How planned is obsolescence?

Multi-media editor, Justin Richards MBCS, comments on an old article concerning obsolescence in IT that he recently discovered whilst researching for the BCS 60 year anniversary ITNOW specials.

It would seem that the more things change and move forward, the more things don’t really change - just the names and wrappings do. The same can be said of the computing industry which, back in the mid-seventies, was facing many of the same issues that it faces today, and probably still will in another 30 years’ time. One of these issues was that of obsolescence, which author G.G. Brown, of Brown’s Operating System Services, so rightly decided was ripe for discussion.

Brown’s main gripe was what seemed to him was many manufacturers’ policies for planned obsolescence (or PO), which he blamed for a range of issues including ‘the lack of investment in more modern plant and equipment for our current economic state’, and he highlighted the ‘computing community’ as ‘one group that needs no encouragement to change to the latest available model.’ I’m not sure if all his arguments stack up; however, he did raise some interesting points and included a few examples, mostly the IBM 360/370 range, since that’s where his experience lay.

He started off his missive trying to define what he meant by planned obsolescence within the context of computing. ‘It is not, as some people have suggested’, he wrote, ‘the alternative to planned stagnation nor is it the artificial restrictions of new developments. It is a marketing technique whereby a computer user is persuaded that his existing facility has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced by a larger and / or more modern facility, when his existing one, perhaps with modifications, would be perfectly adequate for some considerable time.’

It was at this point, when reading through the article, that my mind skipped back to the February of 2008 when I was cycling around Cuba, with the blessings and support of BCS, to raise money for the charity Computer Aid International. As most people will know, Cuba, until very recently, has been a country almost frozen in time, technology and engineering-wise, due to the many sanctions foisted upon it by the States, in particular; mostly due to its overtly Communist leanings; oh, and the Cuban Missile Crisis back in the 1960s! Anyway, the reason I mention Cuba at this point is the fact that the whole country kind of backs up Brown’s point - that pieces of kit, whether they are computers or cars, do have a longer shelf-life than we often believe they do - they just require on-going modifications and need a bit more TLC to fulfil their potential. A bit like people, I guess!

Anyway, back to Brown. He continued with a simple example of PO, namely the official core size restriction on the IBM 360 range. He noted that the limit for the 360/30 was 64K bytes, for the 360/40 256K, and for the 360/50 512K. He then informs us that these barriers had now been broken, as a result of suppliers creating bolt-on memory, effectively doubling the numbers.

He goes onto say: ‘I suppose that PO really started with the styling of computer generations. On the surface this seemed to be just a convenient nomenclature. But I expect many will now recall the contribution it made to feeling “left-behind”, if one was not working with the latest generation.’ This can be extrapolated into the modern world with fans of certain brands (step forward Apple, for example) who feel under almost constant pressure to buy the latest instar of whatever technological product the company is pushing towards them, even if the latest version only has a few minor additional functions.

Brown seemed more concerned with the mainframe area though, and qualifies the then current situation by saying: ‘the only real change seen by users over the last five years has been that of size reduction, and so, in the absence of genuine new generations, we have seen the introduction of simulated ones. The manufacturer might tell us of all manner of engineering improvements designed to increase reliability, but IBM do not seem to have produced anything with a reliability that rivals that of their 360/40.’

Now I’m sure that anyone from IBM reading this now will just shrug their shoulders and smile, happy in the knowledge that IBM has since become a global leader in quantum computing processors – in fact at the time of writing this they’d just announced that they ‘had successfully built and tested their most powerful universal quantum computing processors’ yet – but for Mr G. G. Brown, writing his article in 1975, this was an important issue, one with often frustrating consequences.

The bottom line is that companies that produce stuff that’s available to buy want to sell said stuff, whether it’s a PC, a pram or a perambulating toy robot. But they realise that there’s only so many parties interested in their wares so they need to return to that limited market place time and time again in order to continue to make money, hence the proliferation of several versions of essentially the same thing.

I think my main concern, as a consumer, is that for those of us who are on an average income we can’t afford to keep replacing our systems every two or three years, in the same way that the really big, successful companies can, and therefore when technology companies deliberately go down the planned obsolescence route they are disqualifying some of us consumers from maintaining any kind of long-term relationship with their products or services.

I’ll give you an example of my own. My father had a job which involved him having to drive around visiting clients, which meant that he used to rack up a high mileage on his cars. The public-owned organisation that he used to work for would give him a small amount of money toward buying his vehicles, and paid his work mileage. Wanting to have a reliable car for his job (he was no mechanic, so couldn’t fix them himself) my dad would tend to buy new cars and replace his cars before the warranty ran out, which meant that we, as a family, would have to make cut-backs in other ways to help fund his transport needs. Hence we rarely went on family holidays, and even when we did, they were always in the UK and for less than a week.

High tech equipment tends to be expensive, so my point is that in order to have the latest iteration of a product sacrifices often have to be made, especially if a person is determined to have it or needs it for their work etc. But, unfortunately, many people, and smaller organisations, are cash-strapped and can’t keep paying ‘top-dollar’ for the latest releases. I think this is leading to higher instances of ‘hooky’ software (which has security implications) and greater amounts of brand fakery, which often has serious health and safety consequences.

Brown’s article continues along a similar vein to before: ‘And then came VS. The effect on the hardware front was almost enough to produce a revolt. Many users had been persuaded to install 155s and 165s only to find that they were obsolete within months of delivery.’ It seems that the, then new, 370s ran utilising Extended Control (EC), and as this mode was not available on the 360 CPUs, the VS operating systems could not be used on them, making the older model quickly redundant.

So, I guess, the point I’m trying to make in revisiting Mr Brown’s article from July 1975, is that companies need to rethink their constant upgrade mania, and also their tendency for building regular obsolescence into existing products, which, quite frankly, most of us are still pretty happy with, and would be happy to pay for some ‘patches’ to keep them going for a couple more years, in much the same way that those canny Cubans have kept all those vintage cars going for all these years…

I think Mr Brown said it best when he wrote: ‘I do not suggest that IBM should have been put in the position of having to maintain and update the obsolete systems in parallel with the new ones. I do suggest that, were it not for marketing considerations, the new systems could have been designed for use on both the old and the new CPUs.’ Now that does sound like a cunning, and compromising plan.

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