Oct 11 2014
On 23 December 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva […]. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. […] the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.
The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.
Early in my career, I worked with an older engineer who told me that his first professional experience had been in the reliability department of a large, US appliance maker, where his job was to change product designs to make them fail as soon as the warranties expired.
I had heard of such efforts before, but had found the accounts difficult to believe. How could companies spend money to deliberately lower the quality of their products? But this was the testimony of a man I trusted who had personally done it, and hated it.
It was malicious, and it was corporate hubris at its worst. It created opportunities for competitors, which they eventually took. When we were having this conversation, my colleague also told me that the manufacturer was no longer in business.
This article from IEEE substantiates another story of market dysfunction that I had heard of but was not sure was true: the manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs conspired to reduce the lives of the bulbs.
The article gives dates, names, and places. An organization called the Phoebus cartel was set up in Geneva in 1924 by the leading lightbulb manufacturers in the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Japan for the purpose of shortening bulb lives from 1,500 to 2,000 hours down to 1,000 hours.
Now that the incandescent lightbulb itself is becoming obsolete, how do we prevent LED manufacturers from pulling the same stunt?
It should be noted also that designing products to fail quickly is only one form of planned obsolescence. A less nefarious one is simply introducing regular product updates to make today’s cool product lame tomorrow. iPhones last much longer than one year. An iPhone 3 may still work today, particularly on its original operating system, but has been made unattractive by five new product releases. In IT in general, you don’t have to play along and can save by buying last year’s products.