This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but it's still a bit interesting to actually see in an abstract what many top industry players have known for a long time: consumers love inconvenience — so much so, they are willing to pay more for it. A lot more.
How much more?
If you look at the entire technology landscape, you'll see an array of consumer products that are incredibly inconvenient, laughingly unreliable, and certainly guaranteed to fail. A common factor among all of them is that they are drastically overpriced in comparison with their more reliable siblings.
"Innovation in technology today basically consists of taking something good and making it worse," says Senator John Thune (R), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. "Look at keyboards and mice. You can get a vanilla wired keyboard at the store for maybe $15 that will last 15 years. Or you can buy a Bluetooth keyboard that costs twice as much and will fail in five years. Probably earlier, as the batteries will fail."
Thune says planned obsolesence is at the core of the tech industry today, and it's kept in mind in the design of pretty much any flashy product.
"Reliability and quality don't sell," Thune explained. "Gimmicks do. That's why watches that need to be charged every night are all the rage while watches with 10-year batteries sit on shelves. People don't like simplicity and convenience anymore. They want the flashiest, most prone to failure consumer products."
Fortunately, there is a wide smattering of companies catering to this sizable segment of the population. In fact, entire retailers have built their business model around it. "RF radiation is very popular today. As we all know, condoms are on their way out with consumers. And a big part of product design today is making sure your product emits enough radiation when in use — and better yet, when not in use. Tech companies are taking standard tech accessories, adding some RF radiation to them, doubling the price, and basically calling it a day. It's a very lucrative model for them."
Lucrative it may be for industry, but likely not so for the consumers that are spending more and more on products designed to become obsolete within a year or two. Nowhere is this more visible than in the telecommunications industry.
"Well, people call me a dinosaur," says R. Walter, Menlo Park, CA. "I've still got the Western Electric 2500 the phone company installed here in 1966, and it's working perfectly for me, still. Never had any issues with it. Probably knocked it onto the floor a hundrede times, too. Slammed down the receiver plenty, too, in my younger days. Contrast that with the popular technology of today, where you buy $800 iPhones that need to be replaced every two or three years. I've had this fifty years now, and still going strong, and you can pick these up for $25 at a flea market. In that sense, a five year old iPhone is probably more obsolete than a fifty year old phone. I'm not sure who's got the losing end of the bargain here."
In fact, there is a whole network of telephone collectors who insist on using retro technology for communications. "It makes a lot of sense from an economical perspective," said one collector, "that is, until you suddenly end up with 400 telephones in your basement. I'm not sure this is the cheaper route, but arguably the more satisfying one."
Nevertheless, there are still individuals like R. Walter who use vintage telephones without collecting them. The quality and reliability of these old phones are the main draw for people like him. But for most people, expensive and unreliable mobile phones are the way to go.
"I can't understand why you would use a landline," said B. Davis, New York, NY. "I like buying a new phone every two years. I think I would go mad if I had the same phone in my house for forty years."
And so, tech companies today cater exclusively to the masses of people like B. Davis, who prefer products that will eventually fail, need to be upgraded, or become obsolete. There are some holdouts, like R. Walter, who, for various reasons, prefer technology that doesn't need to be replaced in five years, but they are a small and disappearing minority. "It used to be the saying that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" R. Walter commented. "Now, it's 'if it ain't broke, break it'".
"Look at tech companies today," Thune pointed out at the end of our interview. "They basically take something that's perfectly utilitarian, add some wireless transceivers to them, make everything proprietary, designed to fail in four years, and then triple the price. It's basically the business model of companies like Apple."
Apple declined to comment for this article, but directed us to its core values statement for reference: "We believe in giving the consumer what he wants. And if that means overpriced crap, we give it to him!"