Apple Archive

Forced Obsolescence

- 2002.10.18

Back in the mid-1990s, computer companies recognized that people were starting to get interested in the ability to go on the Internet, send email, and generally communicate online. The problem was, most computers in use were just a little bit underpowered to handle the demands of these "new" tasks.

A Mac II, while it could browse the Internet and send email, was quickly becoming too outdated to do it well. Compact Macs were a little too slow, except for maybe the SE/30, and most PCs still had a '386 or slow '486 processors inside. With the help of the computer companies, consumers were convinced that they really and truly needed a Pentium or a Power Mac if they wanted to get online.

As the Internet evolved, even these computers got to be too slow to browse comfortably. Pretty soon, a once super-fast 33.6 modem was considered too slow. With the availability of broadband today, even 56K looks sluggish. But broadband can also help make an "obsolete" computer "new" again by making it much faster when browsing the Internet.

This is a problem for computer companies. Traditionally, computer companies (including Apple) would sell new computers by convincing users that they needed the extra features - that their current machine was too slow or wouldn't really do what they wanted to do with it.

Since computers have gone into the 500 MHz+ range and broadband is the Internet connection of choice for many, it doesn't matter anymore. A 500 MHz computer feels no slower than a 1 GHz computer if you're browsing the Internet, typing letters, and playing MP3s.

The reason to upgrade has largely been eliminated, and this is part of the reason computer companies are losing sales. So what are they doing? New marketing campaigns are all over the place. Apple's "switch" campaign doesn't aim at telling the Mac user that his or her computer is too slow to be useful, but instead aims at telling the PC user what they are missing by using a Windows machine.

Dell's dell-etion (sorry, couldn't resist) of the "Dell dude," Steven, also seems to reflect Dell's desire to sell machines in a different way. Gateway's new Profile ad criticizes the iMac, telling you what a deal the Profile is compared to the iMac.

Computer makers are also not focusing on speed as much as they did in the past. Older Macs used to have the speed listed after the model number, such as 7100/66, 7600/132, and 6500/300. Newer Macs don't do that; the only way to differentiate between the models is to check the "About this Mac" box for a listing of the processor speed.

Gateway machines used to be named according to their speed. There was the 4/33SX, P5/100, and so forth. Not anymore. Dell was the same way, and also has stopped doing this. The problem they are all facing is that people are less concerned how many MHz or GHz their computer has, as long as it works and does what they want. Computer makers have realized that people don't seem to be swayed by seeing "1.2 GHz!" labels stuck to the front of computers.

Consumers today, if they are in the market for a new computer, are looking at features and value. This is what ads are trying to show off, not how much better a 2 GHz PC is than an old 200 MHz one.

A parallel could be drawn to what's going on with television. In 2000, standard broadcasters (channels 2-13) were allowed to use digital signals to deliver a better quality broadcast in hopes of getting people to buy new television sets to help lagging TV sales. However there was a little problem - people weren't buying the new digital TVs.

Why not? First, they were too expensive. Not everyone can shell out $2,000 for a new television. Second, people were satisfied with what they had - if they spent $500 on a TV a few years ago that still works fine and still delivers the programming they want to watch, why should they to go out and buy another one?

So instead of trying to solve the problems of trying to sell digital TV sets to consumers, the plan is that all TVs with screens larger than 32" will have to include a digital tuner in 2004. In 2006, all standard analogue broadcasts will be halted, leaving most TVs made before 1999 (and many smaller ones made in the past couple of years) obsolete unless used with cable (cable providers will be forced to buy a converter so that it can convert the digital signals into analogue in order to send it out to TVs) or a special converter.

This is called forced obsolescence.

I believe it's wrong, but it's common in places where technology is concerned (mobile phones, for example - many carriers no longer have analogue service).

However, I would like to point out that the computer industry has been somewhat relaxed about this. Yes, Apple prevents OS X 10.2 from running on pre-G3s, but OS 10.2 requires a G3 processor to run, and upgrade cards are most likely not officially supported due to support issues, not forced obsolescence.

The way the computer industry seems to be handling their marketing right now is something those television manufacturers should have looked at. The computer industry isn't exactly doing wonderfully right now, but it's consumers are generally pretty content - and when that new version of the Mac OS or Windows comes out requiring faster hardware, eventually someone's going to go out and buy a new system.

And others will follow.

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