SE M600i. photo courtesy welectronics.com
This summer, it was 5 years ago I pre-ordered the Apple iPhone 4. Back then, I was really excited to get my hands on my first real smartphone; the Sony Ericsson M600i I had then had a lovely keyboard but could hardly be counted as a smartphone. I had had it for only about two years, but it had already lost all paint on the sides and it was sometimes dropping calls. To be able to listen to music properly I had to solder my own jackplug adapter.
When it was introduced, I knew. The screen resolution of the iPhone 4 was quadruple the resolution of its predecessor. It was faster, built with a seamless glass back and front with stainless steel sandwiched in between. It could install apps and had the smoothest user experience of any product I had ever owned. It felt awesome. It was awesome. I needed one.
While growing up, I had always wanted the newest, shiniest gadgets. Teachers thought I was dealing drugs in high school because I bought a second-generation iPod (10 gigabytes!) for about €600 (second hand!). I was always hacking products and breaking them in the process. If something newer came along, the old product was just shifted to my sister, and that shift was part of the reasoning behind why it was good to get the new one. Mobile phones generally lasted about a year this way, and the pace was accelerating.
Fast forward to 2015 and I’m still in love with my iPhone 4. It’s aged gracefully, despite some minor issues. The glass is almost impeccable. The stainless steel has some wear marks but is mostly like it just came out of the box. Overall, the product has aged like a leather bag; it became more beautiful by using it, not less. I’m generally pretty considerate with my possessions, but a mobile phone has to endure abuse like nothing else. I drop it occasionally. I cycle with it in the rain.
iPhone 4 Home Button; Conformal coating is the transparent blobs over the components at the bottom. Photo courtesy sperry.com.tw
This story is an homage to how incredibly durable the Apple iPhone 4 is.
It’s technically durable; I haven’t had to replace the battery, none of the critical systems failed (probably due to conformal coating every part of circuit boards that have a reasonable amount of exposure to moisture). The glass hasn’t shattered. It hasn’t bent. The jackplug is still working. I’ve replaced the power and home buttons, but that’s it. Consider any MP3 player; some of their jackplugs only lasted half a year.
User Experience durability
It’s also what I call “UX-durable”: the whole user experience (hardware, software, ecosystem) of my iPhone 4 is comparable to what I’d get if I shelled out €800 for a new iPhone 6. It can run the same apps. It has the same level of attention to physical design. I even think it looks and feels better. Because of its minimalist design, it doesn’t look outdated. The screen resolution (not the size) is exactly the same as a new phone. Yes, the iPhone 6 can make panoramic pictures. And high-speed video. And it has Siri. I don’t care. I can use Spotify, public transport planning and all the other apps I care about, with hardware that (at the replacement rate I had before this product) is ±3 generations old. It’s still reasonably snappy, too. Imagine installing Windows 7 on a laptop that had Windows XP installed when you bought it.
Even more important: the iPhone 4 I have now is much, much better that the iPhone I received 5 years ago. Back then, I had to manually sync calenders, contacts and content by plugging in a cable. It didn’t have Facetime. Spotify was barely known outside of Sweden. iMessage didn’t exist. Whatsapp was still in private beta. There were dedicated apps for using the LED flash as a torch (okay, this is something Apple should have included from the start). My point is; over the years, my phone has gotten incrementally more sophisticated and valuable, even though, in economic terms, it’s way past it’s due date. Had I gotten an Android phone back then, I would be stuck in “Froyo” (2.2), a version that most developers (and certainly hardware manufacturers) stopped supporting years ago.
Smartphones were the first consumer products that exposed people to this possibility. When you buy a microwave, it doesn’t get any better next year. It might, in the future. But not today. Users will be starting to expect similar “incremental feature upgrades” from different products as well. Smart TV’s are gradually following, but most manufacturers stop pushing updates after a few months, leaving users with hardware that could perform much better. Or worse; it could be left with serious security issues.
3D-printers are a nice example as well, by the way. The first-gen Ultimaker I bought a long time ago is a very different printer from the one I have now. Apart from the hardware hacks (heated bed, better extruder, autonomous printing, silent stepper drivers, etc.) the software has seen marvellous upgrades. The whole experience is just so much better. Slicing a large part with the software it shipped with could take hours. Now, I can’t load a model that takes more than 10 seconds to prepare for printing. The same €1900 printer, becoming better over time – not worse.
Consider the Stratasys Dimension SST1200 we had at the Fab Lab. A €35.000 printer, requiring a €2.000/year plan just to get software updates that tended to be even buggier than the last version. Eventually, that printer crapped out with indecipherable error messages and the manufacturer not wanting to fix it. AFAIK, it’s still gathering dust. Back then, I put the problem on closed vs. open source, but that’s not necessarily the problem. Open sourcing software can help, but it’s not the only option.
Planned hardware obsolescence through software
We all know resources are running out. It’s time for hardware manufacturers to start designing and developing electronic products with longevity in mind. Software isn’t just a part of this; it’s possibly the most important. Especially for products like smartphones, smart TV’s and any screen size in between which is, at the end of the day, a slab of screen running software. And good software can only be developed and maintained when there’s a board-level interest in high-quality, modular, serviceable, secure code, ecosystems and architectures. It’s understandable that firms like Samsung stop pushing software updates to hardware they sold only a few financial quarters ago; the freelance teams of developers hired to quickly and cheaply hack an interface on top of Android are long gone by then.
But users will come to expect more from brands. Having to buy a whole new slab of very similar screen in two years just because the software driving it can run the next new streaming content provider after Netflix is not going to be acceptable. The same goes for tablets. And thermostats. And microwaves. Anything running software can and should get incrementally better over time.
TL;DR If it’s connected, it should become better. Users will come to expect incremental (software) feature upgrades in more products than just smartphones and tablets. That way, they can use their products more sustainably. Any company not following the example Apple is setting with – for example – the iPhone is in danger of losing customers in the long term.