Follow Up to “Built to Not Last”

The response to my post yesterday about the durability of Apple’s products has been much more robust than I expected.

A lot of people have challenged me to name at least a few modern electronic devices that age well in the manner I’m describing. I admit: it’s very difficult to do that. Many people have cited Moore’s Law, the principle that guides every digital product’s life cycle, as being so thoroughly in opposition to designing and building products that last that it renders my argument inherently flawed. You just can’t build digital devices for the long haul, they say, because “planned obsolesence” will always do these devices in, make them irrelevant even if they do survive the ravages of time.

This is true to some extent. As I said above, I’m certainly not advising Apple on a purely business level that it would be a good idea to reverse course and make new devices user-upgradeable and repairable.

But I would say that just because these devices might no longer be wanted in their eighth, ninth, tenth years of their lives and so on, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to build them more ruggedly, and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t be built so that they acquire an emotionally appealing patina as they age, increasing their desirability if only to a select few.

There’s very little keeping Apple from making an iPod or iPhone or iPad that would last for a decade or more, even if to do so would mean its software could no longer be practically updated at some point (in fact that already happens, which is totally fair, but almost invariably, the hardware begins to break down at that point too). And there’s very little keeping Apple from engineering their devices in such a way that they get better looking over time. Their margins are certainly healthy enough to impose this kind of challenge upon themselves.

It’s true, there’s not necessarily a business case to do this, but that is not the only thing Apple will be judged on in the decades to come. And that’s what I’m talking about here: how will future generations look back at Apple, and by extension its customers? Did we all live our lives by more than just the bottom line? Or were the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the decades in which we irrevocably decided that everything should be disposable (or even recyclable) after just two or three years?

It may sound like I’m picking on Apple, but I think that’s a specious criticism, too. Apple regularly claims exceptionalism in the kinds of products they build; it’s fair game then to at least raise the issue of doing things their peers clearly won’t. This is the brand they built: a company that makes truly great products, products that make a dent in the universe. To me, doing even a little bit to counter the notion that everything is disposable is right in line with that.

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27 Comments

  1. When you say disposable, it’s as if iPhones were burner phones tossed in the gutter as soon as the minutes were up. Just as with your anecdotes of iPods breaking, I have stories of friends with 1st gen iPhones happily plugging away, sans case.

    What is the true disposal rate of Apple products? What is the true life span, across however many owners it has. The resale value of Apple products would seem to indicate that there is a healthy market for things other than the very latest version.

    Before we say that the lifespan should be longer, shouldn’t we know how long it already is?

  2. My only comment is this: there are people out there that still use PowerMac-based Apple computers. Until recently, I was still using a PowerBook G4 for almost all of my work and it was going on eight years old at the time I sold it. I was still able to sell the computer on eBay at that time for over $400. I have been using the white MacBook I currently use now for the majority of my work for six years and it is still going strong, although may no longer be as aesthetically pleasing. I think I agree with you that there is a movement toward disposable computing, where we are content with getting a few years of good use and then upgrading, but I do not think that means that we HAVE to upgrade/dispose of old technology, I think that means that we are choosing to do so. In this way, I do not think it is a problem with Apple’s build quality but a problem with the way in which consumers view their technologies and the way they expect to use them moving forward. There are very few consumers that want to be using an iPhone 4S ten years from now because they know that by then there will be something better, not because their 4S will be unusable at that time, although that is a possibility.

  3. It’s true that there’s still a market for older Apple hardware. The market exists because that older hardware is upgradeable – new RAM, bigger drive, SSD or new battery. All of that can be done cheaply with aftermarket parts by the owner. Let’s see what kind of market there is for sealed up laptop with too little RAM and a too small drive, with a battery that won’t hold a charge anymore. Not much I bet, especially when it can only be fixed by Apple, at Apple’s traditional high off-warranty prices. They’re going to tell you it’s not worth it, just buy a new one. Let’s see in a few years where this trend has taken us – it’s not to a good place, I’ll bet. Apple needs to do better with this – Khoi is right on the mark with this post.

  4. Apple’s whole approach to design makes it harder -in my case, at least- to part with the boxes it comes in, let alone the actual hardware. My mom still uses my first Macbook, six years in, with just minimal RAM/HD upgrades.

    And that’s where the “sealed hardware” trend spearheaded by Apple leaves me with a bad aftertaste. It seems to signal an era of computers as disposable, throwaway items. Want/need to upgrade? Buy another. With the current concerns about our own environmental impact in the planet, we should be reusing and recycling more of our stuff, not less. Of course this sounds totally un-business-wise and un-capitalistic, and Apple certainly didn’t come to be the most profitable company in the world acting philanthropically.

    My current MBP would have been ready for the scrapheap by now if I wouldn’t be able to perform SSD/RAM and even an extra HD upgrade on it. I don’t pretend it to outlive me, but an extra year of usefulness, at least, made the upgrade worth it in my opinion.

    But then again, if it were up to me my washing machine and vacuum cleaner I spent a sizable investment on should last decades at minimum. Probably it’s all on how we conceive our own ROI on the things we buy.

  5. I would argue Apple is doing exactly this already, just not on the timeframes you are looking for. Annecdotally, an iPhone lasts a lot longer than an android phone… and you can actually use an iPhone for 2 years before it starts to feel dated. In contrast, all my friends who went android feel dated when the next “greatest” phone is released 3 months after they bought the greatest phone on its release day…

  6. I guess I don’t understand why this is an issue that Apple should be concerned about “being judged on in the decades to come.” We can assume that they intend to be in this business decades from now, and the products they are making at that time will determine how they are viewed by that generation of consumers.

    So, to the question “how will future generations look back at Apple, and by extension its customers,” I would answer simply, “They won’t.”

    More realistic would be to ask, “how will future generations [of historians specializing in the early 21st century consumer electronics industry] look back at Apple, and by extension its customers.” And you may actually be interested in the answer to that question, but I doubt that Apple is.

  7. Well, I don’t totally agree with the assertion that Apple products don’t wear gracefully… I have an original 1st gen iPod and the stainless steel back is beautifully scratched, it shows the device has lived. Same with my MacBook Pro which case is dented… Metal ages well. But I agree that my black plastic MacBook has aged poorly.

  8. I respectfully disagree in the case of modern (i.e. all current) Mac hardware – the stuff made from metal.

    My friend still uses the PowerBook G4 that I bought in 2005. It’s a bit slow, sure, but it works. (To be honest, it’s not even that slow.)

    My other friend – now on the other side of the world – still uses the MacBook Pro that I bought in 2007. I’d forgotten that I’d even sold it to him; he reminded me it was mine by showing me the dent in the left hand side, which I fondly remember the Mac acquiring one day as a result of me falling off my bike, and it breaking my fall.

    My best mate’s girlfriend still uses the Air that I bought in 2008, which has a significant angle/bend on the corner where the closed screen meets the lower body; the memory of this injury has gone, but suffice to say that neither of us mind this unique personalisation.

    If we as a society aren’t proud of dings and knocks in our hardware, a la the brassing of old cameras (I speak as a Leica owner), that’s our fault, not Apple’s. I love the bumps and knocks in my Mac hardware.

    Now: try dropping a Dell, or using an Acer to break your fall as your bike wheel gets caught in a tram track. Or try selling your old Dell laptop to a friend as you upgrade to the latest-greatest; try having them still use it 7 years later. (I know you weren’t knocking on Apple, Khoi, but it’s a point worth making. Their machines *do* last longer.)

    Granted, electronics components will fail one day. Is that an Apple issue, or a much broader technology issue? Is it even possible to make transistors and capacitors and batteries that last 10, 20 years? I don’t know.

    On the flip side of this argument, I’m aware of many computers that are still going strong 30 years later: the mainframes that run the bank I work for. This, however, is a crippling legacy. The bank suffers at least three major outages a year because of this legacy hardware (as do they all – it’s not just my lot) and spends I-don’t-want-to-know-how-much keeping these things alive, as well as being hobbled by the fact that they can’t seem to move away from these damn machines and on to modern technology running modern systems.

  9. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you are hinting at Dieter Rams designs for Braun as products that have stood the test of time.
    Tell me I’m partially wrong.

    I understand the point you make but ultimately it’s wishful thinking.
    Apple might have shown the rest of the world how it’s done with Steve at the helm but what you are suggesting would take the will of a Job’s like character and we know that era is now over.

    But you seem quite motivated by the idea you describe. Enough to respond to the reactions you provoked by your initial post. Maybe it’s not Apple who should be showing us the way. Have a think about describing a bit more this future you envision. You might start something :-)

  10. Sorry, Khoi, but I think you’re still not getting the larger point. And to take Apple out of it, let’s look at digicams, since you mention Leica brassing so prominently.

    Camera optics are a pretty settled issue (although mirrorless interchangeable-lens models and folded-light path models both make interesting twists on the formula), but the electronics are not. Sensors have changed dramatically in the last decade – in resolution, in sensitivity, in size (full-frame sensors that were once the exclusive province of ultra-expensive pro models are now available in prosumer models). Image processing chips have also taken a quantum leap. Today’s digicam simply takes much better pictures than the C-700UZ I was using a decade ago. And just as with many other CE devices, two-three years is enough to make a digicam… Not *obsolete*, per se, but certainly much less capable than current cameras. Just compare the Olympus E-P1 with the OM-D E-M5; “The E-M5 sets a new benchmark for Micro Four Thirds images, thanks to a modern sensor and Olympus’ excellent JPEG engine. It continues to produce good results in lower light than was previously practical and produces attractive output in all but the most challenging of situations.” is a representative review quote, and the same kind of thing pops up all the time in digicam reviews.

    It’s simply the current state of reality for products with a significant electronics content; digital technology is improving fast enough that a couple of years is enough to make major improvements in the product. (Heck, you see the same thing in non-electronic products; refrigerators, washer/dryers, and HVAC units have all shown dramatic improvements in energy efficiency in the last decade or two.) Given this, is it really a good use of resources to overbuild products, when a couple of generations will bring improvements that make it worth dumping the old one? My C-3030Z is just as beautiful a piece of equipment as it was 12 years ago, and it still feels great in my hands – but for actually taking pictures, I’mprobably better off with a good smartphone camera. Heck, my SX-70 is still a beautiful piece of equipment, but as a camera it’s mostly worthless now,

  11. Just a quick follow-up, on how these things are part of a system and need to stay updated to stay part of that system:

    The C-3030Z and C-700Z both use SmartMedia storage cards; I’m not even sure if they’re still being made, so when the cards in there wear out, they’re going to be as effective a doorstop as the SX-70. (Or a Disc camera, or a Kodak instant camera from the 70s…)

    The continuing change in RAW image formats pretty well locks your software into a steady series of upgrades, or your pictures stop being readable by the computer.

  12. I think we’re getting tied up in the idea of using these products past their useful lives. Obviously few would be compelled to use their 1st generation iPods or iPhones now, but the same argument could be made for antiques of all kinds, not just computers.

    Apple’s hardware is so aesthetically pleasing that the devices act as their own advertisements. People are drawn to Apple products, at least initially, because of how they look, which is why durability matters.

    When I see an iPhone with a cracked back, a cracked or scratched display, and/or dents in the sides, the advertisement changes from perfection to delicate, even cheap. My old Nokia was ugly as sin, but it never dented from a drop and it was a ~$30 prepaid dumbphone.

    What if Apple added a centimeter of material (I’m not an engineer!) all around the iPhone (but inside the outer case, of course) that caused a dropped iPhone to bounce a little when it hit a hard surface, instead of shattering the glass and bending the metal frame? What if they used harder brushed aluminum that was more resistant to scratches or didn’t show scratches as readily, instead of the mirror finish used on the iPod Touch; mine’s all scratched up and it doesn’t look worn, it looks dirty. Ironically, that’s the only ugly part of my iPod Touch (3rd gen). I’ve dropped it on wood and rough parking lot concrete and it has no dents. Maybe Apple should consider aping its design for the next iPhone.

  13. Recently made electronics have a short lifespan due to the tin whisker problem – circuit boards made with lead-free solder (to comply with EU RoHS rules) develop “whiskers” by electrochemical mechanisms that are still poorly understood, and those will eventually cause short-circuits and failure. It does not make sense to over engineer the container, but rather the focus should be on making the hardware easy to disassemble and recycle, which is of course the case with aluminum.

  14. This conversation, for me, brings up thoughts about materials and manufacturing. That is, I think products would be cherished more and would be held onto for longer periods of time if they were made of different materials.

    To be specific, I am thinking of materials like wood, glass and metal, instead of plastic. I’ve recently bought a few products that I plan to keep for a few decades that I feel, in my opinion, are ‘timeless’, in that I would gladly bring into a repair shop to fix the guts of, but the shell itself is intact.

    Recently, I took an old Sony receiver that was made with wood and aluminum, with metal dials, and brought it into a shop to fix. For me, this piece of electronic will never go out of style and has (for the most part) served its function before it had to go into repair. The same thing with the matching turntable and speakers.

    I think what I am getting at here is I think perhaps the lifespan of these products is time-limited because of what they are made of. Electronics and many gadgets, for the most part, are made of plastic. They don’t exude the notion of value and the kind of love you want to hold onto. Many laptops (mostly PC’s) look cheap and can be thrown out within a few years. The materials they are made of do not age well. I can say this about a lot of Apple products as well.

    Many can argue that this is designing for obsolescence. Industrial Design superstar Karim Rashid was recently quoted as saying, “I don’t think the agenda of design should be to design things that last…that time is over.” Personally, I think that is wasteful and irresponsible.

    I think most Apple products are a beautiful things to hold and touch. They make beautiful products. They design them to be precious, expensive items, but there is always a fear that it’s not the latest and greatest and that something newer, shinier and more en vogue is waiting around the corner. Because they are so expensive, people do whatever they can to protect such products with cases and protectors that truly obscure the beauty of the product.

    Cosmetically, I think their products are great. What I find tragic is that the technology always equates to a new full product. What I would like to see, in the future, are shells, almost, made of the same great materials, but more durable, that are upgradeable and will age much better. I think the future should be well-loved products, not plastic in landfills. That is just my two-cents and that might not be best for business, but I think it’s a future to look forward to.

  15. Apple offers an interesting and compelling advantage over their chief competitor, Google’s Android. Apple’s coming iOS 6 update, for example, will run on iPhone 3GS (introduced June 2009), people will actually upgrade to it, and it will run better than iOS 5 does on those same devices. Other mobile platforms do not come close, by this very practical measure of extending the “useful lifetime” of a mobile device through reliable system updates.

    Contrast Android, where people are often not offered OS upgrades, or they are so terrified of them that they don’t actually upgrade until they buy a new device.

    There’s a brilliant chart here, from the recent WWDC keynote, which shows this dramatically. The current Android OS version is installed on only a tiny fraction of Android devices. Contrast the current iOS update is on the vast majority of available devices. Within a couple months after iOS 6 is released, you could look at this chart again, and you would see most devices on iOS 6.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-ios-vs-android-fragmentation-2012-6?

  16. Thanks for a thought provoking couple of posts Khoi. I thoroughly agree with you.

    Fast forward a few years. Two scenarios:

    Our homes begin to fill up with more broken ipods and Retina Mac Book Pros that we can’t mend or upgrade. All that techno-trash is going to cause people to view the Apple brand negatively… like seeing an empty coke bottle on a beach.

    Or Apple can start to design more sustainable products that are designed to last and improve with age. People will love that Apple brand rather than lust it as they do now.

  17. I bought my first Leica (second hand) in the late 70s. It cost me an arm and a leg at the time. I bought more analog Leicas over time until I arrived at the M6. Then I switched over to digital Leicas a few years ago with the M8. I only bought one lens for that one because it was a special offer. All the other lenses I collected over the past 35 years still work and most of them (as well as the cameras) would sell for more now than I paid for them. As would my old Leica IIIc, M3, M6 etc. There are still great cameras but also turned out to be great investments.

    The same goes for the bicycle I have collected over time. They all work and most of them have appreciated in value. But as long as I can ride a bicycle, none of them will ever be sold. Neither will any of my Leicas.

    At the time, my friends thought I was crazy for spending so much money on cameras and bicycle. But all of them put together never cost nearly as much as one decent car which loses 20% of its value the minute you drive if off the dealer’s yard.

  18. While I’m at it:
    all the pieces of Braun stereo equipment (most of them designed by Dieter Rams) that I have gathered since I bought the first amplifier in 1968 (for what was a month’s wages if I had had a wage at the time) still work. The buttons are scruffed, the front plates are scratched, but the music that comes out of them still sounds the same as it did back then.

  19. “all the pieces of Braun stereo equipment (most of them designed by Dieter Rams) that I have gathered since I bought the first amplifier in 1968 (for what was a month’s wages if I had had a wage at the time) still work.”

    All right, you got me there. But would an 8-Track player you bought in that same timeframe still be working? (How long can you splice tape to keep it running? We gave up 30 years ago.) How about cassette decks? Or even turntables, if you want a broad selection of new music and not just the trickle of albums still being released for the collector’s market? (And I hope you took very good care of your existing records, and they haven’t fallen victim to a stylus with excessive downforce…)

    CD players will be useful a while longer, I can hope – but even there, I’m afraid the writing is on the wall. And what happens to your tuner if analog FM goes the way of analog TV?

    The best amplifier and set of speakers in existence only work for as long as you can feed them a signal…

  20. I can really only think of a couple of “analog” electronic devices I’ve owned that have aged as you’ve described, as long as we’re naming names — a Sony Minidisc, an Olympus camera and a Nokia phone, but to what end? They all outlived the systems that inherently supported them. What’s the point of using a SLR camera when Kodak stops making film? This is an argument as old as the Industrial age. The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” probably predates Mesmopotamian civilizations. The truth is we are spoiled with the quality of goods we can buy, the ease of their disposal, and the ease of their replacement. Regardless of the quality of manufacture, our endless consumerism will mean replacing what we have now with what we will want later. Many non-electronic goods can be found, at a certain cost, that should last you a lifetime, but computing devices are only as good as the software they can support and as a person of particular digital expertise, you must know of the ethereal and transient nature of code.

  21. My vinyl records still work on my Braun turntables from 1983. And CDs also still play, for who know how much longer. Radio should play forever. The best things are my electrostatic speakers from 1961 which I had updated to Quad technology in 1997 and which still sound better than anything else around (I did add a bass speaker to boost the bottom spectrum).

    For digital music I have a Sonos system that pulls the music from my server in the cellar. I am not nostalgic nor out of touch, just saying that if objects possess a certain quality — mechanical and esthetic — they are more likely to give pleasure (if not adequate service) over decades rather than months.

  22. Apple products being built to last would be great. Even more awesome would be if Apple were to embrace the cradle-to-cradle principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle-to-cradle_design). Imagine what a company of this scale could change in the way products are being manufactured. However, I’m afraid they’re not ready to think this different for a long time to come. Not when they’re making insane profits producing stuff that’s getting less and less durable…

  23. @erik: Yes, your vinyl records still work today… but what happens if they wear out or get scratched? Outside of the limited collector’s market I mentioned, they simply aren’t being made any more. A tape deck could be a marvel of engineering and be built to last 100 years, but it’s still useless without tapes to play. I used to collect Polaroid cameras, and I have three roll-film models that are 50-60 years old; beautiful pieces of engineering, still in excellent mechanical shape… but without film, they can’t be used as cameras. “Radio should play forever” – given what happened to analog TV broadcasts and the creation of HD radio, it’s not unthinkable that analog radio may be shut down someday to reuse the spectrum, and if that happens your tuner will stop working no matter how well it’s built. Which is the first point I keep trying to make – many, many products are part of a system. It doesn’t matter how well they’re built or how long they could mechanically keep operating, if other parts of the system go away.

    My other point is that yes, there is such a thing as ‘deserved’ technological obsolescence that can kick in no matter how well something is built. A 60′s refrigerator might have been built so solidly that it still works today – but if it uses five times as much electricity as a modern refrigerator, is it really a good idea to try and keep it running? Is that a false economy?

  24. Apple does offer free recycling for their products and for other manufacturer’s PCs. You can get a free pre-paid shipping label to send the device to a recycler, and if you’re recycling a computer (Mac or PC), iPad or iPhone you can also get an Apple Store card in the amount of the value of the item you’re recycling:
    http://www.apple.com/recycling/

  25. Examples of things that look better as they age and suffer wear: saxophones, guitars (they both also sound better with age if good quality), leather jackets, cast iron cookware, wooden chopping boards

  26. I have my opinion, but will only add one thing: The products being discussed are not just hard to repair or upgrade, they are hard to take apart. At all. Like, at end of life, it’s not clear that your local electronics recycler can do anything with them. Has to do with permanently attaching dissimilar materials like PCBs, glass and metal.

    The problem then is not just that this is evil and stupid, but that Apple likes to imply (or express) they are nice, of the people, and stand by environmental consciousness. But… they apparently are not.

    The other one is the platform choice. I am quite dedicated to OSX, for example. If given one of the quite nice PCs that exist, for free, it would be a very non-trivial cost to convert to Windows. So, I won’t even if I was truly upset by this trend. In that, this sort of choice is very, very different from Acer or Toshiba or Sony making the same design decisions.

  27. I say right on! Sign me up for a phone wrapped in leather that ages like a baseball glove, and a laptop carved in wood so I can carve the name of my sweetheart into its lid.

    Designing a device chassis that can accommodate a handful of traditional product-cycle refreshes shouldn’t be rocket science. You’ll have to keep shape and size relatively in check, but otherwise I can’t imagine a lot of limitations. I fact, the PR value of such a sustainable design approach could be somewhat valuable.

    The most difficult part I think will be marketing a product with its margins baked into a much longer life. Imagine though if AppleCare was less about simple component failure, and sounded more like, “Buy this device and get the basic warranty, or spend some more cash and Apple will keep the your hardware cutting edge for three years…”

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