No, Apple isn’t sabotaging your decrepit iPhone. But the company is part of a bigger problem.

November 1, 2013

(Photo by timsnell)

Every time Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone or iOS, the device in your hand begins to look — and sometimes act — a little less adequate. Is this some ploy to force you to upgrade?

Apple is interested in building cutting-edge products, and if you feel you must have the latest and greatest, so much the better for them. But targeting users of old equipment seems like a waste of time when Apple has the whole developing world to conquer.

Still, even if we gave Apple the benefit of the doubt, the company has undeniably moved toward making devices that sacrifice longevity for novelty. That's a problem in itself. We're paying for this technological process, and not just with our dollars.

Economics reporter Catherine Rampell argues in a piece for the New York Times Magazine that breakdowns in Apple equipment often  suspiciously occur just before the company releases new goodies. As with most things Apple-related, the charge has caused a partisan split. The debate has drawn in Gizmodo's Brian Barrett, who counters that what Rampell sees as sluggishness on her iPhone simply reflects the reality of technological advances. If Apple always made sure ancient products could run its newest software, iOS would never improve. Innovation would never occur.

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall adds that components degrade naturally over time — even if they're only lightly used. The reason, he says, is that government regulations banning the use of lead in soldering materials cause the parts to deteriorate more quickly than they otherwise would. Don't blame the tech companies for device obsolescence, Worstall argues! Instead, blame the "green and environmentalist activists" who lobbied for safety.

But Rampell has hit on something: For whatever reason, Apple's  products are no longer really built to last. The way they are assembled makes it hard to extend their life cycles.

Kyle Wiens is the chief executive of iFixit, the company that's behind all those step-by-step tech repair guides and those teardowns of new Apple devices. Last year, iFixit awarded Apple's MacBook Pro a repairability score of 1 out of 10, meaning the device is nearly impossible to take apart and fix yourself — even if you're a skilled technician. The numerical rating is clearly subjective. But the sharply drop in score from just three years before means that if a deeply integrated component has even a minor failure, a costly repair is in order.

"What we're finding is that the Apple design process is optimizing for the initial customer purchase," says Wiens, who pointed to Apple's increasing preference for glue over screws as a way to achieve ever-thinner designs. "The boat Apple is missing is that they're optimizing for the first customer and not the second, third or fourth customer. That's a market for Google and Samsung to take advantage of."

The used-device market is certainly growing. In the United States alone, it's estimated to become a $5 billion business in the next couple years. Part of  this is the proliferation of rapid-upgrade programs, such as AT&T Next and T-Mobile's JUMP. Those programs allow users to trade in their devices early, and carriers then turn around and resell those items second-hand.

But there's a downside to those programs: They grant customers the right to buy new phones even more often — and that's on top of a frenetic cycle that already has customers snapping up new phones and then discarding them every two years when it's time to re-up their contracts.

Here, Apple isn't the only one at fault. The whole industry is predicated on the idea that more frequent upgrades — progress! — is better.

But is the trend toward short product life cycles sustainable? In Japan, a "marketing buzz saw" has caused  carriers to yank some phones off the market as has-beens after a matter of weeks because newer devices keep coming on. The churn has puts a great deal of strain on cellphone research and development. Strong innovations wind up giving way to incremental, small-bore (read: cheap) "advances" as firms race to get out newer devices.

Beyond the economic toll are the human and environmental costs of rapid consumption. Americans throw out  hundreds of thousands of electronic devices a day. Some of that gets recycled. But a recent study of  e-waste laws  in 13 states found that many of them have been ineffective in changing consumer habits. There is also concern that some of the e-waste deemed to have been safely disposed is being shipped to developing countries and possibly contaminating the environment. It's a problem that is sure to worsen as more people start buying electronics in developing economies.

Yes, technological advances inevitably cause our old devices to become obsolete.  There's nothing conspiratorial about that. But somehow we've convinced ourselves that progress and device longevity are mutually exclusive, and that the answer is to ditch the old tech altogether. There has to be a better way.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Andrea Peterson | November 1, 2013