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Planned obsolescence

Leaping from link to link like a young gazelle – part of the appeal of the internet is that it is the only place where I get to do the gazella arabica thing nowadays – I came across an interesting article by Ernie Smith called “The Many Ways Planned Obsolescence Is Sabotaging How We Preserve Internet History”.

He writes,

The world of technology has a problem, and it’s not something that we’re talking about nearly enough. That problem? We keep making old stuff significantly less useful in the modern day, sometimes by force.

We cite problems such as security, maintenance, and a devotion to constant evolution as reasons for allowing this to happen.

But the net effect is that we are making it impossible to continue using otherwise useful things after even a medium amount of time. I’m not even exclusively talking about things that are decades old. Sometimes, just a few years does the trick.

A quick case in point: Google has a set date for every type of Chromebook architecture to fall into an “end of life” status, where it will no longer be developed or updated, despite the fact that it’s effectively the modern version of a dumb terminal.

And the timeframe is surprisingly short—just 6.5 years from the first use of the architecture, the machine will stop auto-updating, despite the fact an equivalent Windows machine will still be usable for years after that point.

Like many people, I find the whole phenomenon of planned obsolescence infuriating. Unlike many people, I do not believe that my feeling of fury should be assuaged by forcing other people – in this case software companies – to do my bidding. But I would still like it if planned obsolescence were less of a thing.

It’s Tom’s Diner for computers, and you are most welcome to discuss the political and ethical issues involved.

But if you did enough of that yesterday, just wallow in the computer nostalgia. Here’s a website: http://textfiles.com/. Not “https://textfiles.com”, just “http://textfiles.com”. It has stuff like Alien vs Predator. Wallow.

16 comments to Planned obsolescence

  • Radu

    I am not that opposed to it in software to be honest. Maintaining legacy infrastructure can be a huge pain. People have moved on, often don’t even remember code that was written 8 years before. The code is probably of poorer quality as standards improved. And it can be hard to sell good employees on the job of maintaining old stuff. As a software company I would also be inclined to limit support to a number of years. Off course, this can and sometimes does go to far. But the reason for not doing it is not, as the article says, that some enthusiasts want top preserve snapshots of internet history. It is mainly that people want to get the most use of a product they buy.

  • Nullius in Verba

    On the other hand, there are a host of archaic computery features that Just Won’t Die. Like the way Windows uses both ‘carriage return’ and ‘line feed’ characters to end a line, reminiscing about teleprinter functionality that went out of date in the 1970s. There’s the way a lot of command windows are fixed at 80 characters wide. There’s ASCII, because 96 possible characters are more than enough for anyone. At the top of your keyboard there’s a button labelled “SysRq” – when was that last used? And then there’s the numeric keypad, designed to emulate numeric data entry devices used in the days of yore. And what about the QWERTY layout? Designed to stop the mechanical keys of a typewriter from jamming! People still code in FORTRAN, first designed in 1954, and LISP in 1958. (Nothing wrong with LISP, of course, it is a thing of elegance and beauty, not like these modern upstart languages…)

  • Fraser Orr

    I agree with Radu. The thing is software is not a thing you buy, but a service you buy. Even before the days when software as a service was a thing, that was still true. You depended on the vendor to keep the software up to date with the changing environment that the software lived in.

    You recognized this in the OP. Your chrome book doesn’t stop working when it hits end of life. It is just that google no longer develops and updates it. And that developing and updating is precisely the service I am talking about.

    You can drive a Model T around if you want, you can probably find someone who will fix it if you pay them, buy you can’t expect to take it back to Ford for a warranty repair, or expect Ford to continue to provide replacement brakes, tires or parts that comply with new safety regulations.

    This could be a time to talk about open source software, and how obsolescence is related to the secrecy of source code. After all, someone who isn’t a Ford engineer can fix your Model T. Its workings are not a secret. But you can’t fix some bug in Windows 3.1. But that is a bit of a tangent.

    Many years ago, when I was a kid, I wrote video games for the ZX Spectrum. I’d love to pull them out, lame as they were. But of course it isn’t easy to access a ZX Spectrum, or a cassette recorder, and the fact that I live in the USA which uses a completely different TV system (the TV was used for a monitor back in those days) and a completely different electrical system, just adds to the difficulty.

    I’m not sure that is planned obsolescence so much as “the moving finger writes and having writ moves on”. In the world of computers though, that finger writes a lot more quickly than in other areas.

  • Roué le Jour

    I’ve commented on what I call the “Grandfather’s watch” problem before. No matter how important your portable assets are to you, you can’t leave them to your descendants because they’ll all be junk by then.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “It is mainly that people want to get the most use of a product they buy.”

    Precisely. And that is exactly why it infuriates me when a system that has served me very well for five or six years is “upgraded” by enough versions that such manufacturers’ support for it as there ever was is dropped, and newer applications — themselves often enough upgrades to older ones that once ran nicely on my older system but now don’t even work there — no longer work.

    Frankly, although I assume the manufacturers’ good faith, the way things have gone shows me that I cannot expect to get anything like the longevity that a well-engineered product should provide. “The most use of the product I buy” should surely be longer than 6 months to 3 years.

    As a case in point, I have a credit from RealBigDealBank (RBDB for short). I don’t do ANYTHING financial online, except charge e-mail-order purchases to that card, and pay the balance off twice a month.

    I think it was in the fall a year ago when I found that I could no longer view my account. As it happens I was then and still am running OS X 10.9 (which is a disgrace after 10.6.8, IMO the best of the OS X’s), whereas RBDB has stopped dealing with any OS X older than 10.133 or whatever considerably later version it’s decided to support.

    And the difficulties inherent in getting all of your older data, bookmarks (when what’s involved is a browser change), so forth, sometimes cost a good deal of lost times and also in some cases bookmarks lost for good or data that is difficult or impossible to get the latest-greatest system or one or several apps to recognize and deal with.

    This amounts to a loss of time and data, plus emotional frustration, to the non-professional user; and of all those plus good ol’ filthy lucre to a business. (And if you look at the various “support” forums, whether “supported” by the offending company or not, they are a nightmare to search through and the answers you’re lucky enough to find may turn out to work only in the land of lollipops and unicorns.)

    I treasure my 2003 G4 PowerBook, which still runs like a champ save that the power supply had to be replaced long ago and the battery is but a distant memory. It came with Panther, OS X 10.3.3, and I upgraded to 10.3.4 when that came out; but I figured out rather quickly that the wise thing is to wait at least a year and see how the hardy souls that risked the latest update were doing.

    So it still runs 10.3.4, and can get a great many websites, including UT. It is also the last OS X that runs OS 9, “Classic,” which is good because I have a whole bunch of games on disc that run on OS 9.

    As for the Internet’s becoming a place for the temporary storage of ephemera, that is true. For that reason as well as the short lifetime of the programs that store and/or maintain serious scholarly work and also data, it’s a great mistake to rely on internet addresses as source references when you’re writing your 15-volume tome on whatever it is, complete with footnoted references [cough].

    Again, the lack of aged and uncorrupted sources is far from assuring that they are getting “the most use from a product they buy.”

  • Simon Jester

    “The code is probably of poorer quality as standards improved.”

    lol. Seriously?

    OTOH: Joel Spolsky on things you should never do. Needless to say, it’s from a while back.

  • Roué le Jour

    Simon Jester
    Ha! I started programming on mainframes in the early 70s and by the time I was working on PCs in the 90s I said that we used to make Chippendale and now it was all chipboard. The problem is diminishing returns, it’s expensive to write code in the first place but ruinously so to get it right. As Dijkstra said, PCs set computing back decades.

  • llamas

    Two entirely-unconnected things.

    Firstly, there was an excellent discussion here a couple of years back on this very topic, that launched over a question about the status of some escalators on the Underground. Me be far from home and on my phone, so will leave to someone else to dig it out.

    Secondly, a few weeks ago, I realized a lifelong dream and travelled to the Bonneville Salt Flats for SCTA Speed Week – a week of people setting world land speed records in wheeled vehicles. If you’ve seen ‘The World’s Fastest Indian”, with Anthony Hopkins, you’ll have had a taste of what this is like.

    And what struck me, and my second, very strongly, was that the great majority of those who were going the fastest, were doing it using 20-30 year old technology, and sometimes quite-a-bit older than that. There was actually very little of the hypermodern high-tech electronic stuff (EMS and ECU) in use. Lots of electronic ignitions and programmable injection systems, but even those were older technology.

    I spoke at length to one of the motorcycle competitors about this – I won’t mention his name but his shop has had a lot of media exposure and is quite well-known in the US. And he was very precise about it – he doesn’t use that stuff because a) there’s virtually no room for development outside the parameters for which it was designed, and WLS racing is all about development and b) if it goes ‘phut’, there’s no fixing it. As he said, the people running in production classes use that technology because it’s built into the bikes they are running, and there’s some room for altering it, but if you have a 5 year plan, that hardware is just going to be gone and unsupported by then.

    The basis of his competition machine is a 20-year-old engine – suck, squeeze, bang, blow never changes. It isn’t married to a specific, proprietary suite of electronics that will be gone in 5 years. He can develop it virtually-without-limit. In fact, one person who I will name – David Pilgrim – showed up with a machine that was confidently expected to set new records, built from 2 1936 Harley-Davidson engines – with some newer accessories :-).

    Meanwhile, the world’s fastest motorcycle, Vesco’s Turbinator, never completed a run. It shut down on the start line the first time, and turned out before mile 1 the second time, both times with engine control system issues. And the Ukranian team that showed up with an electric motorcycle, which should have set a whole slew of new records, couldn’t get it to go. It’s not even about planned obsolescence at that point – it’s about hyper-specialization and the inability for anybody expect a very small cadre of OEM designers to even understand what the system is doing. But, as Heinlein observed, specialization is for insects.



  • If you want your legacy software to run on your legacy machine, it will – probably for a long time.

    If you want your legacy software and legacy machine to talk to the web, or to some upgraded software on the web, that costs money. Good software is very flexible (‘agile’ is an industry buzzword) and can be used to glue legacy and modern systems together at small cost – but it is still a cost. Bad software is ‘stiff’ – it costs a lot to make the old square peg fit into the new round hole.

    Someone has to pay that cost – and someone has to do that work. Some outfits have only a few engineers. (Others have many, but have even more HR PC-ers who’ll fire the oldie engineers who could explain the old systems.)

    Software could be written better – but never so much better that the cost disappears.

  • John B

    ‘… it impossible to continue using otherwise useful things…’

    Useful to whom? Clearly not enough consumers to make continued production and maintenance profitable. What is useful to thee, might not be useful to me.

    And… economic activity takes place to meet and anticipate consumer desires not needs or what is ‘useful’. Wild animals meet their needs and use things that are useful, but they do not have economies.

    ‘Planned obsolescence’ is a nonsense idea.

    How can it be planned? How can anyone know how long something must last or know what innovation or technology will come along? Who in their right mind will risk capital on something then plan to stop producing it without knowing if they will recover their investment and make a satisfactory return? What do people think a ‘cash-cow’ is?

  • neonsnake

    ‘Planned obsolescence’ is a nonsense idea.

    Mobile (or cell) phone manufacturers put batteries in that have a 3 year lifespan, because most customers upgrade within that time period.

    You can look at it two ways – that they’re forcing the customer to upgrade by building in a limited lifespan; or that they’re keeping costs low by not wasting money on a better battery, when most customers will never use it beyond 2 or 3 years (and by using the cheaper battery, ultimately they’re saving the customer money).

  • Rob Fisher

    NiV: “there’s a button labelled “SysRq” – when was that last used?”

    Just the other day I used it to dump my ftrace buffer. :p

    There’s no way around this. Software needs to be updated if you want to connect your device to other devices and be secure. Software development costs money. One way or another you have to pay for it. If you pay Google enough money they’ll keep your Chromebook up to date, you just can’t afford it.

    I agree it’s annoying to have to throw away otherwise useful hardware, though. If enough people are annoyed by this then the market will at some point provide hardware with longer-lasting update promises. To an extent this has already happened: Apple smartphones are updated for longer than Samsung ones. They also cost more. Samsung smartphones already promise longer updates than they used to. This situation may improve.

    Another approach: I have a Nexus 6 phone that is still usable thanks to updates by enthusiasts in the form of LineageOS. If enough people find it useful a similar workaround may work out for your Chromebook.

    Meanwhile I am alarmed by the number of people buying cheap no-name smartphones that never get any updates…

    In some sense the market is working and Natalie’s problem is that she is in minority of customers uncatered-for. I have the same problem trying to buy fizzy drinks with real sugar in them. We have to suck it up, or become statists.

  • I’m a bit of a writer, and living with a full-time professional writer. Our earliest computer files are from the early 1980s, when we hit the “save” [button or whatever] on our computers.

    This led to a long process of bringing files into up-to-date formats – from TRS-DOS to MS-DOS by way of translation programs, then getting them into WordPerfect. [There was also the progress of C64 to CP/M to MS-DOS to WordPerfect.] Then we had to upgrade the files to work with the latest WordPerfect. Then came Windows, and MS Word, then LibreOffice.

    As you might imagine, we got tired of that. Nowadays, whenever we need a file, LibreOffice seems able to read it, and we save in RTF. For images, GIF and JPEG serve a similar purpose. These three file formats were designed to last. I don’t know how many types of disc the files have been through, but that kind of obsolescence I can handle.

  • biff

    Plus there’s the issue of items with artificially short lifespans and heavy metal content prematurely ending up in landfills. I came across an article in a chemical engineering journal recently that pointed out that even in countries with the highest recycling rates, well under 10% of lithium ion batteries get recycled, and 2-3% is pretty typical, even in developed countries.

  • Runcie Balspune

    But of course it isn’t easy to access a ZX Spectrum, or a cassette recorder,

    Pish. The smart kids got Microdrives! I still have my Spectrum and boot it up every few years when I feel like selling it.

    My own experience of obsolescence was the Sonos CR100 controller which far from no longer being updated or supported, was actually “bricked” by the final update, the alternative is to use the Sonos App now.

  • Stephen J.

    I do not believe that my feeling of fury should be assuaged by forcing other people – in this case software companies – to do my bidding. But I would still like it if planned obsolescence were less of a thing.

    Problem is, outside regulation, the only other way to extirpate an odious business practice is to take your money elsewhere. And in this case there is no elsewhere, partly because nobody has been able to make a business model work that doesn’t include planned obsolescence. And I strongly suspect part of the reason nobody’s been able to make that model work is that nobody wants to pay the extra costs that a lifelong-support product would entail. (How much extra would I pay for a Word program that guaranteed I’d never have to buy Word again, ever? I don’t know, but I have a sinking feeling it wouldn’t come up to what Microsoft would have to charge for such a product.)