Gadgets: built to not last

Who's to blame for the 'planned obsolescence' of consumer electronics?

That shiny new Android phone you just bought? It's a piece of trash. No, I'm not some Google-hating Apple fanboy. The iPhone 4 is junk, too.

So is that giant, flat-screen 3D TV and tablet you bought in the past year. It's trash. All trash.

Of course, everything ends up broken, obsolete and unusable at some point. The trouble is, the companies that make our consumer electronics are deliberately or carelessly decreasing the useful life of our gadgets so they can sell us another one sooner.

The strategy is called "planned obsolescence" -- or "designed for the dump," as one organization colorfully puts it.

The light bulb industry pioneered the idea of planned obsolescence in the 1920s and 1930s. Philips, General Electric and other bulb makers formed a shady organization called the Phoebus cartel to, among other things, make sure light bulbs couldn't last more than 1,000 hours.

I had a bulb burn out last week. Even though I had just bought that bulb about a year ago, it died sooner than a bulb at a nearby fire station that was purchased in, and has been burning continuously since, 1901. They don't make 'em like that anymore. There's no money in it.

A wide range of industries have gradually embraced planned obsolescence, increasingly designing products that can't be easily or affordably repaired, or that "wear out" after a short time.

Disposable dishes, "sporks," razors, diapers and more -- ours has become a throwaway culture, even as the environment is being overwhelmed by trash.

In consumer electronics, there has always been a certain amount of planned -- and unplanned -- obsolescence. Moore's Law says the number of transistors that can be crammed into a chip at low cost doubles every 18 months. And that means the awesomeness of gadgets doubles in the same period of time. Because consumer expectations rise with computing power, many gadgets quickly become both undesirable and unsellable, sending us back to Best Buy for more.

Low-end consumer printers, for example, are nearly impossible to sell second-hand and users are unlikely to bother getting them repaired, because you can always buy a great printer for less than $100. They are just one of many types of devices that are far cheaper to replace than repair. Others include media players, DVD and Blu-ray players, clock radios and PC hard drives.

People used to upgrade their PCs with additional memory, new hard drives and even motherboards. Now that laptops are far more commonly used as main PCs, we've allowed our upgrade impulse to atrophy.

A long-term trend toward solid-state systems should make gadgets last longer. As moving parts are eliminated and as flash storage replaces mechanical hard drives and on-screen keyboards supplant physical ones, our devices should function perfectly for decades.

If you could replace the battery, an iPad should last longer than that 111-year-old light bulb. But because many devices are designed with irremovable batteries, we actually throw away gadgets more sophisticated than the computers that put men on the moon -- just because the battery dies.

How Apple 'screws' users

Apple makes a proprietary tamper-proof "pentalobular" screw, which is designed to make it impossible for users to open Apple gadgets to repair them or replace their batteries.

The screw first debuted with the MacBook Pro in 2009, and it was recently added to the iPhone 4 and the latest MacBook Air. (Note that the initial batch of iPhone 4 phones had standard screws, but the pentalobular screws were used in later models.)

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