Built to Fail: a story of forced-upgrade technology

Plunc managing director Stewart McGrenary looks at the ‘built to fail’ strategy that some big tech companies have adopted.

The consumer electronics market is booming, with some estimates (such as those from Statista and IBIS World) placing the industry at a cool $340 million+ per year in the US alone. That is a lot of consumer electronic devices in our pockets and in our homes. 

Yet despite the world’s insatiable appetite for electronic devices, from smartphones to tablets, these devices are built with an inherent clock, ticking down to the point where they were “built to fail”, and forcing consumers to re-up with the latest and greatest devices.

This forced upgrade is part of a strategic, yet not often discussed, planned obsolescence. One that has a far-reaching and devastating impact on both the environment and consumer finances alike.

If left unchecked, both consumers and the environment stands to lose while major corporations profiteer off of our complacence. This guide will help you better understand what the “built to fail” model is, why it is so beneficial for technology companies to employ, and how you can do your part to help both the environment and your own wallet. 

Not Your Grandparents’ Electronics

We’ve all heard the saying, “they just don’t make things like they used to.” Although we often shrug this off as a generational complaint, as far as electronics are concerned, nothing could be as accurate.

Your grandparents probably had the same TV for a decade. Your parents may have had the same cell phone for 5+ years. Why? Because they worked as well as the day they purchased them (give or take).

However, savvy electronic brands began to ask the question: how can we make more money by making old devices both obsolete as well as unsupported?

By doing so brands such as Apple and other major tech companies are able to ‘force’ their userbase into upgrading devices no longer supported by updates, and/or designed to essentially fail at a particular point in their lifecycle.

Although this guide will focus largely on Apple, note that we have no particular bias against them. The company has done some amazing things and creates a wonderful product. They do, however, follow the overall approach of “built to fail”.

Difficult or Impossible to Repair (by design)

It didn’t take long for companies to realise that the device’s battery was one of the guaranteed ways a device would naturally decline in performance over time. Not only that, consumers, to a degree, expect and understand that batteries don’t last forever. Apple ranked among one of the first corporations to make batteries in their devices such as iPhone and iPads irremovable. When the time comes for replacement, the consumer has one of two options: take it to Apple for replacement, or upgrade phones. Both of which increase the bottom line for the company. Replacing the battery using a “non-authorised’ provider voids the warranty, further ensuring the customer spends more money on the brand in question.

Render Ageing Devices Useless

It doesn’t take much searching online to find a never-ending line of consumers complaining that their devices get slower and more sluggish over time. This, as it turns out in Apple’s case, was by design. Apple openly admitted the slowing down of older models of its iPhones through software updates. It is suspected that other manufacturers follow the same strategy, albeit under wraps. As an ageing phone fails to maintain and meet performance expectations, customers become frustrated, leading them to upgrade to new devices and increasing profits for tech companies.

Hindering External Access

Known as a “walled garden”, some companies (such as Apple) lock in users to their own ecosystems of apps, accessories, and software. Android, by contrast, is open source, meaning the source code is available for other developers to improve, customise and build upon.

Limitations on Choices

Some companies have taken proactive measures to remove the selling of their products on the primary or secondary market. For example, Amazon has agreed to remove listings of Apple products from “unauthorised” resellers. This move forces consumers to shop directly from only those stores authorised by the manufacturer to sell the product. This reduces convenience, selection, and choice, while funnelling customers through the most profitable channels for manufacturers.

A Revenue-First Business Model 

Gone are the days of customer-centric approaches to business, at least as far as the major consumer electronic brands are concerned. Competition is fierce, and in combination with rising costs has forced many brands to become mavens of marketing and sales, but to fall short at customer care, service, support, and even quality.

The frequency of new makes and models has increased over the years, with each expertly positioned new release capable of bringing in millions (if not billions) in new revenue. This built-in incentive leaves little room for supporting ageing devices.

Environmental Consequences

This type and extent of consumerism isn’t just a bane for consumers, it also has dire long-term consequences on the environment. Each year millions upon millions of tons of waste from electronics end up in landfills worldwide.

Modern business models for many consumer electronic companies operate under the premise that they will always be able to procure the necessary resources in a cost-effective manner necessary for manufacturing. However, many experts warn that shortages of 75+ key elemental components such as gallium and indium are at risk of depletion within the next 100 years.

Not only does this “built to fail” model exacerbates the strain on natural resources, it also creates recycling challenges with landfills overflowing with consumer electronic goods, 80% of which have materials that never get recovered. Companies such as Plunc aim to make it easier for consumers to “resell” their ageing devices, but they can only do so much.

Final Thoughts

As modern consumers, we love our electronics, from smartphones and tablets, to wireless headphones and handheld gaming devices. Although companies are making it increasingly difficult, we can all do our part to reduce the environmental strain tossing out these electronics has on the environment, and likely save ourselves some money in the process. Reaching out to companies that recycle, refurbish or purchase used or broken devices is a key first step to taking back control of the electronic device lifecycle and breaking the chain of the “built to fail” business model.

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