I was wondering about planned obsolescence in the hardware of electronic products like TVs and smartphones.

Is this achieved through low quality parts that simply break over time or do manufacturers put in kill switches for this purpose?

An example for the latter: Company A put in a device inside their laptops that upon reaching 3 years of age, will randomly deliver a high voltage current to intentionally damage certain components weekly so that no matter how many times you send your laptop for repairs, it will always fails after a week.

1 Answer 1


Yes - but not in the way you describe. First of all, planned obsolescence refers broadly to intentionally designing a product so that it will have an artificially short life-span, which can include less-nefarious tactics such as using cheaper manufacturing processes that make repairs more difficult.

What you are referring to is programmed obsolescence: essentially, putting a time-bomb inside of a product. This is a subset of planned obsolescence.

The textbook example of programmed obsolescence is ink cartridges: the Wikipedia article covers the basics. Some ink cartridges have timers or page counters. In other cases, the driver software on the user's PC counts the pages and issues a warning when the ink is almost out - except often the cartridges may still have significant capacity left.

This business model "works" because inkjet printer manufacturers have created a monopoly on the cartridges. Once you buy the printer from them, you need to buy the ink from them too.*

Such a model would not be effective in your laptop example, for two reasons:

  1. Company A cannot guarantee that you will buy your next laptop from them once their kill-switch is engaged.
  2. Company A's competitor, Company B, could easily play the long game and increase their market share by building the same laptop, saving money by leaving out the kill-switch, and selling it for a little bit less. As word got out that Company A's laptop didn't last as long, consumers would start buying more from Company B.

*This has led to an interesting market effect, where competing printer manufacturers can only gain market share by lowering their up-front costs: Amazon currently lists 941 inkjet printers available for less than $100 USD.

  • 4
    And the reason it works when it does is usually intellectual property laws - it's perfectly possible to make a compatible in cartridge without that limitation, but it's illegal to do so. Why do we have such blatantly anti-customer, anti-environment laws? Because the profit from buying the laws is greater than the cost of buying the law.
    – Ⴖuі
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 0:27

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