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Built-In Obsolescence - Are We Being Scammed By Electronics Manufacturers?

Autumn comes early
Autumn comes early
Anouch Seydtaghia

On the left, a wall of washing machines and stoves. On the right, a man is taking apart a vacuum cleaner, another a food processor. A little further away, an employee looking through a powerful magnifying glass pokes at a telephone with tweezers. In the background, a television set without its shell is broadcasting a reality show.

"La Bonne Combine" The Good Deal in Prilly, in the province of Vaud, is the appliance-repair Mecca of French-speaking Switzerland. "Look at this," says Felice Suglia, bringing over a circuit board. "This is the heart of a television set. The condensers are soldered right next to a heat sink connected to the transistors. The condensers are sensitive to heat. Why did Samsung put them here, even though there is room at the other end of the board?" the repairman asks.

This simple question is one of many about the reliability of appliances and electronic devices. More and more of them seem to be manufactured with planned obsolescence in mind — this is something that is often suspected, but rarely proven.

Electronics and appliance manufacturers are accused of deliberately shortening the lifespan of their products in order to force consumers to purchase new ones sooner. "It is impossible to be sure, but we often have strong suspicions," says Christopher Inaebnit, who runs La Bonne Combine. "Look at the latest washing machines. Big-name companies set the ball bearings into the drum. Because new drums are so costly, that makes it almost impossible to replace the bearings when they're worn out."

It means that appliances have become less and less repairable. "A few years ago, we could repair eight appliances out of 10, both large and small. Nowadays, it's seven in 10. It's even less for electronics," says Inaebnit. Some appliances are designed in a very surprising way."

Asked about its televisions, a Samsung spokesman says, "Our research and development department ensures that components are placed in the best spot within the confined space of a television set."

Further along, Inaebnit indicates a disemboweled iPad. "Apple uses double-sided tape that is stronger than we've ever seen before. To get to the electronic components, you have to unglue this tape with a hot-air gun. The smallest mistake and the tablet is destroyed," he says.

Obsolescence programmed in

Planned obsolescence takes a wide variety of forms. Huma Kamis, of the Swiss-French Consumer Federation (FRC), says, "For the past eight years I have been doing comparative tests. It is indisputable that the obsolescence is programmed in. Metallic parts in cell phones have been replaced by plastic, so they are more fragile. Changing the connector for the charger is another kind of obsolescence. Often for no reason, the manufacturer will change them, just to force consumers to buy new ones. The iPhone 5’s new Lightning connector is one example, but many other manufacturers also make accessories that are incompatible from one model to the next. It is really regrettable." The FRC hopes to make consumers more aware of the problem in 2013.

The most extreme form of planned obsolescence is for the manufacturer to program a precise life expectancy into its machines. "You will find a lot of testimonials on the internet that seem too real not to be true," says Toni Conde, a multimedia and communications expert who teaches at the EPFL Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “Some manufacturers of memory cards for cameras or telephones limit the number of possible photos or videos. Past a certain quota, the card becomes unusable. This is true of printers too. Some are programmed to stop working after a certain number of print jobs."

In February 2011, The French-German television station Arte showed a documentary called "Ready-To-Toss," spotlighting an Epson printer that showed an artificial error message after 18,000 copies. When contacted, the Japanese manufacturer confirmed: "Our printers are equipped with pads that absorb the extra ink. They must be changed regularly in order to function properly. If not, there is a risk, in the worst case, of stains on furniture and rugs. Therefore, our printers are equipped with a counter to control their condition. When the pad needs to be changed, it is impossible to print anything more." Schahin Elahinija, marketing head for Epson Germany, adds that the service is free when the printer is still under warranty. Afterwards, it costs about $34.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the specialists at La Bonne Combine detected a similar technique in coffeemakers. "After 3,000 coffees, Jura coffee machines would stop working and would show a message saying it was time for service," says Inaebnit. “Later, Jura changed this so that the error message no longer blocked the machine. Certainly, the manufacturers of this kind of machine play on the naïvety of some consumers, displaying alerts that are not always relevant." When contacted, Jura denied that it "worked with planned obsolescence" and stated that a machine needs to be serviced every three to four years.

Costly replacement parts

Some manufacturers make it very difficult to acquire parts. “Recently, we ordered a part from a television manufacturer. It cost about $300. By mistake, the shipper had left on the pricetag for Slovakia, which was... 60 euros ($78). Sometimes, they do everything to discourage repairs, especially in Switzerland," Inaebnit says.

Some computer manufacturers refuse to deliver any components, forcing La Bonne Combine to supply itself from businesses that make copies of the required parts. “Others will send us parts we didn't order, and afterwards refuse to take them back." When contacted, HP maintains that it provides spare parts for all its machines.

Another concern is quality. “Chinese suppliers have figured out that there are opportunities in the market for spare parts. But the quality varies widely. Finding good parts is a challenge," says Miro Djuric, one of the managers of iFixit.com, a website loaded with guides and instruction manuals. Its goal is to help consumers to repair their own machines. “Planned obsolescence is spreading," Djuric says. “On the first Android phones, it was possible to change the battery. Now, it is much harder to get to the battery, just as it is on the iPhone."

Distributors are often blamed for problems. "Several times, when we brought a camera or video recorder into a big store to be repaired, we noticed that the total price of the estimate and the repair was slightly less than the cost of a new one," says Régis Chatelain, director of Swissecology, a sustainable development engineering organization. "It is obviously a strategy to force consumers to buy new things."

When contacted, Interdiscount responded: "Because of the continual lowering of prices, it is sometimes cheaper to buy a new machine than to repair an old one."

Another example of programmed aging is software. "Take Windows: Microsoft stops supporting earlier versions after a few years. This forces users to buy the latest version and also a new computer, even though the earlier versions are still fine for the majority of users. There is also the vicious circle of the race to produce more powerful computers and faster chips," says Conde.

Are consumers themselves partly responsible? "The marketing for certain products works very well," says Kamis. "Every 12 to 18 months, the cell phone operators put another "smartphone" in the hands of their customers. Which they could refuse to buy..."

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