The Planned Obsolescence of Electronics


Everything has its sell-by date – the question is, are those dates planned in?

In my writing career I’ve covered the entire arc of electronic devices, from the IBM Golfball Selectric to Amstrad, BBC Wordstar and eventually the intuitive joy that is the Mac. I haven’t used a PC for decades and the closest I’ll ever get to using one again is the Kindle, which is clunky enough, thank you.

I’m completely cable-free and have a glass desk so a mouse is out of the question, but the trackpad takes some getting used to, and later keyboards (the minimal non-thunky-thunky ones) have less accuracy.

I virtually live on my computer so it’s never switched off, and gets very heavy use. I don’t watch movies on it because I don’t pirate, and that means I’m stuck with the nonsense of region encryption. If you want to hear how little ‘professionals’ know about coding, hang out in an electronics store while the counter clerk explains HD, Blu-Ray, Ultraviolet and 3D codes to a punter – it’s hilarious.

Lately I’ve grown suspicious that Mac might be aggressively planning obsolescence. I’ve usually had a computer for three years before it starts sharply slowing down. Some say the Lion OS upgrades are causing this now, but it mysteriously happens within two/three months of the new Macs’ appearances – am I being paranoid?

Although sitting at the desktop Mac is a good experience, I can’t praise the Mac Book Air highly enough. It lives in my bag and goes everywhere I go, and with a dongle like MyFi I can usually get online for research. Couple with the iPhone camera and apps it becomes unbeatable and makes the thought of an iPad redundant, especially as I’m not much of a magazine browser. But every major update means recalibrating the lot – and now I’m thinking of Cloud storage for photographs and space-heavy files. Ultraviolet uses the same principle for your movie collection, but there’s talk of them eventually charging for storage – so if you don’t make the payment you lose your collection.

Perhaps in the future we’ll only rent and won’t actually own anything. Could it be that if information is currency, storage will be the new profit margin?

9 comments on “The Planned Obsolescence of Electronics”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    My first typewriter was an upright my father gave me, but no eyeshade. (Not for travel unless you owned an elephant) I felt like Ben Hecht – see Google -then a series of increasingly lighter typing machines. Along came the Wang system at work, a machine whose size was large enough to momentarily hide an escape artist, and then the early PC, which was way bigger than the dang upright typewriter. Now, I’m a Pavilion dv7 fan due to keyboard and screen size (I type fast and pound as if still on the upright), but I don’t game. And so many PCs in between. It’s had to self-repair a Mac which requires a trip to the shop or mail-it-back, non?
    But early-phase out? I agree, they plan to get us to buy a new “whatever”, as soon as possible, especially software – see Quickbooks – and we’re heading toward the selling of storage and world-wide accessability. (I live in the East Coast version of Silicon Valley and there are cloud farms all about. Just buildings with loads of AC and few windows) But I find that very scary – to have is to hold, right? To have it all go down – ahhhh.
    Tom Holt wrote a book – I forget its title – where the evil one has a tall black tower in London and steals peoples’ data from computers around the world! The novel answered the question many folks ask: “What the heck! I’m a dead man/woman typing! I was just working on my final Phd thesis version, when suddenly it went Pop, It’s gone, it’s gone, I say. No trace – I’m ruined!”

  2. Russ Varley says:

    Nothing to do with obsolescence, but if you are considering cloud storage, I’d recommend listening to the Security Now podcast episode 349 where there is a thorough break down of many of the cloud storage solutions including iCloud, Skydrive and G drive.

    You can find the show and a transcript of it at

  3. snowy says:

    My first typewriter* was made of tin and had one button, and to change t’character you had to turn t’wheel by ‘and. No correction facility ‘cept a sort of rubber rock that scraped t’ink off page.

    But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe you.

    Tempting though it is to list various bits of past tech, I’ll just say “daisywheels” ha-ha who on earth needed to change the font on a typewriter, madness.

    I’m surprised you are bothered by region lock, its trivial to defeat. (No I don’t pirate, the people that create stuff should be paid for their work.) Its a hangover from the days when studios wouldn’t strike new prints for overseas distribution. It only lingers on as a way to fix prices in different markets.

    Do computers get slower, well the hardware still runs at the same speed. On my right is a 19 year computer that still runs as fast as it ever could. But as content and applications get richer and have more features there is an increase in processing overhead. Imagine buying a car and adding more and more accessories, until the weight is so huge the engine can longer drag it around.

    Is it deliberate in a malign way, not really after 18 months the processor in most computers are no longer manufactured. You can’t sell what is no longer available, and supporting old models at no charge is just a drain on profits. No profit eventualy equals no company, and with no company, support is zero. If you try and stick with one level of performance, your rivals will overhaul you anyway, and we are back to declining profits.

    I wouldn’t put anything important in the cloud, its a bit like burying your nuts, you can never be quite sure they will still be there when you came back.

    *Mettoy Mettype

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for that, Snowy. I’ve wondered about The Cloud. Also, I was listening to CBC’s Spark yesterday and they repeated a broadcast from last October in which they examined the way our private information was accessible on line, privacy protection or not. Our contributions to this blog are naturally available, but so are our on-line purchases, our loyalty card purchases, our library choices, our coffee places, …. What the heck, I’ll just make sure everything I do is acceptable, never make rude gestures (three dimensional or in print) and become part of the community’s wallpaper. With this attitude can 1984 be far away?

  5. Gretta says:

    The thing that gets me about dvd regioning is the subtitles. Region 4 = NZ, Australia, Pacific Islands and various bits of Central and South America and the Caribbean. The subtitles available on Region 4 dvds? Invariably things like Swedish, Polish or Russian, amongst the usual suspects of German, French, Spanish and Dutch. I wouldn’t have thought there’d be much call for Polish subtitles in Nauru or St Kitts, but there you go. But I have never seen subtitles in, say, Maori, Samoan, or any number of Aboriginal languages.

    As for the cloud thing, it’s already happening with gaming. Just ask the people who bought Diablo 3(with it’s accursed permanent online DRM requirements) how they feel about shelling out their hard earned for something that they could only play when Blizzard’s servers would let them.

  6. I.A.M. says:

    You could watch movies on your computer by downloading legally through iTunes. Possibly as expensive as buying a Blu-Ray / DVD, and still possibly chocked with region coding, and more than likely still only for something ‘new’ that you probably already had the chance to hate on opening night in Leicester Square.

    The Cloud might be handy, but having a physical disc (data-based DVD or some such) written with everything is always a good thing, unless you’re willing to trust all your data on someone else’s server located in the USA, as well as the authorities poking about inside it with their little search algorithms. Imagine one of your manuscripts suddenly being ringed with “Do Not Cross” tape like Pete in the airport.

    Meanwhile: obsolescence, yes, Apple seems to be poking their nose into its planning. It seems the 30-pin dock connection that’s been at the heart of every single iPod, iPhone, and iPad since each item’s birth is to be altered to a smaller version with either the new iPhone or iPod model. So… everything you connect to one of your items will not work with any new item going forward as you sloooooooowly replace everything. Which, actually, is an argument for backing everything up to the cloud, as then you’re not at the mercy of a dock connection to watch your movies via iTunes.

    Which brings us full circle.

  7. snowy says:

    OK snowy try and keep this short and to the point for a change.

    I was racking my brain cell for the name of the file store that vanished earlier, searching online wasn’t working so I went and asked a real person to use their brain to remember. It was Megaupload based in Hong Kong and all was going swimimngly people had uploaded all their data. And with the stroke of a pen a judge ordered a DCMA “take-down”, result all the data vanished with no warning and no redress.

    Home DVD players are generally only software locked, a quick search of model number and “unlock” will tell you all you need to know.

    @H There are too many of us, they can’t watch all of us all of the time, make no sudden movements and they will never spot us.
    If you feel the uncontrolable need to start making 3D gestures, let us all know in advance, and we can distract the goons.

    @G I had never had cause to look closely at how the regions are divided up and now I have, they are quite byzantine, They don’t map by language, or any other sensible err… thing.

    @I The Apple dock has puzzled me, people kept mentioning it as some sort of game stopper, because its a registered design and if you want to make any sort of accessory you have to pay a licence fee. But I just pulled up the specs and there is nothing electrically odd in there at all. If you have matching cables and are handy with a soldering iron there is no physical reason why old and new shouldn’t work they are only using standard protocols. I suspect the Firewire support is going and that leaves 8 pins redundant consolidate the different grounds and drop the mystery pins thats about 14 pins gone, which brings it down to the 16 that is being talked about.

  8. Gretta says:

    Oh, snowy, snowy, snowy. If you lived, as I do, in New Zealand, you would not have had to wrack your brain at all, since Mr Kim Dotcom(yes, really) lives in Auckland and the whole MegaUpload malarkey is all we’ve heard about for the past however many months.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Am just back from a local garage sale (LP records, slide carousels, videotapes) and saw a very nice Brother portable typewriter. I seem to remember that there was a way of connecting a tv screen and an electric typewriter to a hard drive to create a computer, the hard drive being the core of the thing.

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