Designed (not) to last?

While standing on a packed commuter train a few days ago, it struck me just how many mobile devices there are around the place. Pretty much everyone has one. Some folks have two or more. But what really surprised me was how many of them had cracked screens or otherwise looked to be in a very poor state.

smashed iPhone

It was while contemplating the tattered state of so many people’s personal tech that I found myself wondering: might these devices be designed to break quickly and often?

I mean, there aren’t many moving parts are there? Actually none in most cases, and as far as I know, nothing that could be life-threatening to your beloved gadget.

So then modern technology that’s built using better-than-average components in a VLSI (very large scale integration) package might be expected to last for years – or at least as long as the weakest component’s MTBF (mean time between failure).

Clearly any tech giant producing must-have devices and shipping them out to millions upon millions of consumers would have a tough time if they were using unreliable parts simply because of the number of returns and repairs they’d have to deal with. But accidentally damaged devices are a different barrel of monkeys altogether, right? They have value – either because insurance companies (or uninsured individuals) cough up cash to have them fixed or, and this is the thing that set off my conspiracy circuits, pay for, or wait it out until it’s free, an upgrade to the next must-have device.

Thus designing stuff with edge-to-edge glass that looks sleek and lovely and shiny on the shop shelves helps to get them into people’s pockets. From where, at some point, they get pulled out and in a moment of cold horror, tumble unstoppably groundward to meet their fate.

So designing stuff with a built-in lifespan would be unethical, un-ecological and unsustainable (although it seems to be increasingly acceptable that we should expect to replace or upgrade pretty much everything every 12 to 36 months these days – from toasters to Toyotas), not doing this would presumably reduce the depth of the pool into which the tech makers cast their lines hoping to snag significant hauls of ever-eager consumer-fish. Blimey, I didn’t see that metaphor coming at all!

Anyway, if they can’t (or claim not to) engineer lifespans into their products, then how do they keep that pool deep, and full? Easy – make stuff we can break without really trying too hard. And with the mobile electronic device explosion proceeding at an unabated pace driven by insatiable consumer demand (or at least the belief that the next thing is so much sleeker, better, faster, stronger that you can’t live without it) it ain’t gonna slow up any time soon.

I have an iPhone 3GS. It must be at least 4 years old now. It’s been in a protective case and had a screen protector on it ever since I took it out of the box. It looks tatty on the outside but remove those protective layers and underneath it’s in a very good condition. In fact apart from friction marks where the case has hugged it tightly, it’s in pretty much mint condition.

That’s why, when the battery finally made it unusable (remember – MTBF), rather than upgrade I decided it was worth attempting that “not user serviceable” repair. Needless to say it took a bit of wrestling to persuade it to reveal its inner glory but eventually the big clumsy human won. Out came the old battery and in went the new (for just over £3 – delivered from China, not the £40 I was quoted by a shop in East Finchley). Since then it’s been like new again. Well nearly – remember I said clumsy? I managed to break one of the tiny ZIF clips that connect the screen ribbon cable to the mainboard, and my blu-tack replacement isn’t really up to the task so the earphone doesn’t work any more. But the rest of it does, and anyway who uses a phone to make calls these days? Well, I can but need to use the loudspeaker or headphones – so not a total disaster.

I’ve had a MacBook Pro for a couple of years now. It was second-hand when I got it – and it was about 11 months old then. I’ve since opened that up and doubled the RAM and have recently been considering a second or bigger hard drive, but after that, there’s not much more I can do to it. Even so, I don’t really want to have to upgrade for some time yet, even though the new lineup sound soooo much better than mine.

So what’s the point of all this then? Well, it seems that we’re taking less and less care of stuff that is expensive and valuable. We’re happy to replace things (especially our personal gadgetry) at shorter and shorter intervals, and we expect new shiny things to fill our pockets or bags whenever we want them.

Why not slow down a little? Upgrade to every other product release instead of every single one. Is the iPhone 5 really so much better than the 4s? The iPad 3 over the iPad 2? Sure – retina blah screen size blah 4G etc etc. Really? That much better and life-changing?

When did you last upgrade something? And how long had you had it before that? Did you even give a second thought to what might happen to the old one? Did you care? Do you now?

Sure I degraded my phone’s feature set a bit when I put in a new battery, but it should last a while longer yet, and I can probably pass it on when I do eventually give in and buy something new. And then I’d like to keep that and look after it for as long as possible.

Rant over.



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