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Why don’t tech devices last longer than a few years?


The line-up of the Apple iPhone 13 is displayed on their first day of sale, in New York, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Richard Drew/Associated Press Photo

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 23rd of November, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

It will not surprise you to hear that it takes quite a lot of resources to do the reporting, the editing, and the production that ensures this program makes it to your device each morning. And we are so grateful for the faithful giving that makes it all possible. If you appreciate the program but haven’t taken the opportunity yet to send a gift of support, I’d ask you to consider making this November the time that you make your first gift.

BUTLER: We do recognize that might be difficult this year with the inflationary squeeze you may be feeling around your household. I’ve certainly noticed the rising prices of everyday items and I know that may hold you back. But I heard you yesterday, Nick, with David Bahnsen, so I feel a lot more comfortable saying, hey, two can play this inflation game: we’ll fight inflation with inflation. Meaning, we have a family who’s pledged a dollar for dollar match of all new gifts—up to $40,000.

EICHER: That’s inflation that’s working for you! A $50 gift goes twice as far becomes a $100 gift. But it’s just for first-time donors and it’s just this month—please visit wng.org/donate.

First up: built to break.

Livermore, California, is home to a very impressive piece of technology: the world’s longest lasting lightbulb. It’s called the Centennial Light, and it’s been burning since 1901!

BUTLER: Well, they don’t make them like that any more!

EICHER: True and some say it isn’t necessarily because they can’t. It may be by design.

WORLD’s Caleb Bailey reports on planned obsolescence.

MONTAGE: “How many iPhones have you had?” “I think five or six” “This current iPhone, how long have you had it for?” “I’ve had this I think a year and a half” “You always have to level up.” “It has lots of problems. It has problems both mechanically and in my life. "If I update one thing , then sometimes I have to update everything.”

CALEB BAILEY, REPORTER: Every year, a new iPhone comes out. And not just one version. Buyers can choose from a variety of sizes, camera quality, and storage options. But even with all its bells and whistles, the latest and greatest iPhone can’t stay new forever. It gets old. Eventually it stops working.

And that’s no accident. It’s actually part of the design—a concept called planned obsolescence. Paul Poteete is a professor of computer science and engineering at Geneva College.

POTEETE: ​​Planned obsolescence is planning that something will fail, before it naturally would fail.

The concept of planned obsolescence dates back to the early 20th century. That’s when a group of leading lightbulb manufacturers gathered in Geneva, Switzerland.

POTEETE: They weren't making enough money off light bulbs back in the 1920s, and 1930s. So they were like, well, you know what, we’re not selling enough light bulbs, let's let's make these things fail.

They were known as the Phoebus Cartel, Phoebus after the Greek god of light, also known as Apollo. And their plan to shorten the lifespan of lightbulbs ignited a flame that would burst into other industries in decades to come.

POTEETE: So we can talk about Apple Corporation, their iPhones, they were actually slowing down the iPhone. So if your iPhone was getting old, they were literally throttling down your processor, so they were making your phone slower.

Poteete says Apple didn’t call its strategy planned obsolescence. Instead the company used phrases like, “steps to improve battery efficiency.”

POTEETE: In the Western society, I guess you could say it's, it's really important. And the way they word things, and the way we say things and that might be, might be good and bad.

No matter what they called it, consumers didn’t like it. Making products that are designed to fail isn’t illegal. But some people think it should be.

Activists in the so-called Right to Repair movement are pushing state and federal lawmakers to protect users from faulty equipment. They hope to force companies to create products that users can repair easily.

Right now, the effort to repair something like an iPhone is so complicated and expensive, it’s simply easier to buy a new one.

POTEETE: So if you change out the piece of hardware, it no longer matches what the operating system or what that code would look for inside the hardware or inside that software.

Even without legislation, the Right to Repair lobby is having an effect. Apple announced last week it will begin to sell the parts needed to repair its products, along with instructions on how to do the work. These resources have always been confined to the Genius Bar and any repair had to go through Apple, or an authorized technician.

While planned obsolescence is costly for consumers and can create unnecessary waste, it does have some benefits.

Jason Thacker is the chair of Research and Technology Ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

THACKER: ​​ But at the same time, we also know that this practice, or this theory, in some sense, also creates jobs, it creates economic growth, it promotes innovation, it produces cheaper devices, so even luxury goods. Now some of the innovations that happen on luxury goods, or high end devices, make their way down into cheaper and more available devices for all people.

Thacker also says it’s important to distinguish between planned obsolescence and what’s called perceived obsolescence. Much of what we see as a product becoming obsolete is psychological. And behind that marketing science is our innate desire for the next great thing.

THACKER: Often I remember, especially around certain technology companies, devices, having a certain type of headphones, or a certain type of phone, or certain type of wearable, like a watch, or even glasses for that matter, or clothing. connote some type of identity, it can connote some type of status.

And in our increasingly consumerist culture, the line between need and want gets blurred really early.

THACKER: I talk to my 5 year old a lot about this, he says, I need this. And I have to teach him even at 5 years old, well, you don't need this, you want this, there's a difference between need and want.

Even if tech companies don’t heed the call to make devices that last longer, buyers still have a choice about when and whether they’re going to upgrade. And as we debate our next big tech purchase, Jason Thacker says that’s a great time to check our beliefs about what gives us value.

THACKER: It isn't tied to the type of technologies or the ways that they dress or things like that is that the church, the Body of Christ comes together to recognize our value is in the image of God. It's in the being created in God's image, having that inherent dignity, value and worth as human beings.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Caleb Bailey.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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Matt

As a software developer with deep experience in battery management for mobile devices such as phones, I can tell you that this segment is completely wrong about the iPhone battery kerfuffle. Declining battery life is due to the physical laws of nature governing lithium, not Apple's greed. Their choice to slow down phones with old batteries is the right one for most users, who would rather their phones last through the day rather than speedily draining the battery, and users can turn off this throttling if they want.

To the contrary, this feature helps postpone obsolescence, as does Apple's battery replacement service.

JMEY7678

The story was very misleading for at least two reasons:

First, it singled out Apple among modern tech companies for some reason, although by any metric I can muster, Apple leads the pack when it comes to product longevity (whether you look at how long devices receive software updates, performance over time, future-proofing through overpowered hardware, or just general build quality and reliability, etc.). Love ‘em or hate ‘em, when you compare them point by point with even the nicer Android phones, there is no competition in longevity — and that, to be clear, doesn’t indicate that the Android manufacturers are guilty of planned obsolescence, either. Before claiming that, I would want to see specific, tangible evidence.

We have none of that here. In the only specific modern example you cited (the oft-misrepresented “batterygate” business from a few years ago), you left out CRUCIAL details about what was actually going on. There was an issue with a small subset of iPhone 6 and 6S devices (NOT all older iPhones) in which the degrading of their batteries over time was causing unexpected shutdowns under certain conditions (low battery, cold weather, etc.). When these issues were discovered, Apple sought to mitigate them through a software update that controlled performance peaks to reduce strain on the battery (again, on devices with a degraded battery — not on all older phones). The obvious reasoning here is that a slightly slower phone (which many people likely wouldn’t even notice) would be preferable to phones unexpectedly shutting down (which would be a significant nuisance to all who experienced it). To me, that not only makes perfect sense, but sounds like the opposite of “obsolescence” of any sort — it was an attempt to make the phones people already had last longer.

At least some of this appears to have been due to a manufacturing issue Apple identified with a small number of devices produced between September and October of 2015, and they launched a recall program for free battery replacements for those affected devices. They also dropped the price of out-of-warranty battery replacements for ALL iPhones (6 and newer) to $29 ($50 off) for an entire year, even though this particular problem only affected a specific set of devices. In the years since, they have implemented numerous new features to improve user visibility of battery health information and user control over battery management and optimization.

I can't speak for other manufacturers that I'm less familiar with, but as for Apple (the one being weirdly maligned in this case), I can confidently say that while there are numerous criticisms that might be fairly brought against them, “planned obsolescence” is not one of them — at least not judging by what I have seen of their track record, and certainly not judging by the surprisingly scant information in this piece of reporting.

Technology can be difficult to report on and topics like this can be especially difficult to explore in such a condensed format, but there were some WILDLY irresponsible statements in this piece ("Eventually, [the latest and greatest iPhone] stops working — and that’s no accident. It’s actually part of the design."), and I am saddened to think that so many people will have heard this story and will come away with a terribly distorted idea of what's going on with their phones. Frankly, I expect much better from World, and this makes me question the accuracy of other reporting I rely on from them on subjects I'm not as personally familiar with.

knutsenJMEY7678

I second these comments. The specific example cited, that of Apple throttling iPhone performance so the devices wouldn't shut down suddenly, is at worst a failure of marketing on Apple's part. They didn't communicate what they were doing very well at first, which left the door open to accusations of malice.

Our smartphones don't last as long as we wish they did primarily because of their batteries, which over time lose their ability to hold a charge. This is not planned obsolescence. It's just how batteries work.

Our smartphones aren't as repairable as we wish they were primarily because they are thin, light, waterproof, and dustproof. If we didn't value those features so much, we could have devices that are easier to open and with parts that are easier to replace.

In Europe, there is a "Fairphone" brand that emphasizes repairability. We shall see how that goes: https://daringfireball.net/linked/2021/11/22/fairphone-4

BjW

Do android phones last any longer than the iphones?

JENNYBETH

This issue is infuriatingly unsustainable for so many reasons. It's environmentally unsustainable to produce so many cheap products destined for a landfill in such a short time. It's economically unsustainable to forcibly supercharge consumption. It's a large part of what creates "poverty" in the developed world, which for the vast majority is not a lack of money but ever-increasing requirements to be wealthy. And planned obsolescence combined with exploitation of badly written patent laws are an ever-increasing noose to the right to property--if the corporations have their way, it will eventually be illegal and/or impossible to repair your car, tractor, phone, etc., and we will have to pay monthly subscriptions to use them instead of buying and owning them. I consider Right to Repair to be a vital issue on all these fronts.
I question whether the positives listed are really positives at all. It creates jobs--where? The Chinese sweatshops? It creates cheaper goods that have to be replaced many times more often than they should, costing the consumers far more in the long run, and curtailing the options of the lower classes to obtain quality used items. It encourages innovation of whatever bells and whistles may seize consumers' passing interest just long enough to make this year's purchase, instead of innovating lasting benefits.

RCRE8109

I fight planned obsolesce very hard. My best battle is a for a one square foot box fan we purchased when we got married in the late seventies. Have replaced the wiring, the switch, and the front and back air vent covers. Had to be innovative as no replacement parts were ever sold. It has oil cocks for the electric motor, and I place a few drops in every quarter. Also vacuum the dust out often. We really started to use it for background noise when our kids were small but now my wife and I are addicted to hearing that noise to sleep! So, it’s been in daily use, since 1980 and still going strong!

Laura W

Planned obsolescence is an issue, but a lot of what's going on with tech is just that the software keeps increasing in complexity and demands on the hardware as technology overall improves and can do more, so eventually you'll have to upgrade or be left behind in terms of what software you can run on your machine. I've had my current computer for around 5 years now, and it's starting to reach the point where it can no longer do quite everything I bought it for.