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Planned Obsolescence

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OK, so our new dryer was installed and plugged in, but when we turned it on, it kept tripping the circuit breaker. When our electrician came to replace the breaker, he took one look at the breaker panel and said, "They don't make those anymore!"

What's the point of my rant? Why is it that spare parts are readily available for appliances when they are new and don't need them, but can't be found when the appliances are old and in need of fixing? And why do new appliances need parts that don't fit the old models? In the case of that dryer, there was probably no good technical reason to have a drive belt and idler pulley that were slightly different for the new model. In comparison, look at the wall sockets we plug our appliances into. They haven't changed in decades.

Oh wait, that's not entirely true either. If you have an older home, you might have some old wall sockets that won't accept the polarized two-prong plug that's common on many new appliances.

How about an example in the realm of computers? I use an older Pentium II computer. I do plan on buying a newer machine very soon. But until I move all my data over to the new machine, I still need to keep the old one running. So I had a problem when the CPU fan started failing. I first went to the local electronics shack, but they didn't sell that fan anymore. I then went to that big box retailer with the alliterative name, but they didn't have it either. Next, I went to the store where I bought the computer. After all, they should service what they sell. No luck there either. But the service guy suggested a store on Kennedy Road south of Highway 401. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember its name.

Now let me describe the three kilometer (two mile) strip of Kennedy Road south of the 401. There must be at least a dozen computer stores, along with a generous number of appliance, furniture, lighting, carpeting, and electronics stores. (You probably have a Kennedy Road in your town too!) After visiting about half a dozen computer stores, I ran out of time and had to go home. There's no way I could miss my daughter's first day in senior kindergarten.

I then emailed a guy we know who collects and refurbishes old computers and then donates them to charities. I figured my old computer would end up with him anyway, so I asked him if he had that fan. No, he replied, but he had practically everything else! Was my machine really that old?

Next to a Web search. It took about two hours, but I finally found a store in California that had the fan I wanted. It cost me all of $1.89 (plus $15.50 for shipping). So here I had a perfectly good, old computer, and all I needed to keep it running was a hard-to-find $1.89 part!

Is this just a reflection of how disposable our things are? When an old device starts failing, does no one think of getting it fixed? Or when that $1.89 part fails, do most people just throw their computer on the trash heap and get a new one? Or worse, do many people throw out perfectly good stuff just for the sake of getting something new?

That reminds me of a TV ad for a large Swedish furniture store. The narrator encouraged potential customers to throw out their old, unstylish stuff and buy all new things. Didn't they realize that we're running out of places to dump our old stuff? If you don't live in Canada, you might look at a world map and think we have lots of room here to dispose of our waste, but you'd be wrong. No one wants their land used for garbage. And no one wants to live next door to or downstream from a landfill either. And, it seems, no one wants Toronto's garbage!

But our society seems to thrive on planned obsolescence. Companies need to sell more and more things to keep their shareholders happy. And consumers are quite happy to buy more and more, even though they don't have the time to play with all the stuff they already have, let alone the money for new toys.

I'll close with an example of planned obsolescence that worked in my favor. About four years ago, I bought my first digital camera. Yeah, I know, I was late to jump on that bandwagon, but it took a while before a camera was available with the features I wanted. Heck, even my Dad had a digital camera before me! However, I quickly ran into some serious limitations with that camera. For example, there was a noticable delay in the viewfinder, which made it easy to miss the critical moment. Also, the camera used a lot of power, so I was always changing batteries. But, as long as the camera worked, I couldn't justify buying a better one. (Well, I could, but I'm not the one who manages the budget in this household!)

But last year, just as I was setting up to take a family photo for our Christmas newsletter, the camera failed. I took it to the repair depot, where I was told that the needed replacement part was no longer made. This time, my reaction was "All right! I get to buy a new camera!"

So does anyone want a camera-shaped paperweight?
Hans Boldt
Hans Boldt worked as a software developer for 26 years at the IBM Canada Laboratory in Toronto , mainly on S/38, AS/400, and iSeries RPG compilers. From 2004 to 2007, he worked on the PL/X compiler on the zSeries, which gave him an increased appreciation for the iSeries. With a B.Sc. (Honours) in Computing and Information Science from Queen's University, Hans' interests range from programming languages to Web design to Linux. His other interests include photography, model railroading, and stained glass art. 




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