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Technology

One Hoss Shay and Our Society of Obsolescence (hackaday.com) 220

szczys writes: The last time you replaced your smart phone, was the entire thing shot or had just one part gone bad? Pretty much every time it's one thing; the screen has cracked, or the WiFi stopped working predictably. But the other parts of the phone were fine. The same is true for laptops, or cars, or one-horse carriages. In fact this is a concept that has been recognized for well over one hundred years. The stuff we buy isn't meant to last forever, otherwise we wouldn't buy more of them. And for that matter, nothing lasts forever despite design. But what if everything was optimized to fail all at once? Instead of a single point of weakness, all parts wore equally and failed in the same time frame. Finding a balance between the One Hoss Shay model, and encouraging the return of user-serviceable parts would go a long way toward making sure that replacement is a choice and not a necessity. (And here's a nicely illustrated version of One Hoss Shay.)
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One Hoss Shay and Our Society of Obsolescence

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  • Ummm.. nothing (Score:5, Informative)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:16PM (#51417323) Journal
    Nothing typically fails in my phones before replacement. My phone and most phones are replaced because we are enticed with a newer shinier phone and amortized or waived costs with a contract.
    • I get OS support failures in my phones. They usually stop getting manufacturer and carrier support about a year after they're released. Even my flagship Android devices that are under 2 years old are running 5.0.x. It's only very recently that some manufacturers have finally started to provide security updates for "obsolete" devices so at least some of my devices are safe from years-old exploits. But they'll still be Left Behind in a few more years when apps require 6.x or higher.

      • A fair point but that isn't really a component failure. That's the problem with the general tone of this article. We are already pushed toward new devices in so many ways and it is common to all the carriers interests not to compete on this, no active collusion or conspiracy required to get the same anti-consumer needs to be outlawed result. The last thing we need is take planned obsolescence the next step by actually sanctioning it and supporting the manufacturers deliberately building devices to fail rath
    • by gfxguy ( 98788 )
      Or they're just slow as s#%t for newer applications, games, or the technology is outdated (like having a non-LTE phone). My last phone was expandable via microSD card, but there were too many things you couldn't move to the SD card, and I ended up having extremely limited number of apps - it was a cheap phone that worked OK for a couple of years, but the constant "insufficient memory to install application" problems pushed me to get a new phone. That simple. Every time I upgrade I actually ask "what can
    • So, your provider contract model is broken - making your existing phone obsolete for no reason whatsoever.

      • ... making your existing phone obsolete for no reason whatsoever.

        Except for weight, poor battery life, and lack of memory and features needed for new apps. Also, no one with an old phone is going to be able to hang out with the cool kids. New phones are being pushed by "providers", they are being pulled by consumers.

  • won't work. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Everyone's use-case is different, you can't design it in such a way that all parts consistently fail at the same time.

    And it is not "nothing lasts forever despite design" it is "obsolescence is in the design".

    • by dj245 ( 732906 )

      Everyone's use-case is different, you can't design it in such a way that all parts consistently fail at the same time.

      And it is not "nothing lasts forever despite design" it is "obsolescence is in the design".

      There is a different, but related philosophy- to design a machine in such a way that with a simple action, the entire product falls completely to pieces, allowing for easy recycling of the materials. My engineering professor used the example of a car with a special bolt under the back seat. Unfasten the bolt and all the aluminum falls to one side, all the steel to the other side, and all the plastic falls straight down. Obviously that is a fantasy example and 100% disassembly will be impossible for produ

    • Even worse, making multiple quality levels of components could end up costing way more than just going with a higher quality component, due to economies of scale. And that's nothing compared to the insane levels of QA and engineering required to have the components fail at exactly the right time -- cheaper to make a component that will last 1 or two years, then to make one that will last exactly 365 and a quarter days.

      If you want all your components to fail at the same time, just hit it with a sledgehammer

    • Cell phones don't even have any moving parts, and under normal use, should not be subjected to physical stress. Also, at the time the poem was written, anyone could cut down a tree and fabricate wood replacement parts for a carriage. In today's world, the cell phone components were just not designed to be user replaceable.
  • Article and idea too terrible to comment on. Creating a part to wear this way and maintain usable tolerances will cost way more then just a well designed part.
  • by epyT-R ( 613989 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:18PM (#51417337)

    The last thing I'd want is for industry to cheapen products further than they already have. All the cheap, fragile plastic in products today seriously shortens lifespan. Of course, the problem is that industries are trying to keep their products at 'magic' prices points ($9.99, 99.99, 199.99 etc) that customers have grown accustomed to over many years while fighting inflation of the currency. Their only choices are to increase the price or cheapen the products.

    Perhaps part of the solution is to reverse the inflation trend.

    • Well, what about efficiencies of scale? The costs of other factors dropping (e.g. transportation viz. lower petroleum prices, currently)? Offshoring manufacturing (which is why a lot of stuff got so crazy cheap in the first place)?

      Lots of factors besides the two you mentioned...

      • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

        Well, I was talking about increasing prices vs quality for long standing products. If anything, we're more efficient today at producing mass quantities of just about everything, so if prices are still going up, then there's a problem elsewhere.

    • Which is why a lot of people buy the most reliable products, like Apple laptops and similar tough designs.

      The reason to buy tough laptops and other similar equipment is the inevitable time loss when you are forced to upgrade before you are ready.

      eBay offers the intelligent buyer a way to get less expensive replacements and sometimes repair parts.

      The free marketplace economy works pretty well.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      The last thing I'd want is for industry to cheapen products further than they already have. All the cheap, fragile plastic in products today seriously shortens lifespan.

      Can't really say I agree, most the problems with flimsy plastic crap came from poor assembly, tolerances and quality control. These days I get the impression that it's mostly made by robots inspected by robots, it might still be cheap but usually very consistently so and just solid enough to last for most people. So many things have fallen under the "repair event horizon" where if you have to repair it the expected cost of niche parts/tools/skills and remaining lifetime doesn't add up.

      • by epyT-R ( 613989 )

        and why is there all this flimsy plastic crap, poor assembly, tolerances, and quality control? Cost cutting to keep a price point. Living with junk that's always breaking is its own cost, especially if most people can't afford to throw it away (say a home appliance or a car) and buy a new one whenever it breaks.

        • Ever dropped your phone on concrete and not have it show any damage? Phones are pretty good in terms of build quality.
  • Usually when one part fails, the whole phone is useless. It's effectively the same thing.

    • We already have cars like this; one day past the warranty period, 30 things fail simultaneously. What you're saying is that, after walking the last mile home, we should walk into the house with a smile saying "Guess what, Honey! We need a new car! Isn't that great!"

  • by Dracos ( 107777 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:18PM (#51417347)

    I keep my smartphone (Samsung Epic 4G, of the Galaxy 1 generation) because no phone available now has the one feature I want to keep: a hardware QWERTY keyboard. Yes, it's stuck on Gingerbread and has an anemic amount of RAM (even for its time), but that just shows how much I hate on-screen keyboards.

  • I'm not convinced modular smartphones will ever be more than a niche product. The whole goal of smartphone design is to fit as much as you can into a tiny package, and modularization would require lowest-common-denominator physical dimensions.
  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:20PM (#51417359) Journal

    That would get more than a bit expensive, wouldn't you think? I meant for the manufacturer, not the individual consumer (who also gets shafted).

    I'll explain - the R&D into making everything fail at once (or enough to brick the device) would never be recouped...

    * too much chance of the customer jumping ship to a competing brand that promises that their widget lasts x% longer.
    * too much chance that the failure wouldn't fail gracefully, causing something lawsuit-worthy
    * too much chance that the failure would fail gracefully, but do so at the wrong time, again causing lawsuits
    * too much chance that you mis-time your intentional MTBF, causing your entire customer base to simply stop using that class of device (after all, I don't *need* a smartphone to eat/sleep/shit/whatever, and if the cost is too high to keep replacing them, I'll simply do without.)
    * too much chance that some group like Greenpeace (or worse) would use that pre-planned failure to whip up animosity towards you and your company. ...sure there's lots more involved, but think about this: some breakages can be repaired at relatively little cost, such as a cracked screen. Because of this, replacing an entire fairly-new phone (and then blowing all that time configuring/syncing the replacement) because the screen cracked is asinine (doubly so when you consider things like device insurance).

    Just at first blush, I don't see this idea working at all... it would require everybody in the industry to do it at the same time, and further require that a struggling company not 'cheat' by making and selling more durable products.

  • by jtownatpunk.net ( 245670 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:22PM (#51417375)

    Do you want small, efficient devices that can't be serviced or big, inefficient devices that are modular?

    The more customizeable or serviceable you make a device, the bigger it's going to be because the individual components need interfaces and power regulation and whatnot.

    • Do you want small, efficient devices that can't be serviced or big, inefficient devices that are modular?

      These are not always mutually exclusive. ;)

    • "Do you want small, efficient devices that can't be serviced or big, inefficient devices that are modular?"

      In the case of smartphones it seems we are getting "the best of both worlds": big inefficient devices that can't be serviced.

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:34PM (#51417455)

    >> replaced your smart phone, was the entire thing shot or had just one part gone bad

    My family and I have owned about a dozen different phones now. None have ever broken. We really only get another phone because:
    1) Another kid is old enough
    2) I want more features
    3) "My phone's full/slow"

    Same thing with laptops/computers, etc. The side benefit is that a fresh new phone is new, non-gross and un-worn. Unless there was a regular and inexpensive "detailing" service for my phone, I'd still want to chuck my phone every couple of years just like I chuck running shoes.

    • My phone is one of the few devices that actually have broken. Mainly because I carry it everywhere, and it eventually falls out of my pocket, and sooner or later, one of those falls does some damage.

      OTOH, I don't think I've had a laptop break since the turn of the century, and I've NEVER had a desktop or tablet break. They might become "obsolete", but they don't break.

      • by Jiro ( 131519 )

        I've owned four tablets. Admittedly cheap Chinese versions, not name brands. The first one really did spontaneously malfunction; the touchscreen started acting strangely, acting as though it was touched in the wrong places at the wrong times until at some point it failed completely. The second I had dropped and badly cracked the screen; my fault since I hadn't secured it in its case. It actually still ran but I wanted to replace it. (The third was not malfunctioning; I just wanted to upgrade to a high

    • Nobody's ever lost one? Wow.

      I suspect almost as many phones get lost as fail.

  • by labnet ( 457441 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:35PM (#51417465)

    Obsolescence is DELIBERATLEY limiting the lifetime of an object through design.
    I've designed electronic products for over 25 years, and not once have I ever purposely designed obsolescence into a product, nor have I known an engineer who has (We are talking industrial/scientific equipment), and I'm not sure how you would do it for an electronic product short of firmware date methods.

    Now: I have designed products, such a Alcohol Breathalyzers, that will refuse to work after a certain period of time because they need recalibration (this was to maintain a government certification), but re calibration restores functionality. The fuel cell wears out in those products; but again that is not planned obsolescence, but a limitation of the technology.

    A cracked screen (user abuse), poor wifi (software driver, corrosion etc) are not Obsolescence.
    Failing batteries is about as close as you can get to obsolescence.

    I'm sure there are examples (especially for mechanical consumer devices with moving parts), but for electronics, it is not a 'thing' we do.

    • by guruevi ( 827432 )

      The problem is that it appears to users as such. Our computers do not get measurably slower over time but we get used to faster computers elsewhere in our life and thus our home computer appears less fast or our TV is more blurry. It's a matter of perception mostly, some things like security updates may make things a bit slower but that's just what security requires (you can't expect your 20-year old computer to compute a 2048-bit key as fast as it does it's contemporary 256-bit keys).

      • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

        Chrome now hangs on startup on several of my older computers ever since the last major version thats not my imagination if I install an older verison of chrome or Firefox it won't do that.

        Also has anyone figured out how to fix lonesome smartphone syndrome? You know where your droid gets lonely when left unattended and starts calling people at random by itself?

    • by eyenot ( 102141 )

      It doesn't matter what you, as the designing Engineer, plan for.

      Ultimately, your plans get handed up and up until they reach a holder, and then down and down until they reach a buyer.

      And that buyer, ultimately, decides how those plans are executed -- whether in full or in part, with or without modifications.

      And when "in part" and "with modifications" means selling *more quickly* for a *good enough* price to any buyer whatsoever, then that course you took in Ethics In Engineering (I hope!) waves good-bye bec

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Same here.

      Products are not 'designed to break' but rather to last a certain amount of time. A good example f this are spacecraft, or more specifically, the Martian rovers. Say they are designed for a target mission of 90 days. That means you want a 97% probability of lasting 90 days.

      If each of the 10,000 components that went into building it had a 97% chance of lasting 90 days, the thing would statistically fail before you got to Mars. You have to use parts rated much higher than the mtbf of the ent

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      "Obsolescence is DELIBERATLEY limiting the lifetime of an object through design."

      Like making components known to have a limited lifespan (batteries) non-replaceable for all practical purposes?
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      You pick components close to the limits rather than allowing a margin. Perhaps you run them a touch beyond rating. Cheat the heatsink a little smaller than requirements.

    • Obsolescence is DELIBERATLEY limiting the lifetime of an object through design.

      No. When the IBM PC first came out, it made every CP/M machine in the world obsolete, but that wasn't planned when the various CP/M machines were designed and built. The term you want isn't obsolescence, it's "planned obsolescence," where the device is designed to wear out faster than it otherwise would. As an example, if a car manufacturer used parts known to be degraded by exposure to alcohol in cars that were expected to
    • "I've designed electronic products for over 25 years, and not once have I ever purposely designed obsolescence into a product, nor have I known an engineer who has (We are talking industrial/scientific equipment)"

      Maybe that's the reason.

      "I'm not sure how you would do it for an electronic product short of firmware date methods."

      Easier than it seems. On one hand, pay attention to the target audience for these devices: a lot of times a dying battery is enough reason to trash away a phone, or just adding more

    • Engineers don't have to design in obsolescence. It just comes naturally.

      Case in point: Have you ever designed any industrial/scientific equipment with a serial port on it? Where do you plug that into on a modern PC? ... They all have USB ports instead!
  • by foxalopex ( 522681 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:37PM (#51417481)

    While some folks might like disposable products since they "upgrade" so often, I am not in that market and I tend to keep items for a long time. I suspect in most modern phones the part most likely to fail due to heavy usage will be the battery because Lithium Polymers wear out with use. However in my Samsung Note 3, the battery is replaceable so that's less of a concern for me. I'll likely keep using my phone until it can't play youtube anymore. I'm still using a Vaio Z laptop made 5 years ago. It was state of the art in its time so surprisingly it still seems like a fairly modern laptop. It can't run as long on battery and the discrete switch-able graphics are a bit weak but thanks to impressive design, weight wise and size is a match to modern thinish laptop. CPU power is pretty decent too as an i7. So no, I do not like disposable items.

  • That's seems like a really dumb way to tackle a problem. Why not address the reason why the part failed to begin with and improving that? The biggest problem I've ever had with my phones are crappy MicroUSB that seem to disintegrate if a little pressure is applied.
    Most people's biggest problem is the screen falling to bits if you stare at it too hard.

    I wish manufacturer's would consistently offer spare parts.
    • by eyenot ( 102141 )

      q: what's stupid?

      a: wishing in one hand and shitting in the other. it's a joke -- don't actually do it!

      fact of the matter is, you can look at the history of PC's and see *FOUR* prevailing and concurrent trends:

      1. "this gets easier to sell as it gets smaller"

      2. "this gets harder to break into and work on as it gets smaller"

      3. "making things smaller takes more investment and research, it's more expensive and fewer companies can compete -- which means i can't just run out and get replacement parts for a smalle

    • Yep, stupid. While there is an interesting mental excercise about an optimum design being once that worked flawlessly until the day it falls apart into dust, it misses the point. Given the hundreds of electronic components and many millions of transistors in a phone it is amazing they work in the first place, let alone trying to shave tolerances so they fail predictably.

      Cell phone companies torture their devices all along the design process to see what fails early. The suppliers get their skulls cracked

  • by alzoron ( 210577 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @05:46PM (#51417535) Journal

    I prefer only one thing failing at a time. That way it's economical to repair it.

  • I had a first-gen iPod Touch that lasted eight years before the battery quit holding a charge. Otherwise, it was perfectly fine. The replacement was an iPhone 5C because I needed a new phone after three years and it was $100 cheaper than a current gen iPod Touch.
    • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

      I'll just chime in.... my iPhone 4 lasted 5 years with absolutely no problems other than the battery life gradually diminishing. When I finally decided to upgrade, I paid a college kid $35 to replace the battery and now it works like new again (I passed it on to a relative to use as an mp3/audiobook player). I could have replaced the battery myself for about half that price, but I was too lazy to bother.

  • My experience with Hondas is that they are designed to last almost exactly 100,000 miles, at which point they start requiring significant maintenance.
    • by gfxguy ( 98788 )
      Sounds about right - but to be fair, since the 100k mile point on my car, I've had maybe $6000 in repairs (non routine maintenance). It's got over 200k miles now - definitely worth it.
    • You make that sound like a bad thing. Being essentially maintenance-free for 100,000 miles is far, far ahead of the industry average. There are two ways to have all components fail at the same time:

        (a) measure the life span of the worst component. Cheapen every other part down to that standard.

        (b) find the worst component, and make it better, so it lasts 100,000 miles. Repeat until the entire vehicle lasts that long.

      Given the choice, I'll buy the (b), thanks.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Boy, there are a lot of people who think otherwise. You can't own a Honda with 100,000 on the clock and even casually discuss selling it without getting people coming out of the woodwork asking if you're selling it. We've sold two Hondas with 100+k on them in like the same day for better than Blue Book prices. One couple wanted the Pilot so bad they tolerated our clusterfuckery for needing a replacement title.

      We'd owned both cars for 11 years and while they seemed mechanically flawless, we were just kind

  • by gfxguy ( 98788 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @06:04PM (#51417637)
    If the camera fails, I can still use my phone. If the wifi fails, I can still use my phone. Hell, even if the mobile unit fails, I can still do VOIP until I get a new phone. Having it all fail because one part fails is just moronic.
  • Racist (Score:5, Funny)

    by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @06:04PM (#51417639) Homepage

    One Hoss Shay

    His name is Juan-José, you racist!

  • Car manufacturers have been working on this for some time now.
  • "hay" now (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eyenot ( 102141 ) <eyenot@hotmail.com> on Monday February 01, 2016 @06:06PM (#51417659) Homepage

    ... don't try to sell me on planned obsolescence!

    When I was proofing goods for the sales floor at a charity second hand shop, here's the prevailing theme I noticed:

    * Made before 1970: Pretty good

    * Made during WW2: Awesome

    * Made during WW1: How are we so blessed

    Everything else is unserviceable fucking garbage, might as well throw it in the trash.

    • Re:"hay" now (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 01, 2016 @06:27PM (#51417803)

      ... don't try to sell me on planned obsolescence!

      When I was proofing goods for the sales floor at a charity second hand shop, here's the prevailing theme I noticed:

      * Made before 1970: Pretty good

      * Made during WW2: Awesome

      * Made during WW1: How are we so blessed

      Everything else is unserviceable fucking garbage, might as well throw it in the trash.

      The reason why you think that WWI era stuff is magnificent is simple: The crap that has broke has already been tossed. Anything that has lasted this long has obviously been either well built, well maintained, or not used.

    • Selection bias (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @06:35PM (#51417845) Homepage Journal

      What you're missing with that list is that all the bad and disposable stuff has already been broken, with only the most durable, carefully made, and maintained goods surviving to modern day.

      That, and especially for office equipment, intended duty cycle. A 3 hole punch produced around WW2 was expected to be used on reams of paper a day. One produced today is expected to be used a few times a day. Yes, you can get a punch built today that's intended for reams - but it's going to cost you, and to some extend the old high-quality hole punches that were hiding in closets and such satisfies the high duty cycle demands even today.

      • What you're missing with that list is that all the bad and disposable stuff has already been broken, with only the most durable, carefully made, and maintained goods surviving to modern day.

        While you're absolutely correct that this is a real factor, it is not the only factor. Older equipment is simply made of more material. It doesn't matter if you're talking about machine tools, or hand tools, or sewing machines or toasters or basically anything else, they used to make stuff with very little regard for weight. Materials science has advanced substantially, but sadly many things are built far more flimsily now than they used to be because shipping costs are a significant percentage of the cost

  • That is, I'm sorry, stupid. It would take a large amount of effort, much of it directed towards making parts fail faster just so that the consumer can feel good about not having to throw something out just because one piece failed.

    The correct answer is, of course, to make things repairable, and arrange so that the failed part can be replaced. But that would cut into profit margins.

    On an unrelated note, have the new Slashdot overlords fired everybody but Timmay?

  • Have a 3 year old droid that, outside of a much shorter battery life, works well. Except the thing iisss slllooowwwwwiiinnnnggggg wayyyyyy dowwwwwnnnn. Games that, 2 years ago, played fine now take 5 minutes just to get to the start screen. Pull up the make a call screen and it's a minute to bring up the contacts list. We had a power outage yesterday, I pulled up the web browser to see if there was an ETA for my power, took 5 minutes to bring up a page. Then it did an auto refresh, which took another 5
  • Apples push to be thin is driving this.

    Even the mac pro has fallen to the looks over what is really needed

  • Make the whole thing fail at once? That would be an engineering accomplishment on the same order as making a device that never failed.

    Why on Earth would you want to do this? It's idiotic and I feel like a sucker for even responding to this steaming pile of "news story".

  • by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Monday February 01, 2016 @07:32PM (#51418113) Homepage
    I have tools that are older than I am, and I'm soon to be 63 years old. I've seen and used guns that are far older than I am (wish I owned some of them). The oldest book I own is close to two hundred years old, and there are many that are much older. Everybody has seen houses and buildings that are hundreds of years old. The universe has lasted billions of years, but it had a master builder!

    I have a burial plot and casket that will probably last until we're all gone. Of course I won't care about those two things!
  • Majority of devices fail with perfectly functioning hardware, because software is no longer updated, with the last available release usually being horribly slow and bloated. Installing a custom ROM often does wonders for usability. We should first demand that that bootloaders are unlockable and at least the interface expected and provided by driver binaries is well documented. Fully open and user serviceable hardware would be great, but even modest steps will keep lots of stuff out of landfill.

  • Phones are, for a lot of people, fashion accessories, status symbols, you buy the latest "just because".
    A phone, failing? What? You can't afford to buy a new one every year? Or every two years, even. It's about 1% of an average IT salary?
    Do you wear clothes until they start falling apart?
    I mean, people crave novelty, I don't care if your phone is built like a brick, we want new toys on a regular basis, that's why the market provides them.
    It's not a conspiracy to steal money from your pocket. There's simply

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