The Death of Planned Obsolescence  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Slate has an article on an emerging trend for consumer electronics devices to have a longer potential lifespan based on periodic software upgrades keeping functionality of the device up to date - The Death of Planned Obsolescence. As the subtitle notes, "Why today's gadgets keep getting better. (At least until the battery dies)", another trend is working against this - the trend for batteries to be embedded within the device and not replaceable by end users (think "iPod").

In 2005, a Southern California start-up named Sonos put out a multiroom digital music system, a gadget that sounds straightforward but was actually ahead of its time. Back then, music had already gone digital, but most digital players were meant to be used on the go, not at home. If the iPod is the modern version of the Walkman, Sonos is the reincarnation of the home stereo. It uses wireless networks to string together small "ZonePlayers," stand-alone devices that pipe stereo-quality sound to different rooms in your house. You control the Sonos through a Wi-Fi remote that sports a big LCD screen and an iPod-like scroll wheel. Together, the system's components add up to something transformative: Sonos frees your songs from tinny computer speakers, bringing music to far-flung corners of your McMansion.

But that was three years ago—an eternity in the gadget world. Last week, Sonos offered its first major hardware overhaul since the product's debut (the company decreased the size and increased the networking capabilities of its ZonePlayers). What's remarkable, though, is that while its hardware has barely changed in three years, the Sonos system has improved tremendously since it went on sale. In 2006, the company issued a software update to every Sonos sold—suddenly, the system could play audiobooks. A few months after that, another update allowed Sonos players to hook into the Rhapsody online music service, which meant that for $13 a month, people could now listen to millions of tracks that they didn't own. Later, Sonos added Napster, Pandora, and Sirius, plus a slew of free Internet radio stations. Last year, the company improved its controller's user interface, adding a function that lets you search your tunes from the device—another feature that every Sonos owner got through a software update. ...

Sonos' approach signals a larger shift in the gadget industry, a business that has long titillated its customers with short-lived thrills—what gadget-lovers derisively call "planned obsolescence." It used to be that a gadget worked the best on the day you bought it; every day afterward, it would fall deeper under the shadow of something newer and more fantastic. But because music players, cell phones, cameras, GPS navigators, video game consoles, and nearly everything else now runs on Internet-updatable software, our gadgets' functions are no longer static. It's still true that a gizmo you buy today will eventually be superseded by something that comes along later.

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