In 1924, representatives of the world's leading lightbulb manufacturers formed Phoebus, a cartel that fixed the average life of an incandescent bulb at 1,000 hours, ensuring that people would have to regularly buy bulbs and keep the manufacturers in business.
But hardware store LED bulbs have a typical duty-cycle of 25,000 hours -- meaning that the average American household will only have to buy new bulbs ever 42 years or so.
The lighting industry is panicked about "socket saturation," when all household bulbs have been replaced with long-lasting LED bulbs. There's signs that they're moving to limit the longevity of LED bulbs, albeit without the grossly illegal cartels of the Phoebus era. Philipps is seling $5 LED bulbs that have a 10,000 hour duty-cycle. Many no-name Chinese LED bulbs are so shoddy that they're sold by the kilo, and buyers are left to sort the totally defective (ranging from bulbs that don't work at all to bulbs that give people electrical shocks) from the marginally usable ones.
JB MacKinnon's excellent New Yorker piece tells the story of planned obsolescence and home lighting, but only skims the surface of the Internet of Things future of "smart" bulbs. It's been less than a year since Philips pushed out a firmware update that gave its light fixtures the ability to detect and reject non-Philips lightbulbs -- and thanks to laws like the DMCA, which have metastasized in the IoT era, it's a potential felony to alter your light fixture to override this behavior and force it to work with non-Philips bulbs.
The IoT's twin dark patterns are control (forcing you to use original consumables, only get service from the manufacturer, and limiting features to those that benefit the manufacturer, at the owner's expense) and surveillance -- and that's the other side of this. As bulbs get smarter, they're being positioned as IoT hubs that do everything from relaying your wifi to connecting to your thermostat to serving and coordinating with your home security system. This gives them the power to gather farcical quantities of potentially compromising, sensitive information about your life inside your own home, and since a federal court just ruled that the Terms of Service accompanying these products have the force of law, there's little you can do (or sell) that will help people get out from under this kind of spying.
The "smart hardware" companies are operating on razor-thin margins, with less than a year of runway before they run out of investment capital, selling products with 42-year duty cycles. They face knockoff competition from China that can force them into negative margins -- selling at less than cost -- and their only hope of survival is to be acquired before the money runs out. They make themselves attractive to acquisition suitors by accumulating mountains of monetizable private information (and the more invasive that information is, the fewer competitors there will be selling the same data, and the higher the price it fetches will go) and setting up monopolistic "ecosystems" through which their customers are locked into paying premiums for service, features and consumables. Every dollar they spend on information security (beyond that which is needed to keep their data from leaking at this precise instant) is a dollar they don't have to keep their lights on while they hope for acquisition. Add to that the fact that the DMCA terrorizes security researchers who discover flaws in these products -- which can be used to violate customers' privacy in unintentional ways -- and you've got a perfect storm of awful, all in a cute LED bulb that will fester in your home for 42 years.
Watching companies that have been selling bulbs since before the Phoebus cartel turn their backs on the light-bulb business is startling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting out of lighting entirely. Instead, a more sophisticated L.E.D. industry is under development, focussed on placing L.E.D.s in products where obsolescence remains the rule of the day, and on expanding the ways that lighting is used. Osram will continue to provide L.E.D. components, for example, in sectors such as the automotive and electronics industries. And while G.E. appears set to leave residential lighting behind, it will continue to develop its commercial-scale L.E.D. business with “smart” products, such as streetlights that alert authorities whenever a built-in sensor detects gunshots in the area.
Smart lighting is buzzy in the household market as well. Philips was a pioneer here, with Hue, a system it introduced in 2012 that allows you to, for example, gradually brighten your room to wake you up or set off explosions of light to accompany your gaming, drawing on a palette of (allegedly) sixteen million colors. The newly independent Philips Lighting is planning to use earnings from the declining lamps market to fund further innovation in smart-lighting systems. Sony’s recently released Multifunctional Light, meanwhile, turns fixtures into a locus for the Internet of Things, connecting to speakers, security systems, and other devices. Oh, and it also lights up a room.
“Lighting is the perfect medium for you to insert the other connectivity products to fill the house, because you use light everywhere,” Philip Smallwood, the director of L.E.D. and lighting research for Silicon Valley-based Strategies Unlimited, told me. He compared the direction that smart lighting is headed to the technological revolution that saw telephones turn into multitasking security blankets of connectedness.
THE L.E.D. QUANDARY: WHY THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “BUILT TO LAST” [JB MacKinnon/New Yorker]
(Image: E27 with 38 LCD, Ocrho, PD)