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The Key to Blu-ray Disc's Success: Built-In Obsolescence

25 Jan, 2010 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I was on my daily run the other morning when a lightbulb went off in my head — or, rather, thoughts of lightbulbs made me think of DVD and what's in store for Blu-ray Disc.

Back when I was studying business at San Diego State University, one of my professors introduced me to the concept of built-in, or planned, obsolescence, which is the process of a product becoming obsolete or nonfunctional after a certain amount of time, by design of the manufacturer. My instructor used the ordinary lightbulb as an example, noting that lightbulbs theoretically could last forever. But if they did, manufacturers wouldn't sell very many lightbulbs, which is why lightbulbs are made in a way that they burn out in a year or two, thus forcing us to buy more lightbulbs. According to Wikipedia, planned obsolescence "has potential benefits for a producer because the product fails and the consumer is under pressure to purchase again."

According to the book Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World, the concept of planned obsolescence was popularized in the 1950s by Brooks Stevens, an industrial designer who frequently spoke on the topic at advertising and marketing conferences. According to Stevens, the objective behind planned obsolescence was to instill in the consumer "the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

The consumer electronics industry is a hotbed of planned obsolescence. What's new at one Consumer Electronics Show is passe at the next. And it is precisely because of this that I believe there is no longer any question that Blu-ray Disc will succeed, and succeed big. DVD players, in accordance with the principle of planned obsolescence, are not designed to last forever. In fact, based on the historical application of planned obsolescence in the CE industry, DVD players should be breaking down after five to seven years. It's now been that long since the peak of DVD player sales, so it stands to reason that we're on the cusp of seeing millions of DVD households in desperate need of replacing their player. And with advertising and marketing in the CE industry firmly lined up behind Blu-ray Disc — when was the last time you saw an ad or a commercial for a standard DVD player? — I find it highly unlikely that anyone whose DVD player dies is going to rush out and buy another DVD player. Instead, they're going to buy a Blu-ray Disc player, in accordance with Brooks Stevens' contention that the reason those DVD players died in the first place was a carefully orchestrated move by the CE industry to instill in the consumer "the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

The same goes for DVD software. Manufacturers could have put a protective layer on DVD to prevent scratching or other damage, but failed to do so, citing the extra cost. How many of DVDs purchased 10, seven, even five years ago are still playable, particularly in households with children (or adults who like to have a cocktail or three while watching classic film noir)?

Factor in the psychological aspect that is a byproduct of planned obsolescence and Blu-ray Disc's success appears even more certain. Over the weekend I took my oldest son to his high school entrance exam. I ran into one of his friends who came up to me, dad in tow, and said, "Mr. Arnold, will you please tell my dad to buy a Blu-ray Disc player? Everyone has one and we just got this great home theater setup and I'm feeling so behind the times."

Of course I gave the dad a stern talking to. I made it abundantly clear that if didn't get a Blu-ray Disc player RIGHT AWAY, on the way home from the entrance exam, he would, indeed, be behind the times — and risk subjecting his poor defenseless son to all sorts of embarrassment at the hands of his tech-savvy peers.

Then I got into my 10-year-old Mercedes and drove away, wishing I could afford a newer model — not because there's anything wrong with my car, but because, well, I'm feeling a little behind the times myself.

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