Does planned obsolescence feed the fear that our devices will be out of date?

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Photo: Alexis Parlette

The word obsolete can have different meanings; horse drawn carriages are obsolete because newer technology was created. The iPhone 2 is obsolete due to the creation of the iPhone 6.

Rotary phones, mix tapes and slide rulers. Your parents or grandparents probably remember what those are, but technological advances have made them obsolete. Today’s teens likely know what a VHS tape and a pay phone are, but those items are all-but-obsolete.

According to businessdictionary.com, obsolescence generally occurs “due to the availability of alternatives that perform better or are cheaper or both, or due to changes in user preferences, requirements, or styles.”

Of course it makes sense that cell phone apps are making paper maps and phone books irrelevant in today’s society. But do cell phones and other electronics really need to be tweaked and upgraded every few months?

Although everyone loves their cell phones, many wonder why the phone they bought just months ago is already being replaced by a newer, shinier model. That begs the question: Are companies purposely making consumers feel their technology purchases are obsolete before they’ve finished paying them?

Planned obsolescence is a business practice of “deliberately outdating an item by stopping its supply or service support and introducing a newer model or version,” says businessdictionary.com. “Its objective is to prod the consumer or user to abandon the currently owned item in favor of the ‘upgrade.’ Planned obsolescence is most prevalent in the computer hardware and software industry.”

Indeed, companies are cranking out new phones with amazing frequency. Some consumers are drawn to the idea of having the newest version, while others feel no rush to buy a new phone. Companies want money, of course, so they can continue to make new and “improved” products, and many critics feel that they feed on the fear people have of being caught with outdated technology.

Often times, people wonder why their devices begin having problems after only a couple years. According to an article in Popular Mechanics, Apple iPods are built for obsolescence. The batteries are stored in such a way that it’s hard for consumers to get to them. If the battery has a problem, the consumer is forced to take the iPod in for a repair or buy a completely new device. Thanks to the throwaway mentality, many people just buy the newest version.

Along with the batteries being hard to reach, iPods have integrated circuits that not only regulate power and help reduce risk of fire, but also are “set to disable after a predetermined number of cycles, even if the life of the individual battery could go on for longer,” according to the Popular Mechanics article. This means phones cannot function after a certain period of ownership, no matter what.

People continue to buy new iPhones because the operating systems don’t work well on the older versions. The newer operating systems have more capacity and run smoother, but they don’t work very well at all on older iPhones, according to the Huffington Post.

Samsung and Apple have been competing for a spot as the best company, the one that sells the most phones. Even though Samsung sells fewer phones than Apple, it still works similarly when it comes to “improving” a phone and selling it for more money. The Galaxy S5 is slightly larger and is now dust- and water-resistant compared to the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Often, people question what happens to their old phones. The answer is probably something most people would never expect.

These discarded phones go to places like India and China. The children there “pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals — copper wires, gold and silver threads,” according to a New York Times article. There are even YouTube videos of young children inhaling smoke as they try to recover different kinds of plastic they will use for recycling. This causes health risks among everyone, especially pregnant women and children.

There’s an international treaty called the Basel Convention, which the United States has not signed (it is the only country that hasn’t signed the document), and it states that it is illegal to export “toxic e-waste” to other countries. If Americans were aware of what really happens to their old phones, they might not be so eager to get rid of their “old” phone.

Despite the controversy, the technology industry is booming, and consumers debate if the peak is yet to come.

Maddy Smith, an iPhone 5s owner, believes that technology is moving at a fast pace. “It feels like it’s [at it’s prime] right now,” she said. She added that she thinks computers are becoming obsolete due to the amount of new technology that people can carry in their pockets.

Amna Nawaz, a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 owner, strongly believes that older versions of phones such as the iPhone, and older computers, are obsolete now because of the newer technology being created daily. “They keep coming up with new ideas,” she said.

Nawaz agrees with Smith about technology moving fast. “It’s at its prime right now. Everyone has a phone on them now. People can’t live without them.”