Durable electronics

Objectified

I watched the San Francisco premiere of Objectified last week. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a movie about product design (watch the trailer). I really enjoyed it, in particular for the interviews with some of my favorite designers (Jonathan Ive, Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa).

I asked the folllowing question during Q&A:

Will we ever get to a world where products last 5, 10 or 20 years?

Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, suggested that there is a difference between furniture and electronics. A high quality chair or table can easily last decades. Electronics on the other hand are simply vehicles for delivering the latest technology.

While I agree for the most part, I can think of the following counter-examples:

  • I’ve had my Nikon D70 for 4 years now, and have no particular desire to replace it. Newer cameras have higher resolutions and slightly better features, but I’m perfectly satisfied.
  • I have a first-generation iPhone, and don’t feel any particular need to upgrade. 3G and GPS would be nice, but I got most of the upgrade through the software update alone. The only reason I’ll get a new one this summer is that the hardware is failing on me (the mic has an echo).
  • If it hadn’t broken down, I’d be quite happy using my old 12″ Powerbook. With more of my computer usage moving to a super-efficient browser, I might actually use fewer computing resources now than I did back in 2003 (disclosure: I work on Google Chrome).

These three examples lead me to wonder if we might someday reach a state of “great enough” in electronics. This is different from “good enough”: I mean a state where the hardware is powerful and flexible enough that we no longer feel the need to upgrade for incremental improvements. At that point, we’ll want these devices to last longer than a couple of years.

So how do we incent manufacturers to make more durable products, when their business models depend on selling us new stuff? I can think of three alternative revenue streams, and Apple conveniently illustrates all of them:

  • Software. I got my iPhone software update for free, but I would definitely have paid for it (iPod Touch users did). I also spend money on iPhone Apps, from which Apple takes a cut.
  • Content. Apple sells music and movies through the iTunes store. Digital content is a perfect sustainable good, for which there is ever-renewed demand.
  • Services. Apple’s MobileMe services offers access to cloud storage, sync and access for a yearly fee. I get Gmail for free, but would pay for it if I had to.

Of course, Apple’s hardware margins still make up the bulk of their profits. However, as these other revenue sources grow in volume, the hardware might eventually become a loss-leader, as is commonly the case for new gaming consoles. At that point, we would expect them to shift to more durable, “great enough” hardware. (In the particular case of Apple, don’t hold your breath).

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Do you ever see us shifting to a world where electronic devices last more than a couple of years? And if so, how would that happen?

Bonus: check out the recently launched lastyearsmodel.org:

We love cool gadgets as much as anybody else. We just want to be thoughtful about the stuff we’ve bought. Even the most cutting-edge, tech-savvy geeks in the world are choosing to hang on to their phones or their iPods that still work just fine.

Also, thanks to  Noah and Matt  for discussing the ideas in this post with me.


4 comments

Well written…One other thought is design for modularity (again now with the 3.0 release…the iphone fits the bill here). This way additional inputs can be upgraded while keeping the core the same (ie…any attached peripheral). Second is the design for hardware upgradability….imagine if the iphone had the ability to upgrade its hardware with a quick and easy swap of a chip while keeping the rest the same…

5-5-9:57 AM

We don’t even live in a world where bookshelves, chairs, and desks — even high-end ones — are designed to last more than 5 years. People are happy to spend $25 on a chair that will fall apart in two years instead of $50 for one that will last fifty years. Even some housing is barely designed to last more than ten or fifteen years, falling apart before the first resident even moves out (while much low-income housing and council flats built nearly a century ago still stand).

So, needless to say, I’m skeptical about electronics lasting that long any time soon. Batteries and chips improve just too quickly, as well.

The only reason I keep electronics for many years (and, like you, I do) is because of budget constraints. A long-lived device can survive in a economic downmarket after-market. When discussing long-lived technology, perhaps it is better to put it in the context of “people who can afford no other option” rather than “people who prefer their current devices to the old ones”.

Great conversation to start!

5-8-12:30 PM

Interestingly enough, no matter if we continue the cyclical trend of buying Chinese made garbagetronics (this includes your Mac, iPhone, and robotic vacuum cleaner), or if we, en masse, covert to a desire for, and belief in, durable electronics, the consumer will remain the primary stumbling block (aside from the current lack of truly durable electronics). Desire, trends, aesthetic considerations, gender differences in product selection, and even the possibility of having the same computer as your old uncle John will forever drive people to replace their posessions, whether they be electronic or otherwise. Moreover, even if an item such as an iPhone could have not just its software, and hardware updated, AND the casing and interface could be made to last a decade or more, would we truly want it to? Do we think things like cell phones, laptops, and vacuum cleaners will become cult classics like an old Selby Mustang if only they can be made to last? I cannot see it happening. Human nature is at once the enemy of durability and the champion of transcience. Though a good Mac laptop is an expensive purchace, it is not prohibitevely expensive in such a way that we take out a second insurance on it and cherish it forever (again, using “your-dream-car-here” as an example). The truth of the human aspect is that we grow bored with things quicker than they fail us in their intended use, and thus find themselves being replaced. Barring advances and changes in the ergonomics of design (imagine a computer which is little more than an ever-present link to all human knowledge on WiFi basis which you control somatically with a HUD read-out built into your lenses) would we still be carrying around a laptop of any kind, no matter how durable? That is not to say I believe in, or enjoy, the exceptionally brief lifespan of current electronics, or the necessity to update (sometimes without being given a choice) to marginlly better products. I believe a Golden Median exists in this realm of human endeavor from which we are still far removed, but to spend exceptional amounts of effort on creating battle-ready electronics who seek to conquer time itself is a useless excercise for he engineering department.

To give another example, and to parallel what you have already said, Nick. Assuming your indestructable Nikon remains compatible with future generations of computers, and the digital nature of the camera does not somehow, quite incomprehensibly, fail you at some point, you may still happily snap away with it when your kids are old enough to give you grief about your ancient camera. My father’s Yashika (google that!) lasted the better part of his adult life – some 47 years, and though it was analog and made from cast iron and rebarb, it functions to this day. It haz nevertheless been replaced by a camera that is slightly better. (the top-of-the-range Canon professional model – outch!) I digress.

Electronics, like clothes, no matter how beautiful, well made, comfortable and functional are subject to the whims of fashion, and a pace of life vastly different from that of houses, couches, and even cars. I applaud the notion that perhaps devellopers, designers, and engineers could (at the behest of their corporate masters) invest more and demand more of their products’ durability and life expectancy in an ever-changing world, but do not dilute your reason with dreams of grandeur; who knows how awesome the next iPhone will be, what it will be called, and how we could live without it once endowed with the wisdom of retrospect.

I of course have much more to say, but I fear this reply is already longer than your original post, and tomonopolize more of your time would be in bad taste indeed.

Should you want to discuss these things in more detail, organize another Africa trip with campfire debate sessions, or Skype me when I finally replace my G4 TItanium laptop from 2002 sans wireless.

All the best,

-Arne-

by Arne
5-20-8:51 PM

Your article is very interesting.

I think the scenario you imagine is very realistic and possible, but it’s based on one idea: not only companies, but also customers (people) would wish durable electronics.
We can discuss about how companies could hearn money without producing new models every year, but we’re forgetting that probably most of people would still run to shopping mall with their money to get something new to be happy with, and would prefere to use illegal free softwares or open source ones.

I’m not saying that the situation is impossible to change, but that the revolution you’re writing about is cultural.

by emanuele
11-7-6:05 AM