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Planned Obsolescence

by Katherine Cochrane

Recently I was asked, "Do you know if it's true that CDs, music CDs in particular, have a planned obsolecence of twenty-five years or so?"

I believe I know just the opposite. Compact disc is probably one of the most well-planned technologies in the history of civilization from the standpoint of ensuring that users' investment in it will be preserved for the longest possible time. To demonstrate that, here's an historical tidbit.

Last year (1995) when Time/Warner/Toshiba announced they wanted to create a new format for a larger capacity disc that would not be backwards compatible, the CD development community rose up against the idea and under the leadership of the original inventors (Philips/Sony, etc.), people who have devoted their careers to this industry did everything in their power to prevent that from happening. The new DVD format is presently planned to be backward compatible now, following a year of discussions, compromises, deals, and maybe even a few threats I don't know about.

One reason for this adamant position is that people in this industry are still haunted by the Betamax/VHS "war" that resulted in two incompatible video formats, only one of which was popularized enough to become really economically viable. Some professionals think the wrong technology won, because Betamax is superior in performance, but VHS was marketed better. Regardless of that, however, one other result was that the early adopters of Betamax were left with useless, expensive boxes and a bad taste in their mouths over being "abandoned" by Sony -- that's right, the same Sony who helped invent CDs. The battle cry over SD-ROM vs HD-CD (the early names for what is now called DVD) was not for or against either technology -- they both work, I've seen them -- but that whichever one won, let there be only one so we don't have another Betamax/VHS.

The second point was that whichever one won, it really, really needed to be backwards compatible so the large installed base of readers would not be abandoned like the Betamax buyers. The fact that Time/Warner did compromise, even if it proves to be temporary (and I hope it's permanent), does show that the industry as a whole has a commitment to the concept of protecting our customers' investment. The idea of "planned obsolescence" is so contrary to that experience that I'd say it's completely wrong.