If Apple wants an environmentally conscious person like me to take their green efforts seriously, they would encourage users to use the same device for years, rather than simply make recyclable, chemical-free computers. In my utopian vision, Apple still has plenty of market share remaining to keep growing. They could continue to build insanely great hardware products, ones that last for a decade, and amazing software that makes those devices a pleasure to use. Then they grow by converting those who do not own Apple products into new customers.
The issue isn’t a dependence on recurring sales. If that were the case, Apple wouldn’t provide free OS upgrades for two or three year-old iOS devices and $20 Mac OS upgrades. They would offer very little to previous device holders, just as the rest of the industry does.1 Apple’s sales are already growing mostly because of new customers.
The real issue here isn’t that Apple’s taking advantage of customers by building products so customers are dissatisfied with them after two years to encourage sales. The issue is that the computing industry, and especially the mobile computing industry, are developing very quickly, so hardware and software that’s as good as it gets today simply won’t be in a year’s time. And as a result, the iPhone 3GS that looked incredible in 2009 doesn’t look so great compared to the A5-running, Siri-equipped iPhone 4S that takes 8 megapixel photos in 2011.
That’s not a bad issue. That’s a good issue. It means technology is rapidly getting better and we can do more with it. There’s no doubt that an iPhone 4S today is a much, much better device for users than an iPhone 3GS. This rapid development means that, in the hands of people who believe technology should be used to achieve great things, we benefit. And that’s what Apple does.
If Apple could make an iPhone, iPad or Mac that could satisfy a majority of users for a decade, it wouldn’t mean they’ve made some great achievement. It would mean that development in computing is so slow, that a decade-old product is basically as good as the ones shrink-wrapped on the shelves for sale today. I don’t think that’s utopia. In fact, it feels closer to dystopia.
As Chris goes on to say, though, the issue he’s really arguing for isn’t that Apple (or other companies) are manipulating us to purchase products we don’t really need. The issue is, he argues, that we feel we should purchase new computers or phones or tablets every couple years. I understand this sentiment; I’ve used an iPod purchased in 2005 continually since (I now use it to listen to music over my car stereo), and I love that a computing-related product I bought nearly seven years ago not only still works, but is still very useful for me. I think, though, what’s worrying to Chris is not the trappings of a consumerist culture that he highlights—the continual purchase of new things—but the mindlessness it represents and which (potentially) causes it.
I don’t think purchasing a new tablet every couple years is a concern. I do think, though, that purchasing a new one without rationally considering why is. To benefit from new technology, we have to cooly think through its use and how it will improve our lives. Otherwise, it’s just another gizmo that does little tricks and is put away in the closet after it stops amusing us. And otherwise, technology is something that isn’t used for the betterment of our lives. Technology is not inherently good. It’s amoral. How we use it defines whether it’s good or not.