to describe a practice where manufacturers deliberately limit the functional lifespan of the products they produce, to make room for their newer models. Much like the Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon”, set to self-destruct at a certain price tag, smartphone manufacturers supposedly slow down the speed of older devices intentionally, so that consumers would flock to the stores and buy new ones. But though it might be appealing to blame Apple for ‘forcing’ consumers to replace their iPhone, by pushing OS updates carrying ‘slowness’ Trojan horses, the reality is not so straight forward. Research shows that consumer sometimes use minor functional issues as an excuse to replace their products, and might even place their possessions in harms way only to justify replacement purchases.

In on-going work we are investigating how consumer perceptions of product performance – and subsequently replacement choices – are affected by perceived (i.e. psychological) vs. actual, functional obsolescence. Based on 3.5 million smartphone bench-marking tests obtained from a leading bench-marking App, our preliminary results suggest that consumers are more likely to question the performance of their devices following events such as new product announcements (i.e. psychological obsolescence), compared to actual deterioration in functional performance. Hence, despite wide advocacy for the ‘right to repair’, and frustration with what many view as ‘planned obsolescence’, at least for now, focus on the psychological (rather than technical) drivers for product replacement might yield greater benefits.