Gadgets: Built to Not Last

That shiny new Android phone you just bought? Yeah, it's a piece of trash. No, I'm not some Google-hating Apple fanboy. The iPhone 4 is junk, too.

So is that giant, flat-screen 3D TV and tablet you bought in the past year. It's trash. All trash.

Of course, everything ends up broken, obsolete and unusable at some point. The trouble is, the companies that make our consumer electronics are deliberately or carelessly decreasing the useful life of our gadgets so they can sell us another one sooner.

The strategy is called "planned obsolescence," or "designed for the dump," as one organization colorfully puts it.

The light bulb industry pioneered the idea of planned obsolescence in the 1920s and 1930s. Philips, General Electric and other bulb makers formed a shady organization called the Phoebus cartel to, among other things, make sure light bulbs couldn't last more than 1,000 hours.

I had a bulb burn out last week. Even though I bought the bulb a year ago, it died sooner than a bulb at a nearby fire station that was purchased in, and has been burning continuously since, 1901. They don't make 'em like that anymore. There's no money in it.

A wide range of industries have gradually embraced planned obsolescence, increasingly designing products that can't be easily or affordably repaired, or that "wear out" after a short time.

Disposable dishes, "sporks," razors, diapers and more -- ours has become a throw-away culture, even as the environment is being overwhelmed by trash.

In consumer electronics, there has always been a certain amount of planned -- and unplanned -- obsolescence. Moore's Law says the number of transistors that can be crammed into a chip at low cost doubles every 18 months. And that means the awesomeness of gadgets doubles in the same period of time. Because consumer expectations rise with computing power, many gadgets quickly become both undesirable and unsellable, sending us back to Best Buy for more.

Low-end consumer printers, for example, are nearly impossible to sell second-hand, and unlikely to be repaired because you can always buy a great printer for less than $100. They are just one of many device categories that are far cheaper to replace than repair. Others include media players, DVD and Blu-ray players, clock radios and PC hard drives.

People used to upgrade their PCs with additional memory, new hard drives and even motherboards. Now that laptops are far more commonly used as main PCs, we've allowed our upgrade impulse to atrophy.

A long-term trend toward solid-state systems should make gadgets last longer. By eliminating moving parts, and favoring flash storage over mechanical hard drives, for example, or opting for on-screen keyboards instead of physical ones, our devices should continue functioning perfectly for decades.

If you could replace the battery, an iPad should last longer than that 111-year-old light bulb. But because many devices are designed with irremovable batteries, we actually throw away gadgets more sophisticated than the computers that put men on the moon now -- just because the battery dies.

How Apple 'screws' users

Apple makes a proprietary tamper-proof "pentalobular" screw, which is designed to make it impossible for users to open Apple gadgets to repair them or replace their batteries.

The screw first debuted with the MacBook Pro in 2009, and has been recently added to the iPhone 4 and latest MacBook Air. (Note that the initial batch of iPhone 4 phones had standard screws, which were replaced with "pentalobular" screws in later iPhone 4's.)

The pentalobular screwdriver needed to turn the pentalobular screw was unavailable for sale anywhere until recently. Now, a company called iFixIt sells what they call an "iPhone 4 Liberation Kit" that contains the special screwdriver, replacement Phillips-head screws and a second screwdriver for the new screws. It costs $9.95.

Apple may use strategies other than screws for quicker product turnover. For example, the price for a replacement battery for Apple's iPod Shuffle is identical to the price to replace the entire unit: $49. When a customer's battery dies on a Shuffle, and brings it to Apple for repair, the company itself may be throwing away the old and replacing it with a new unit, says one expert.

Apple is often accused of planned obsolescence. For example, the iPhone's battery can't be replaced by users, as can the batteries of some competitors' phones. And Apple music players are clearly designed to be replaced every year or two with the latest model. And I don't know about you, but I buy new Apple earbuds every couple of months or so. What a racket.

The new TV reality

TVs are being transformed from long-lasting devices to planned obsolescence products that consumers are motivated to upgrade every couple of years.

TV sets used to last for years -- even decades. But as manufacturers increasingly tout "smart" TVs, connected TVs and 3D TVs, they're coming to resemble the disposable gadgets we carry in our pockets.

By building in additional features, TV makers are greatly expanding the number of components that can fail or become obsolete.

Many of the TVs announced at CES this month run apps, or software applications, on built-in PCs. But just like the PC on your desk, these will become obsolete in two years when far more powerful TVs ship that can run incredible new applications. Then what?

And just as on a PC, it's just a matter of time before the they begin nagging users to download the latest driver, codec or version in order to view a video. A short time later, when even cell phones have 4GB of RAM, the TVs that ship this year with only 1GB may not be able to handle tomorrow's content.

In a nutshell, the newest TVs are now, for the first time, subject to the cold realities of Moore's Law, and have become several orders of magnitude more complex (and likely to fail.)

So who's to blame?

The easiest party to blame for the ever-decreasing longevity of consumer electronics is the industry, or the companies that make the devices.

Others may be tempted to blame the government for lax regulations about how products are designed.

But ultimately I blame two people: You and me.

The tech press is guilty as sin at hyping the latest and greatest gadgets, oohing and aahing the latest features and creating an atmosphere of consequence-free gadget lust. Anyone paying close attention to people like me are likely to be persuaded to buy a new phone every year, a new laptop every two years, and every tablet, TV gadgets, car dash and wristwatch-based electronic toy that comes along.

We over-emphasize the compelling features and almost ignore the usable lifespan, user upgradability, battery replacement and fixability of consumer electronics.

The bottom line: If we don't buy it, they won't make it.

The ugly truth is that different gadgets have different life-spans. Some last a long time, and others not so much. If we tend to buy, as we do, the short life-span products, we reward the abusers and drive the more responsible vendors out of business. So, we have only ourselves to blame for planned obsolescence.

It's time to say, enough! Fellow gadget journalists, let's place far greater emphasis on durable, long-life design, and slam manufacturers who engage in planned -- or unplanned -- obsolescence.

And fellow consumer electronics buyers, let's stop buying devices designed to fail quickly, and insist that our devices can be repaired and upgraded.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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