On the eve of Apple's annual release of the latest and greatest iPhone, I am forced to wonder whether we really need yet another iPhone. Is there really anything wrong with the iPhone 4, despite it being a "geriatric" one year old? I know a significant number of people who will dispose of their one-year-old iPhone and be first in line for the new model, and I have to admit that this worries me.
My mother and I have discussed the topic on many occasions. "Why do they have to change things so often?" she will ask me. "As soon as you buy something, they release a new technology that isn't compatible." Sure you can write these comments off to the older generation not adopting as quickly to new technology, but products are being refreshed at truly a breakneck pace. Product cycles have come faster and faster, even as we slowly reach the end of Moore's law. Yes capabilities have increased, but not as quickly as the avalanche of new products would indicate. So I need to wonder whether there is really any need to come out with whole new product line every year, or whether this is just a way for hardware manufacturers to milk more money out of us?
A Brief Bit of History
It hasn't always been this way. I believe that people used to keep TVs for 10 years or more (hard as that may be to believe). I remember my family's first printer (circa 1991), an original HP Deskjet 500. Despite the fact that it shared a brand name with the current models, it had little else in common with them. The thing was sturdy as a rock, and took up almost as much space as the computer sitting next to it. It also weighed a ton, and was designed to last for many years. I believe that it was still in service when I went to college in 1998. These days, inkjets offer much "higher quality" and "faster performance," yet they rarely seem to last more than two or three years. Build quality is much lower, and after a while they seem to fail in a way that necessitates replacement. You just sort of throw it in the landfill and buy another. This is somehow justified by lower prices - my sister just bought a wireless multifunction printer/scanner/copier for under $100. At that sort of price point, why not throw out the old one every year or so and just get a new one?
Phones have followed a similar trend, but things are probably worse in that space. It used to be that you could keep a phone for four years or more, but that was before the advent of smartphones. I still fondly remember my LG flip phone, which lasted me from 2003-2007. Now, any smartphone that is older than one year is pretty much guaranteed to be obsolete, at least if you want to run the newest applications or the latest version of iOS/Android. Commercials put out by the manufacturers and phone companies now tout "4G" and "dual core," implying that you aren't cool if your phone isn't of the latest technology. This seems ridiculous, considering that even a low-end laptop that you buy today will probably run OS updates for at least 3-4 years (with a few modest upgrades). Low-power electronics are advancing more quickly than PCs (due to the proliferation of multi-core ARM processors), but things aren't advancing as quickly as manufacturers and carriers would imply. Rather, you see a lot more staggered upgrades, with each minor spec bump ushering in a new "generation" of products. For example, most of the "super-fast" 4G phones use the same processors as the 3G models, with the only significant upgrade being the data speed. And some of it is pure marketing - 2010's Nexus S Android Flagship actually had quite similar hardware specs to 2009's Nexus One (the 2011 Nexus phone will have dual-core and 4G, but I wonder how many new use cases this will truly enable).
So Why is This Happening?
Although I will admit to loving Apple products, Apple has been one of the worst offenders, and has helped to drive rampant consumerism. Every year, they release new models (and brilliant ad campaigns) that almost "force" you to upgrade (I know a significant number of people who upgrade all their Apple products the day a new model is released). And it's no wonder that Apple has become the most valuable company in the world - they have transitioned from selling products with 4-year lifecycles to products with 2-year lifecycles. And as Apple touts ever more "environmentally friendly" manufacturing processes, they are simultaneously encouraging you to throw perfectly good electronics into the landfill!!
After some careful thought, I believe that much of the time a purchase decision is triggered by something other than actual need. Cleverly constructed advertising campaigns program our minds to want whatever just came out, even if we don't really need it (or even want it). For example, I somehow "want" one of the new Kindles, even though my current model is only two years old (and works just fine for reading pretty much any eBook). Sure the screen on the "Kindle Touch" refreshes a bit faster, and the new model is smaller and lighter, but I'm sure that a purchase won't measurably change my life (even though Amazon wants me to think that it will). And the new product is so cheap - only $79 (assuming that I am willing to periodically look at "special offers"). A recent study claimed that Apple products activate the same portions of peoples' brains as religious experiences - consumerism has truly become a religion.
So how do we combat this? I'm not going to suggest that we boycott Apple or any other manufacturer - they are just taking advantage of existing market conditions. The hardware manufacturers will continue to upgrade their products at a breakneck pace, so long as there is someone to buy them. And they will continue to obsolete old products as quickly as they can possibly justify doing so. After all, that's how they make money (not by issuing free upgrades for existing models). Maybe we can regulate the advertising campaigns a bit, or force all product commercials to include a disclaimer that discloses the product's environmental impact. However, I'm not sure that this is doable. The ridiculous amount of money that is at stake necessitates that the system be gamed in any way possible.
I think that the most important thing is consumer education. The most important thing we can do is to fight the urge to constantly upgrade, and to change our purchasing habits. If we want to do the environment a favor, we should worry less about environmentally safe packaging, and more about reducing consumption. We should keep our phones and computers for longer, and ask ourselves whether we really "need" that new model every year or two. I managed to keep my last Macbook going for about four years with a few RAM and hard drive upgrades, and I bet that my new model will last just as long. And this is my primary machine, which I use 12 to 14 hours a day for a fairly demanding array of tasks. A smartphone should last at least two to three years. If a manufacturer discontinues upgrades after less than a year, consumers should indicate displeasure with the state of affairs (especially if the product is crippled to prevent third-party updates). If a product fails prematurely, we should do the same. Sure it's easy to blame someone else, but I think that we need to take a bit more responsibility for our consumption habits. And I guess there is no reason my Droid 2 shouldn't last me another year (iPhone 5 be damned).