The Longevity-versus-Novelty Rap against Apple

There are many things to criticize about Apple and its practices. For example, it’s not at all clear that its Chinese factory conditions have meaningfully improved, and its offshore tax scheming is dubious at best. But there’s a new rap on Apple that it’s somehow sabotaging your device to crap out just when they’re about to release new gadgets, and that it’s forcing folks into some insane upgrade cycle that’s ravaging the planet or something.

There’s no doubt that the tech industry, nay, all consumerism, is guilty of perpetuating a sanctification of a high accumulation rate. I am as much a part of that, as an eager buyer of Apple’s gadgets, as anyone. But of all the companies producing tech toys, it seems to me that Apple is the last one that should be earning the ire of concerned folks.

Brian Fung at WaPo, at least defending Apple against the unsubstantiated sabotage charge, does call out Apple as one of the offenders of rampant gadget-replacement:

[T]he company has undeniably moved toward making devices that sacrifice longevity for novelty.

“Undeniably?” Are we so sure about that?

I just wrote about this very subject in a recent post: consumer technology is crossing a couple of new thresholds that, if anything, advance longevity. High-resolution displays and faster-than-necessary processors in mobile devices, and solid state drives in PCs are making even lower-end devices fast and useful for years.

And there is arguably no company who is doing a better job of making long-useful devices than Apple. The 2011 iPad 2, which Apple still produces, is still a great tablet (though way overpriced). A 2010 MacBook Air with its SSD is incredibly fast for all normal consumer uses. Millions of people are still using their iPad 1’s and their iPhone 3GS’s. When I worked at the Apple Store, I routinely saw people still happily using Macs that were eight or more years old. Even the new desktop OS, Mavericks, is directly upgradable from any previous OS made since 2009, and compatible with iMacs going back to 2007!

Fung again:

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

Again, you can’t loop Apple in with the whole industry on this. Just look at its release cycle: Apple puts out a new version of its phones and tablets once a year. That’s it! Sometimes it takes even longer! Once, they released a new iPad only six months after a previous model, and everyone got mad at them for it.

Need I even bother comparing that kind of cycle to a company like Samsung? Last I checked, Samsung released approximately 47,382 different models of smartphone in the last month. I may be off by a bit. Yes, its “flagship” versions like the Galaxy S and Note get refreshes once a year, but there are several new iterations of each that trickle out month after month, not to mention the swarm of other models you never even hear about that flood the market.

Most companies keep dangling new devices on your face, while Apple makes one version of each product once a year, and on a “tick-tock” cycle for phones, where a small advance is made in a base model every other year, with major changes happening every two years (iPhone 5 one year, “5S” the next). Which is, of course, how often you’re supposed to upgrade phones based on your carrier contract.

Fung also quotes Kyle Wiens of iFixit, whose business, I hasten to point out, is repairing devices:

What we’re finding is that the Apple design process is optimizing for the initial customer purchase . . . The boat Apple is missing is that they’re optimizing for the first customer and not the second, third or fourth customer.

I’m sorry, but should any company be “optimizing” for second-hand customers? Is it at all in Apple’s interest to stay awake at night worrying about how much the second or third person to own one device will enjoy it, ownerships for which Apple will never be paid? And yet, see above, they still make devices that keep on trucking long after they are out of fashion. Seems to me that Wiens is really worried that Apple is not optimizing their devices for iFixit.

Apple is no paragon of virtue, but to lump them in on this subject is silly. Perhaps they are part of a larger consumeristic problem, but on the list of offenders, they are way, way down.

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