RIP tech products built to last longer than the next sales cycle

2 Dec 2019516 Views

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A cup of tea dangerously close to a computer. Image: © bramgino/Stock.adobe.com

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Remember when you could get years out of a big tech purchase? Not so much any more, laments Elaine Burke.

I first bought a laptop for myself about 10 years ago. Before that, my parents had bought the one that served me all through college. Then, having moved out and feeling very much like a young professional, I got my very own MacBook (with the help of a friend’s student discount).

The 2009 white 13-inch MacBook was a great piece of kit. Every model Apple has released since has been less of a bulky weight to carry, but this computer was a beast in more ways than one. It had ports galore and even a CD drive, which was great for the many years I went without the expense of having a TV – a young professional can’t always have it all – and could fly through DVDs. (These were disc-shaped objects Netflix used to post to people before it was streaming everything at the drop of a subscription payment, kids.)

That laptop lasted through four re-homes and about as many jobs. I was on it doing a Codecademy course when Ann O’Dea called to offer me a job at Silicon Republic. My partner is on his third laptop since we met and eventually settled on a dinky back-up to my powerhouse, our household’s main computer.

I’m getting nostalgic for my good old MacBook because, as of last Friday, it is no more. A mishap involving a cup of tea plus my own well-documented clumsiness took it to its final end. It’s not completely unfixable, but the keyboard needs replacing and well-functioning spares for a 10-year-old machine are few and far between. That’s when I knew it was over for my long-running laptop.

A white Apple macbook sitting against a white background.

An Apple MacBook that wasn’t victim to a tragic tea spill. Image: © Jan Beck/Stock.adobe.com

You don’t have a laptop for a decade without knowing a thing or two about its repair limits. Some of these limits are imposed superficially, such as from the Apple-licensed support centre I visited when the rubber casing started coming away from the bottom of the base. The technician sneered and called my perfectly functioning machine a “relic” that wasn’t worth fixing. I sneered back and found a better repair centre with less notions and more practical advice.

It’s easy, especially in the Apple world, to be fooled into thinking perfectly good tech is obsolete, and this attitude from the manufacturers, sales and certain support teams has created a ‘disposal culture’ around electronics.

When I bought that 2009 MacBook it was an investment, and it massively paid off. Now, I worry I won’t find its equivalent in a cycle obsessed with the new, adding piles of e-waste to landfill every year.

We’ve all heard the theories of planned obsolescence in tech (and Apple products in particular). Admittedly, I was going to soon need an upgraded laptop one way or another as software support was starting to wane for my machine. While I could do much to keep the hardware going – and keeping unfinished cups of tea away from the damn thing should have been rule number one – there’s little I could do in the face of dropping software support.

It’s not like I haven’t myself contributed to quickening e-waste cycles, either. I’ve only bought one laptop but I’ve worked my way through many phones in that time (though all have been passed on, donated or recycled when I’ve decided to upgrade). Still, it saddens me to think my last bastion of great, sturdy, adaptable, long-lasting tech has finally gone kaput.

I am ageing myself as I say it but, really and truly, they don’t make them like they used to. My latest phone needs a small, easily broken and easily lost connector for my headphones. My colleague’s brand new MacBook Pro needs an adapter to connect to just about everything she has at her desk. It’s sleek and light, great for work on the go; but it’s a Frankenmachine when it’s in use at a desk, which is its more common function.

Not for me, I think. The technician who read my laptop its last rites offered me a refurbished MacBook Pro that’s “practically like new”. He explained that he frequently gets in these recently released machines in need of a simple repair, but disposed of by their owners nonetheless.

“I always say, ‘I’m going to keep this one for myself’, but then there’s someone in need and I know there’ll be another one coming in soon enough,” he said, adding that even if I were to take this one away, he expects another six or so before Christmas.

I mean, why bother repairing and reusing when you can bag a brand-new bargain in the sales from Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond? Maybe because electronic components are a more precious commodity than we’ve been manipulated to see them. Because this equipment and its rapid disposal comes at a great environmental cost. And because the rampant consumerism leaking into big-ticket items is exacerbating issues of e-waste and component shortages.

I fear it won’t be long before this ritual of rapid replacing and upgrading of anything labelled a tech product will become the norm for every object getting increasingly layered with technology. When your car’s hardware starts to lag slightly with the latest software update, will it be time to scrap it for a new model? It may sound ridiculous, but if we can do it with a laptop, we can do it with a car. And how tightly those systems are embedded and how quickly software support can drop are going to dramatically drop the life cycles of consumer tech.

My 10-year-old computer really is a relic now. An artefact from a time when tech was built to last.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com