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IT Pro Podcast

Podcast transcript: Is planned obsolescence real?

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Podcast transcript: Is planned obsolescence real?

This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode ‘Is planned obsolescence real?'. To listen to the full episode, click here. We apologise for any errors.

Bobby Hellard 

Hello, I'm Bobby Hellard,

Connor Jones 

And I'm Connor Jones.

Adam Shepherd 

And I'm Adam Shepherd. And you're listening to the IT Pro Podcast, where this week we're asking when is a piece of technology officially past its sell by date? The idea of planned obsolescence has been around for decades. Essentially, the claim is that manufacturers intentionally design their products to fail after a certain period of time, forcing their customers to purchase new replacements. And it's a charge which is frequently levelled against tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft. But is this really the grand conspiracy than some make it out to be? Or is it merely the inevitable consequence of society's attitudes to consumerism, disposability and profit? So before we kick off today's discussion, if listeners are wondering why we may sound slightly different than normal, it's that we are recording in person in the office for the first time in about two years or so? 

Connor  

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Adam  

It's, it's weird, I have to say. And to give you a peek behind the curtain, it took about half an hour to get all of the equipment set up. And it really does make you miss the simplicity of working from home in some ways.

Bobby  

It's quite nostalgic to watch you fiddle with buttons again.

Adam  

So speaking of fiddling with buttons, then today, we are talking about hardware, and particularly the ways in which hardware can age and decay, like all things. So how often do you guys replace your hardware in terms of things like laptops, phones, etc? Bobby? 

Bobby  

Well, I imagine this is the same for you. But we're in quite a privileged position of getting lots of review units. So for example, my smart my phone, I've got a Samsung phone that's been in a drawer for about a year and a half; the contract's run out. And it's because I've had a great run of getting smartphones to review after review after review. Yeah, I don't replace my hardware. Of course, my laptop comes from work. So I don't replace that either. Work do. Although the I've got the latest, the 2021 MacBook, the M1. That came because my old MacBook, which was the 2013 model, basically didn't work. Buttons didn't work, it was slow. There was, I cleaned it many times and it still looked dirty. Yeah, needed replacing. But that was not a decision I made.

Adam  

No, no. If it was up to you, how often do you think you would replace stuff, knowing what you do about kind of technology and how it ages and kind of the the considerations that go into buying a new piece of kit?

Bobby  

Well, I think the two considerations you should make is whether it's for work or for every day. And if it's for work, if it's slowing down your work, you should look into the reasons why. There's there's plenty of articles on IT Pro about how to speed up performance. But if they don't work and your laptop is still slow, then yes, you need to replace that. And if it can't last the whole day, I would imagine. Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Adam  

Yes. We discussed that on the last episode, the importance of battery life, particularly for remote working stuff. But yeah, as you point out there is only so much that can be done to speed up an old laptop, and sometimes it is just beyond saving.

Connor  

Yeah, for me, I tend to leave my hardware as long as possible before it becomes sort of maddeningly slow to use. So for example, my my gaming computer that I have at home, I built that in my first year at university, I think that is - showing my age now - I think that's probably about eight or nine years old now. And that's still got, that's still, I mean, it's not running AAA games to the best, you know, up there with the best of them. I think I was I was playing GTA 5 this weekend, and I was probably averaging about 50 FPS on 1080p, which isn't great, let's be honest, but it does the job. And I actually started recently getting into GTA and made the promise to myself that when GTA 6 does get released eventually by Rockstar, I will I will take the hit and invest in some in some new gaming kit. But yeah, I think it depends; for me, it's either like running it into the ground before it comes to so awful to use. Or in the case of my smartphone, I waited until there was a big technological upgrade or like a bit a big sort of step change in what a device can offer. So for example, for the longest time, I was running an iPhone 7 and you know, it was fine. I mean, I'm one of these people like I do love my smartphone, but like I'm not I'm really keen to get the latest thing in my pocket whenever it comes out. But for me, I've got an iPhone 12 now and got it at the day of launch. And the only reason why I was waiting for that is because it was the first 5G iPhone. And because I used to cover 5G, I was really hyped about it. And you know, is how many times, I don't know if that happens to you, but it used to happen to me all the time, where because we live in cities, and we'd go into like densely populated areas, you know, for London it would be Covent Garden for me in Manchester, it'd be like, Piccadilly gardens, and there would be a very obvious network ceiling, and you'd get full bars of 4G, and you would just nothing would load. But and that's why that for me, removing that annoyance was enough for me to upgrade. And yeah, get this get the new iPhone.

Adam  

Yeah. So what were you on before the iPhone 12? 

Connor  

iPhone 7. 

Adam  

Okay, so that's a that's a fairly, a fairly meaty gap in in between. And when, when you upgraded, by the time it got to that point, did you feel like your iPhone 7 was still more or less kind of filling your needs and kind of more or less up to the up to the job?

Connor  

Yeah, by and large, I think. I think upgrading to the 12, there was maybe slightly less app crashes, not that they were particularly common in the first place. But I mean, it didn't feel overly quicker. I mean, I didn't go for the 12, I mean sorry, the 12 Pro, even the 12 Pro didn't have a high refresh rate, that came in the 13, right?

Bobby  

Yeah. 

Connor  

So yeah, it wasn't even a case of like, I had a visual improvement of like going up to a high refresh rate display. It was, you know, it felt it felt the same. But yeah, I think in terms of performance, there was very little in the way of like real world benefits of upgrading from even I think there was like, a five year gap between iPhones. Right? And it's still like, still, it's still perfectly functional.

Adam  

Yeah. And, you know, going back to what you were saying, Bobby about upgrading from the 2013 MacBook, while Apple often has to field the accusations of this kind of planned obsolescence idea. Their equipment does tend to last significantly longer than a lot of other manufacturers, you know, there are still people walking around with iPhone 6s that are still perfectly happy with them.

Bobby  

It is interesting that we've automatically landed on Apple as the first sort of company to discuss because, I mean, I think it was 2018 there was accusations that they were throttling batteries for the iPhone 6. Because the iPhone 6s had just come out. 

Adam  

Yeah. 

Bobby  

And the tests showed a massive degrading of the battery from 6 to 6s based on the new iOS update. 

Adam  

Yes. 

Bobby  

What I find interesting about Apple is that they release a new iPhone every year, no matter what's on it. It's always got big fanfare. Yes, very few other companies can match it, and it doesn't necessarily sell it very well. So you've got the 12, Connor. I reviewed both the 12, the 12 Mini and the 13. And there was very little difference between any of them. 

Connor  

Yeah. 

Bobby  

And it kind of questions do they need to do an update every year? I suppose the argument to that is the iPhone makes up a massive chunk of their revenue. Yeah, yeah.

Connor  

I guess there are people out there that do just want the next big thing like, you know, you get you get on the tube. And like a week after the 13 comes out, there will be a lot of people that have a 13 in their hands. Because they've got disposable income and I don't know, it's a it's a multiple factors are probably at play, like it's probably wanting to be part of the rat race, trying to have like the best thing, trying to like one up their friends and you know, just people who have so much disposable income, but they don't know what to do with it and they're just like, fine, I'll get the new iPhone, it's got better cameras, apparently; they won't do the reading. I think I feel like we're all techies, right, and when we're when we're going to make a big purchase. So I'm speaking from personally, but I imagine you guys are probably somewhat the same. But whenever sort of I make a big purchase, especially with tech, I will spend weeks weeks learning the reviews and sort of understanding in every single aspect why this phone differs from its competitors in the market just so I know I'm making the absolute most informed choice I can. But there are people that will just think, okay, new iPhone comes out; shiny, new... 

Adam  

New equals better. 

Connor  

New equals better. Yeah.

Adam  

Yeah. Which is not, not necessarily always the case. But it's interesting you bring up the battery throttling, Bobby, because that was actually proven. But it was for a reason. Or at least Apple claim it was for a reason. Supposedly, it was that they were throttling performance to extend the battery life of the device. So if they were running it at kind of full power, then the battery would last for a lot kind of shorter lifespan. And that really is the nub of a lot of these kinds of concerns is that these things aren't built to last for a long time, they're built to last for a certain number of years. And then the expectation is that people will upgrade, will move up to another thing, it's entirely possible for, for manufacturers to build devices that will last for 5, 6, 7, 10 years. But the trade off for that is that they are going to be bigger, they're going to be bulkier, they are going to have to have things like improved cooling systems, they're going to have much bigger batteries. And that's something that a lot of consumers may not necessarily want.

Bobby  

I suppose the problem there is developing new software, but keeping in mind very, very old hardware. Trying to balance the innovation.

Adam  

Yeah, and that's the thing, there really isn't any way to roll back kind of operating system software, for phones in the same way that there is, say, for desktop machines. So for example, if you have an older MacBook, or an older Windows PC or whatever, you can absolutely just stick on an older version of an operating system. And just keep using that until it goes out of support. Because you don't necessarily want to take the kind of performance hit and all the rest of it that you will get from the software upgrade. But that's not always possible on phones, which means that in a lot of cases, you have to upgrade, you have to upgrade the device software. And then at a certain point, you will have to upgrade the phone itself because it's no longer able to to deploy that new software.

Okay, so with that in mind, then, how long do we think is reasonable for manufacturers to keep supporting devices and supporting products?

Connor  

It's so it's so subjective, isn't it? Like I think, going back to Apple, they they famously still support the iPhone 6, right, in terms of security updates. And I don't know, it probably comes down to how many people are using which device right? So like, I think, says a cybersecurity resporter, security should be of the utmost importance when it comes to all devices, phones, PCs, whatever. And if you know, if you know you've got a sizable chunk of your customer base that is using an older device, that should still be supported from a software perspective. Everyone's gonna have a different opinion, people are going to, there will be people in one corner saying if you've made a device, you should be able to support that forever. You know, the 'buy well, buy once' people but, you know, really realistically, like no one's using an iPhone 1. And in also in the same way that no one is still using a laptop from 2002. Like there's absolutely no software there's currently in use, especially in the office, that's going to function well on 2002 laptops. Yeah. So I think for me, it ultimately comes down to there's always going to be people that are going to be annoyed. But it's just don't be so egregious about it, I guess, is what the message to tech companies should be. 

Adam  

Yeah.

Bobby  

There's also a lot of things to sort of match up, isn't there? Because for for Android phones, Android updates go for so long. And then the manufacturer-specific updates don't necessarily match the same length. I think is it Samsung recently, extended theirs to six years, I believe?

Adam  

Yes, that sounds about right.

Bobby  

That's not the same case of Android. 

Adam  

No, and that's, that's a big part of the problem. The fact that there is no real kind of standardisation across devices and across manufacturers, which means that, you know, even if your device itself is remaining supported for for that long, you can still have problems. I think part of the reason that people get so frustrated with devices needing to be replaced after a certain amount of time is for most people, aside from you know, maybe a car, a device is probably the most expensive purchase that you're going to make within a kind of, you know, average three to five year period, you know, most modern flagships are six, seven hundred pounds and upwards. And if you're having to do that every kind of, you know, three to five years really, that can get irritating quite quickly. You think well, if I'm spending this as much, why is it not lasting longer, which I think is is reasonable. And I think that's where things like right to repair start to come into it because I don't know about you, but most of the people that I talk to who need to replace a device, nine times out of ten, it's not because they're dissatisfied with the performance or because they want newer features or whatever. It's because the thing can't hold a charge. And that's true across smartphones and across laptops, because the battery technology that are being used in these devices, just doesn't last that long. I've got a powerbank at home, which is actually split apart because the cells have ballooned up and swollen. And I really probably should get rid of it, because it's almost certainly going to explode any moment. But but that that is what happens to batteries past a certain length of time. They're not, you know, they don't last forever.

Connor  

Yeah, I sat on the fence on the previous point about like, how long should manufacturers feasibly continue supporting products? But I'm absolutely, absolutely a right to repair guy. I think it's especially maddening when it comes to Apple. Right? Because they the Apple tax is, you know, yeah, it's a thing, right? Everyone knows it's a thing. And only to only add on that Apple tax, and to make it just the most ridiculously hard devices to repair yourselves. When you're, like you said, Adam, if you're paying that much, then like, it's a, it is a significant purchase for so many people.

Adam  

I tell you what it's like, it's like if your boiler broke, and you had to buy a new house.

Connor  

Yeah, that's yeah, that's a way better analogy.

Adam  

I'm sure Jane will be glad that we're continuing the house analogies in her absence. But yeah, it's right to repair is a slightly tricky one. Because, again, that's something where consumers will have to make choices about what they want their technology to do. Because the reason that a lot of things are, you know, hard, if not impossible, for, you know, average consumers to repair, is that by using things like you know, glueing down components and all this kind of thing, it allows manufacturers to shave off, you know, millimetres from the thickness, it allows them to cut down the weight, all this kind of stuff. Whereas if you're securing it with screws and brackets and all the things that you really need to make it easy to repair, that has an impact.

Bobby  

I did used to work in a factory where we repaired certain models of phone. The process to get like the digitizer you know, the LCD off is mad, you have to heat it up to a certain temperature, then pry it open as carefully as possible. This is usually where people get like cracks and things in their phones. So it is, it cannot be done, like, personally at home, replacing a screen. It's just too...

Adam  

It is, it is possible, but it's incredibly difficult. iFixit are, you know, far and away, you know, the the industry standard for explaining how to do this. And if anyone hasn't kind of looked up on iFixit how to do something like a screen replacement on an iPad or an iPhone or really any modern flagship, it is insanely in depth, requires a huge amount of specialised tools and equipment. And has big disclaimers. 

Bobby  

Yeah, I guarantee everyone that works at those places do not get it first time.

Adam  

No, absolutely not. 

Connor  

Yeah, there they are a credit to the industry, having having this massive knowledge bank of how to repair pretty much all devices even when it comes to Apple, the most unrepairable, and they will give you they'll give you scores, right? They'll they'll score each repair, sort of on a scale of one to ten based on how difficult it is. And you can so you can basically go into it, like you can make the decision before you go and go on online and buy all these spare parts and attempt it yourself. If you've seen like a 10 out of 10 difficulty for repairing. 

Adam  

It's not worth it. 

Connor  

It's not. Yeah, it's not. Yeah, I'm a big fan of iFix it. Yeah,

Adam  

I think there's definitely something to be said for replaceability of certain components. So for example, screens are always going to be difficult to replace yourself, like, that is just... it's a it's a complex, very delicate technology. Really, that's that's always going to be a challenge. Something like a battery shouldn't theoretically be that hard to replace, because it should be just, you know, swap out, swap in, the same as for any power supply or any removable battery pack in any other piece of technology. The fact that it is made so difficult on modern equipment is not great. I mean, there's probably a lot of our listeners who will remember when laptops, you know, pretty much by default came with removable power cells that you could take out, swap in, swap out. And granted, this was in a lot of cases to give them a longer battery life because the battery charges that you would get on a fully charged power cell was like three, four hours. But that meant that you didn't have to replace the entire thing when the battery started to go. And that is something that I think a lot of people would appreciate having back, even if it's not hot swappable, but the idea of being able to, to replace the battery, you know, fairly easily without taking it into an authorised repair dealer and extending the life of it by another kind of two, three years, that would be hugely useful to so many people and so many businesses.

Connor  

Yeah, do we know if there are any tech companies that have actually come out and say why they don't make their phones like modular or like easily repairable?

Bobby  

I don't know if anyone's come out and said it. But there are now smaller, smaller brands that do removable batteries. So the new Nokias are all removable batteries. The Fairphone 4.

Connor  

Yeah, I've got one of those at the moment.

Bobby  

I haven't heard of any laptops going back to that, but it would be great if they did.

Adam  

The problem is, again, it's it's to do with how small everything has to be. In order to make those kind of components repairable and replaceable, you do need to add certain kinds of mechanisms to the, to the internals, you know, more connectors, more brackets, all of this kind of stuff. And that means that they can't then say, Oh, this is the thinnest, lightest laptop in the industry, which is something that is still important to a lot of consumers. I think we as kind of users need to become more more comfortable with saying, Okay, I'm going to buy something that is specifically kind of repairable and replaceable and modular. And I'm willing for that to be kind of, say 20, 30%, thicker and heavier than a device that isn't, because I know it will last longer and be more robust. But at the moment, there isn't really the option to make that kind of that kind of trade off, aside from, as you mentioned, a couple of very specific quite kind of niche providers. So then, if users want to extend the lifespan of their devices, there are some ways that they can do that without necessarily going through the rigmarole of replacing a bunch of the internal components and all of that kind of stuff. There are mechanisms for doing that. For laptops in particular, one of the best ways to extend its lifespan beyond when it might kind of give up the ghost is to actually replace the default OS with something a little bit more lightweight. So Linux is a really good example of this. ChromeOS has recently come out with a version that can be installed on any hardware. And both of those are great options for giving older devices that may not have the most powerful hardware, a new lease of life because, you know, cutting edge Windows and macOS builds are quite resource intensive in lots of ways. You know, if you've got a device with, say, a couple of gigs of RAM on it, that's going to struggle with a modern OS. Whereas smaller OSes that less demanding can make a device feel like new again.

Connor  

Yeah, that's a good point you make about Chrome releasing that new version of OS. Actually, I did forget about that. But yeah, Linux and Chrome OS aren't the most, they don't have the most users in, you know, the PC and laptop space. So I do think it will take a little bit of effort and a little bit of campaigning on their part to sort of make it known, the benefits; it's not just a lightweight OS that's cool for techies. It's a lightweight OS that can prolong devices. I think, I think other than us reporting on it. I don't think the average consumer really understands that those kinds of options are out there. But yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that those initiatives are really great. And the more and the more we see of those. Yeah, absolutely the better.

Adam  

And what about phones? Is there anything that consumers can do to help their phones last longer than they might otherwise do?

Bobby  

I would use them less. If you can just turn it off, turn it off. Maybe overnight. Same with your laptop. You just turn it off every now and then because I'm terrible for just keeping tabs and things open all the time, and it just gets really slow. But yeah, less use, you don't need to use it all the time anyway.

Adam  

I think also, kind of paradoxically, less use, but also longer use. And what I mean by that is, it's better for overall battery health, if you discharge the battery fully. So use it until the battery completely runs out, and then recharge it to full, that will help your battery last longer. It's very tempting, and I know I do this a lot, just you know, if you get down to, you know, the 40, 50% stick it on charge for, you know, 20 minutes, half an hour and get back up to 70 or so, enough to kind of see you through the day, and then stick it on charge overnight, regardless of how full the battery is just to ensure that you're topped up and ready to go in the morning. That will have an impact on battery health over the long term. So if you're concerned about how long your phone is going to last, before it needs an upgrade, empty it.

Bobby  

It's kind of like a bit of anxiety. Yeah. Oh my god. 10%. When you're going home, that should be enough. I know. It's gonna be downtime for about five or 10 minutes, you should just let it die. 

Adam  

Yeah, I know I'm never ever going to do that, though. The idea of being alone with my thoughts on a train for 15 minutes is... just kill me.

Connor  

Yeah, just, just on your point, Adam, don't charge your phone overnight. I think that's low hanging fruit at this point. I think that that's like, received wisdom. But and on the topic of low hanging fruit, just care for your phone. I think that it's so simple, but you know, like, put your phone in a bag or like, don't don't put it facedown on a piece of metal in your rucksack or, you know, stick a case on it. 

Adam  

Yes, get a case. 

Connor  

As much as, as much as, as much as it's so nice to hold a device without a case. I occasionally treat myself to a caseless iPhone on the weekends when maybe I'm just in bed, and there's no risk of me dropping it. But yeah, just just do the basics.

Adam  

Yeah, absolutely. And also audit your apps, there's a good chance - and this goes for phones as well as laptops and PCs - there's a good chance that there is a huge amount of software on your device that you downloaded one day to do a specific thing. And then never thought about again. And it's entirely possible that it's sat there running in the background, sucking up charge, you know, putting unnecessary cycles on the processor, and you don't need it and getting rid of all that stuff can actually have a big impact on not just kind of day to day performance, but also kind of longer term longevity and a factory reset every now and again, just you know wiping the device completely and starting from scratch, can be a really good way to kind of effectively spring clean your device and can really make a surprising amount of difference.

Bobby  

The beauty of modern modern phones is they will tell you if you've got loads of apps that you're not using, hogging your data. I've currently got the Samsung S22 Ultra, which tells me all the time, you're not using this,get rid of it. And I just do.

Adam  

It's amazing.

Bobby  

And then download it again, days later. If tech didn't die and it lasted forever, is there like a particular smartphone you would have gone back to and kept?

Adam  

Absolutely. I miss the Nexus range so much; they were fabulous devices.

Connor  

For me, probably not. Yeah growing up as a kid I had like a good range of smartphones. I had I remember I think it's like a Siemens A50 which was like like a slider, it's like it's slid up. I never I never managed to wrangle my parents to get me that that Nokia gaming phone which I really wanted. 

Adam  

Oh what, the N Gage?

Connor  

The N Gage, yeah, that's the one. I really wanted that. What else, I mean the Motorola Razr that's like the iconic that's the iconic flip phone. Can you actually really, can you see yourself going back from like a seven inch touchscreen with a high refresh rate display and great connectivity and...

Bobby  

You know what, I can. The reason why I love the iPhone 12 Mini is it because it reminded me of the iPhone 5c. An absolutely terrible phone but I absolutely loved it. Funny colours, just did everything I wanted it to do. It was unbreakable, to a certain point.

Adam  

And it's, I do actually have a big soft spot for a smaller screen. There are not enough manufacturers putting out kind of four or five inch smartphones because the big enormous kind of six, seven inch tablets are great, but they're also a giant pain in the ass to carry around a lot of the time and sometimes you just want something that's a little bit more compact.

Connor  

How big are your hands, though, cause like, this is harking back to my iPhone 7 vs 12 comparison. Like there's, it's just night and day for me. I don't know if I've got like the fattest fingers in the world, but so many typing errors I made on the smaller iPhone screens.

Bobby  

I'd be incoherent without predictive text.

Adam  

Oh yeah, 100%.

Bobby  

My thumb presses like nine different buttons.

Connor  

I do agree there's like there is a limit to how big screens can and should get, but I I think six and seven inches is the sweet spot because yeah, mistyping is such a such an annoyance and a commonality in my life.

Bobby  

Typing's gonna die out, we'll all just use voice. 

Adam  

No, never gonna happen.

Bobby  

It's perfect on the Google Pixel.

Adam  

It is, it is but also the idea of dictating my texts for anyone to hear is just, no, no, thank you.

Connor  

That's, what's that chip Musk is making - is it Neuralink? 

Adam  

Oh yeah.

Connor  

Everyone's gonna have a Neuralink and it's just going to be brainwaves, mate.

Adam  

Do you know what, if that was developed by anyone other than Musk, I would be first in line.

Connor  

Yeah, I get that.

Bobby  

You'd have to think of the emojis...

Adam  

Yeah, I mean, I basically do that anyway; the amount of times in like actual, you know, real, real life person conversations that I think, man, I wish I could use a GIF right now. If I could just like wirelessly transmit GIFs into people's brains, like my life would be so much better.

Bobby  

Yeah. Leonardo DiCaprio laughing Django GIF.

Adam  

Yeah, like, there are multiple times when I have literally, like just physically said the file name of a GIF. It's like, I've been having like an actual conversation. And I was like, Oh man, that was like, Chefkiss.GIF. Like, there must be a better way than this. I mean, it's yet another example of how the Internet has ruined modern communication. Well, on that slightly depressing note, that is all we've got time for today. You can find links to all of the topics we've spoken about in the show notes, and even more on our website at itpro.co.uk.

Bobby  

You can also follow us on social media as well as subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Connor  

Don't forget to subscribe to the IT Pro Podcast wherever you find your podcasts. And if you're enjoying the show, leave us a rating and review.

Adam  

We'll be back next week with more analysis from the world of IT but until then, goodbye. 

Bobby  

Goodbye. 

Connor  

Bye.

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