On July 12th, 2016, I purchased a pair of Jaybird Freedom F5 earbuds for $180 from an eBay vendor. I really liked these headphones. They had clear audio, good sound reproduction and I used them to listen to music and podcasts on my morning and evening train commutes. They refused to power on recently, and I discovered that this was a common problem mentioned on various product forums. I contacted Jaybird, provided my serial number, and discovered my warranty had expired. There was no option for me to get them repaired, even though I was willing to pay. I was offered a coupon for a 30% discount on another Jaybird product which could potentially stop working in another two years.
After supplying my unit’s serial number and learning my warranty had been expired (which I was expecting, since it had been over two years), I sent the following e-mail back to the support staff.
I was given this pretty surprising response:
The response said there was nowhere they could forward my complaint. It all started and ended with them, with the only resolution being a discount for another product. There was no option to pay to have my product repaired. I will say I really liked these earbuds. They were a high quality product and, at the time, I’d even have said they were worth the high price tag. However, for that cost, I’d expect them to last at least five years, and ideally their life expectancy would be closer to eight years.
Planned obsolescence is when a manufacturer designs a product that’s good enough that you enjoy using it reliably for several years, but it’s intended to wear out or fail at some point past its warranty period. The goal is to create an affinity to the product so consumers will replace it with another from the same vendor.
With the new age of cellphones, many people replace their mobile devices after only two years. These short life cycles can lead to a lot of electronic waste, pollution and wasteful spending. In the 1980s or 90s, if someone paid $200 or $500 for a computer part, they would expect that part to work reliably for years. Even today there are enthusiasts who rebuild all kinds of old machines such as Commodore 64s, Amigas, Apple IIs, vintage DOS/Windows laptops and many others.
The average consumer for high end tech used to be hobbyists and people in tech industries; people who tended to have a great deal of working knowledge about the components they purchased. Designing devices that expensive, with the intent to replace them after such a short window, would not go well with that generation of tech consumers.
In 2004, Apple became embroiled in a class action lawsuit from owners of their iPod products. In the case of Westley vs Apple, consumers claimed their iPod’s batteries quickly degraded. When they called Apple support to request battery replacements, they were told Apple did not sell replacement batteries nor did they offer repairs for devices.
“…I was completely broke, and I had gotten this iPod; it’s like 500 bucks [or] 400 bucks, and ah, about eight months later, twelve months later maybe, the battery died in it. And I called Apple to ask them to replace the battery, and their policy at the time was to tell their customers to buy a new iPod … it wasn’t that the battery died that was annoying, because in my Nokia cellphone, the battery dies you buy a new battery. Even in my Apple laptop, when the battery died, you’d replace the battery. But in the iPod, this expensive piece of hardware, when the battery died, you had to replace the entire unit.” -The Light Bulb Conspiracy1 (Documentary)
In 2005, Apple reached a settlement in the class action lawsuit, where they offered replacement devices and battery repair to consumers affected by the battery issues.
In 2018, Apple is nearly a trillion dollar company, and the largest company in the world by market value2. Despite the lawsuit over the iPods of the early 2000s, Apple has made their devices less user serviceable with each release. Where the early MacBooks had hard drives and memory that could easily be removed and upgraded, many current models have their components soldered directly to the logic board, making them difficult, if not impossible, to repair. Linus Tech Tips, a popular YouTube channel for product reviews, encountered several issues when trying to acquire replacement parts for a iMac Pro his company had damaged during testing.
“…So if an authorized service provider fails to return a defective part during the exchange for any reason, they get dinged for the price of the replacement part in what is a clear effort to prevent any spare parts from making their way out into the wild. … This is far from the only punitive measure that Apple appears to be willing to inflict upon its ‘partners’. From talking to them, we were struck by the culture of fear that Apple cultivates among its authorized service providers. They explicitly prevent them from ordering replacement parts for the sake of having them on hand. So what that means is that they require a work order to be placed before the part will even be shipped, which creates massive delays of potentially weeks, for something as simple as a freaking RAM swap. Which makes the AASP look bad in comparison to Apple’s own service centers. But that’s Apple’s policy. To make matters worse, if an AASP attempts to order a part that they don’t yet have the certification for, Apple will send them a fine instead of the parts they ordered. And this is all for the privilege of having access to Apple’s supply chain. Oh and the best part is anyone caught talking about any of this to anybody outside of Apple; for them this is grounds for severe retaliation: Revocation of AASP status or certifications, fines or even potential legal actions … By comparison, Samsung has a web portal that you can log into and order any replacement phone parts that you could want…“ -Is Apple’s behavior Illegal, Linus Tech Tips3
The world of tech has changed dramatically in the past decade, with non-technical consumers brought into the cycle of purchasing and replacing very high value electronics at very short intervals. Where Hi-Fi audio enthusiasts wouldn’t stand for a pair of expensive, high end headphones they couldn’t repair, Jaybird markets to a broader consumer base that is used to shorter replacement intervals. Therefore they reduce the demand for products that last longer or can be sent in for repairs.
With a broader market of consumers, the cost of high end electronics has not really gone down substantially in the past few years. We’re hitting the limits of what new innovative technologies can be crammed into our portable hardware, so manufactures are relying on continual releases and the rampant consumerism of their general customer base to keep their sales growing. People from the technology sector who seek to minimize waste are fighting back with projects such as PostmarketOS, which attempt to bring new life to old cell phones that have been abandoned by their manufacturers.
Those who want hardware that will last are turning into a minority within a customer base that simply doesn’t care. It’s the very reason that Jaybird can get away with selling $180 earbuds that didn’t even last three years, and is a sign of much more unsubstantial product growth to come.
The Light Bulb Conspiracy. 33:22 (Documentary) ↩
The 100 largest companies in the world by market value in 2018 (in billion U.S. dollars). 2018. Statista. (Retrieved 3 October 2018) ↩
Is Apple’s behavior ILLEGAL?? - iMac Pro Repair Pt. 2. 10 Jul 2018. Linus Tech Tips. (Video) ↩