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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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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