Computers, Coats, and Chainsaws: Longevity and Turnover for Technology

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In an upcoming episode of the iMortal Show (which I promise is coming back soon – a new episode is being recorded this week), we’re going to discuss something that is often missed on websites like my own: products with longevity, objects and devices that are well-made and not intended to be changed over frequently in the way that smartphones are.

I was inspired by a post at Tools and Toys, in which Chris Bowler explains the thinking behind his site, which features high-quality items that he believes are worth their (often substantial) investment, in large part because of what they will mean to you as a human being – and thus, the connection to this blog:

Mindful purchases can lead to a more peaceful existence. Partly because we make less purchases when cognizant of all of the above, but also because quality items do what they’re expected to do, time and again, and you begin to put trust in the item. …

The fact that our culture attempts to identify humans as consumers is a terrible reality. But if we all make conscious choices to buy quality items — ones we will use and ones that will last — and for which the human beings who are involved in the creation process are paid and treated appropriately, we’ll make this world a little better. And if we focus more on our craft than we do on our tools, we’ll do well.

There’s a lot to unpack there, of course, and this post is just to introduce the topic and take a glance at one aspect of it. Naturally thoughts turn not just to the objects Bowler discusses (winter coats and chainsaws among them), but to our gadgets.

I just referred to smartphones as frequently changeable, but there must be degrees within that as well. My iPhone 5S will remain relevant and useable, I would bet, a good deal longer than, say, a Lumia or Galaxy of similar vintage (I can’t prove it, obviously, but that’s by guess). But we’re talking about a difference of months, say, 18 to 36. Not years and years.

It’s a similar story with Macs versus Windows PCs. Anecdotally, it seems to me that Macs not only maintain a high level usability over time, but they even sport a look and finish that is more timeless than something made by HP or Lenovo. But again, this only covers years, not decades.

This leads me to a post I stumbled upon tonight by Nate Vaughn, who recommends a fairly high rate of turnover for Macs. This may seem like it’s the opposing view to what Bowler is trying to advocate for, but it’s not. What Vaughn does is acknowledge the real-world longevity of a Mac, and recommend a course of action to maximize it:

The typical model of computer ownership by generally less technology friendly is “Buy it and hold it for as long as possible.” This emotional response makes perfect sense, you just spent this large chunk of money on a shiny new thing, it should last. The flaw in this approach is that these items have a built in shelf life of 20–30 months. Not that they are worthless after that, but they are certainly well into middle-age.

Vaughn actually puts together a kind of loose formula that shows a net economic benefit to not holding on to your machine for too long, but reselling it within a reasonable amount of time so that the thing is still highly usable, and therefore still worth it for someone else to buy, and also still economically viable to you the seller, so you can upgrade to your next machine with less pain.

The inversion in [“buy it and hold”] thinking is this: you’re not paying for the new machine, you’re paying for the depreciation of value of the machine you already own. And Apple products are like Volvos, they hold their value well.

So with both Vaughn and Bowler, we get an appreciation for longevity; a recognition that some objects, though expensive to invest in, are worth it for how much value can be reaped from them over time. Vaughn takes that a step further, and says, you know, that longevity will eventually become diminishing returns. As well made as some of them are, computers are not coats or chainsaws.

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