September/October 2010
Volume 30 No. 6

October 2010 Cover
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My Two Cents

Let’s talk for a minute about what I call the “Business of Obsolescence”: One of the largest social, economical and environmental disasters in modern history.

“We’re not perfect,” is how Apple’s Steve Jobs justified the technical problems of the iPone4, which has been for sale in the U.S. and a few other countries since last June, while 18 others were added a month later. It should be noted that the previous version had only been retailing since June 2009. The iPhone3 requires a SIM identity card, whereas the iPhone4 needs a micro-SIM.

Many people were outraged over the iPhone4’s technical problems, but no one seemed to be upset about the very reason that the new device ought to exist at all.
On the contrary, some newspapers even ran divertive stories like “Survey finds that iPad users are selfish.”

Why is it necessary to produce a new electronic device when technology would have allowed us to update the previous version? And this also goes for the whole series of “pods,” “pads,” “kindles,” “nooks,” “droids,” “streaks” and other smartphones.

This rant is not against progress and innovation, but only against the business of obsolescence. Have you ever wondered why a radio built in the ’40’s still works, while a computer purchased four years ago is now obsolete?

Years ago there were powerful and effective committees for standardization that assured compatibility, high quality and durability. These characteristics allowed the creation of a service sector, like technicians who repaired radios and televisions, thus putting rationality into the consumer process. This never happened with computers and other IT devices, because they become unusable before they have a chance to break.

The business of obsolescence was created at the disadvantage of the consumer and society as a whole. It happened under today’s absent watch of regulatory authorities and ineffective consumer organizations. It was made possible with the support of politicians connected to the IT industry and the press, a willing accomplice due to the fact that every device’s new version is launched with a rich advertising campaign.

Now, one could ask, “What does this obsolescence have to do with the television business?” Plenty, I’d say, for an industry with vision and far-sight. Nothing for those near-sighted. Plenty for those who want to leave a legacy. Nothing for those who will vanish with the first retirement check.

Keep in mind that in a few years, television will be consumed from devices that will basically be computers. If we don’t return to the good ole days of standardization, compatibility and rationalization, the audience will be fragmented in such a way to make any business model for content unprofitable.

The erosion of political power caused by money poured by “special interest” into elections campaigns, has permitted the creation of this business model where companies generate profits primarily with obsolescence. And this extends even to accessories, such as telephone chargers that do not work for different models made by the same brand.

Recently, the European Commission had finally established that at least all types of cell phones’ chargers must be compatible (basically with the same plugs) so that consumers don’t have to replace a functioning cell phone only because the manufacturer has stopped producing that specific phone charger that broke down.

If it cannot be eradicated, just reducing the business of obsolescence would cut down both the expenses of purchasing new electronic apparatus, and the pollution caused by millions and millions of discarded devices (e-waste) of which, at the most, only 20 percent is recyclable.

Perhaps it’s too late, but let’s hope for the consumer’s good sense, helped by a possible revival of the public-service role of politicians to reject obsolescence. These developments would push towards the restoration of standards committees, under the vigilant eyes of controlling authorities. Naturally, this is the equivalent of declaring open war, similar to the front that President Obama opened against Wall Street (about 150 people left the financial regulatory agencies to openly become lobbyists) and the oil industry. Who knows, if we were to win the war against the business of obsolescence, there could also be hope to win against speculators and the food lobby. DS