Saturday, April 21, 2012

What's wrong with Consumer Electronics?

When I was a boy the term consumer electronics didn't exist. Then the sum total of household electronics was a wireless, a radiogram and a telephone; pretty much everyone had a wireless, fewer a radiogram and on our (lower middle-class) street perhaps one in five houses had a telephone. (In an emergency it was normal to go round to the neighbour with the phone.) In the whole of my childhood we only ever had the same wireless set and gramophone and both looked more like furniture than electronics, housed in handsome polished wooden cabinets. Of course it was their inner workings, with the warm yellow glow of the thermionic valves that fascinated me and got me into trouble when I took them to pieces, that led to my chosen career in electronics.

How things have changed. Now most middle-class households have more computing power than existed in the world 50 years ago. Multiple TVs, mobile phones, computing devices (laptops, games consoles, iPads, Kindles and the like) and the supporting infrastructure of wireless routers, printer, and backup storage, are now normal. And most of this stuff will be less than five years old. If you're anything like me the Hi-Fi system will be the oldest bit of kit you own (unless you ditched it for the iPod and docking station). Of course this gear is wonderful. I often find myself shocked by the awesomeness of everyday technology. And understanding how it all works only serves to deepen my sense of awe. But, I'm also profoundly worried - and offended too - by the way we consume our electronics.

What offends me is this: modern solid-state electronics is unbelievably reliable - what's wrong with consumer electronics is nothing, yet we treat this magical stuff - fashioned of glass - as stuff to be consumed then thrown away. Think about the last time you replaced a gadget because the old one had worn out or become unrepairable. Hard isn't it. If you still possessed it the mobile phone you had 15 years ago would - I'd wager - still work perfectly. I have a cupboard here at home with all manner of obsolete kit. A dial-up modem for instance, circa 1993. It still works fine - but there's nothing to dial into. The fact is that we are compelled to replace perfectly good nearly-new electronics with the latest model either because the old stuff is rendered obsolete (because it's no longer compatible with current generation o/s, or applications or infrastructure - or unsupported), or worse still because the latest kit has 'must have' features or capabilities not present on the old.

I would like to see a shift in consumer electronics back to a model in which gadgets are designed to be repaired and consumers are encouraged to replace or upgrade every ten years or more, not every year. What I'm suggesting is of course exactly the opposite of what's happening now. Current devices are becoming less repairable, with batteries you can't replace and designs that even skilled technicians find difficult to take apart without risk of damage. The lastest iPad for example was given a very low repairability score (2/10) by iFixit.

And the business model most electronics companies operate is fixated on the assumption that profit, and growth, can only be achieved through very short product life cycles. But all of our stuff is not like this. We don't treat our houses, or gardens, or dining room tables, or central heating systems, or any number of things as consumer goods, but the companies that build and sell houses, or dining room tables, or landscape gardens, etc, still turn a profit. Why can't electronics companies find a business model that treats electronic devices more like houses and less like breakfast cereal?

I don't think consumer electronics should be consumed at all.

21 comments:

  1. I agree, but I think it's pretty hard to overturn the model now. It really has to start at government level to enact regulations but there is no desire while social issues seem to have more importance. In Australia we used to have a law that required manufacturers to maintain spare parts for a product for at least 10 years. But the swing to mostly imported products seems to have broken down that law.
    Some say there will be a lack in the future of IT people hence we need the raspberry pi but there will also be a lack of technicians capable of repairing things due to manufacturers schemes to make harware unfixable.
    I am in the home appliance repair business and have seen in 30 years the gradual erosion of repairable products firstly from small portable items and now up to even larger devices like microwaves and washing machines. I mean where is the business model in repairing a 50 dollar microwave when a magnetron costs 3 times that. In fact anything other than a bulb or fuse means it's ready for the rubbish.
    And that is with a product that basically hasn't changed in design since it first came out. They are not meant to be replaced every few years.
    I have never been in the field of home entertainment products but I do know that it is damn hard to find independant tv and hifi repairers now. They only seem to have survived if they are authourised service outlets for manufacturers.
    On the other hand with the entertainment products I can see the desire for people to change from crt monitors to lcd. A smartphone to replace their old analog phone. Incidently phones are terribly unreliable products. I have only replaced mine when they have failed but have bought 4 in ten years. That is probably significantly less than other people but still a lot of waste.
    It's awesome to think as you pointed out the amount of computing power in households these days but I don't think it would be a fraction of that level if the design cycle hadn't been so rapid and that needed to be fed by the consumer.
    One last thought... what if all that computing power in every household today was used purely for scientific and technological advancement instead of pleasure in most cases. How much further towards solving medical, energy and space problems would we be now?

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  2. Thank you Gullygunyah for your great comments. You're quite right of course about the business model. I know I am hopelessly naive to suppose it will change. Except that the current consumer electronics business model is also deeply unsustainable and may therefore be forced to change. That's going to be the subject of another blog post!

    Interesting to read your comment about unreliable mobile phones.

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  3. Agreed. I have just left the University of Bath where a swathe of perfectly servicable, modern, multicore desktops are literally crushed because, apparently, they can't run Windows 7.

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  4. An example of what's wrong with consumer electronics is my GPS navigation system. I bought it 5 years ago and now some areas of the maps are out of date, but maps for this model are no longer produced and there doesn't seem to be any way to get access to the data and modify it myself without a huge amount of reverse engineering effort. So I'll probably have to throw away a perfectly good working piece of hardware simply because some subset of its data is obsolete.

    On the wasteful nature of consumerism, I think this is primarily due to the way that contemporary capitalism works. Being able to repair things - especially if it's independently from the original manufacturer - creates localized pools of wealth which aren't necessarily gravitating towards any particular group and may not contribute much to GDP. There's an obvious dichotomy between long term sustainability and the way in which contemporary economies are organized.

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  5. I think this all started because software was first put forward as a consumer product. Microsoft managed to successfully make people both buy and upgrade software, and they did so by making it physical by distributing with hard media. If you look at modern electronics people upgrade their hardware to get the latest software, either because its constrained by CPU/RAM requirements or a company won't build the operating system for an older device. Mobile phones this is especially true, you can't get the latest Android operating system for a 3 year old phone even if it would be powerful enough. With the rise in connectivity, and cheap solid state production, the new physical media for software is a complete computer system! This would be fine if those systems were fully recyclable. Making things highly recyclable and/or easy to disasemble rather than repairable might be the way forward. Imagine a pick and place machine in reverse, you put your old phone in and a new phone comes out with a few chips swapped and a new sheet of gorilla glass put in place.

    Another great point your raised Alan but might want to address in another post, is that you had the ability to tinker with and become enthused about technology at a young age, what's the new paradigm for getting children interested in electronics naturally? Raspberry Pi etc. is far more for software. Do you think pure digital electronics and things like Arduino is now enough? The problem I have with all the current ideas is they require purposeful exposure rather than accidental. Not all parents are going to buy their children specialist educational electronics.

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  6. Many thanks Alex, Bob and Matt for your great comments.

    Bob: I couldn't agree more. And yet we keep hearing of the success of consumer capitalism and that there's no other way.

    Matt: Very good point. You're right that taking home electronics to pieces is no longer a realistic option for getting kids interested. But I'm optimistic about Raspberry Pi etc, and thriving Hackspaces. I just hope devices, like the Arduino, are making it into school classrooms and science clubs. Are they?

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  7. Good post Alan and one which effects us all. I agree with everyone's points too!
    My immediate thoughts regard a generalised consumer obsession with price which subsequently fuels cheaper and cheaper throw away electronics. I get the impression that its an ever increasing downward spiral of capitalism and consumerism complicit in an increasingly evident throw away cultural norm. Recently I heard an academic saying that you can tell a working class area by the amount of people maintaining their own cars on a Sunday afternoon. Conversely on asking a man why he was smashing the screen on an oldish LCD tv outside his house he replied "I'm not a charity"? - how disappointing are these attitude's?
    I do think it starts with us though, if the consumer actually saves up for the expensive one which can be continually adapted, updated, cared for, maintained & repaired ourselves then perhaps products themselves will change to suit consumer demand and perhaps even change cultural norms. Perhaps DIY robotics could be a great place to start! Unfortunately I (the eternal optimistic cynic)just can't see it happening?

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  8. I agree with everyone here. However, I am not sure how much delusional it is, but I like to think we have the power to change the business model. Sure, with governmental regulation it could help.

    But I like to think that I can stop using those electronics if I don't like them and if enough people do the same then business will have to adapt.

    Anyway, I'm the living proof that you can manage to survive 21th century without a cellphone and with a 10 year old computer. A couple of memory add-ons and a custom Linux OS makes it has good as any new Mac OS or Windows 7 machines. You have to be ready to put time into it however !

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  9. Modern electronics is not that reliable any more. Durable capacitors are a selling point and you pay more for them. Buying a HDD is a lottery and the time each model is sold for is so short that it is impossible to base a buying decision on experience. Most expansive video cards are least reliable - components are more stressed and enthusiasts are known to upgrade often.

    Beyond the greed of producers, there are fundamental reasons for junk gadgets - it may be cheaper to let robots produce the whole thing at a factory than to allow an engineer to fix it using spare parts.

    Another similar trend I find even more troublesome is the tendency to blur the boundaries between hardware, OS, and applications and sell some "experience" for a triple price.

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  10. I would like to add the comment that when just about any modern device does go wrong it is probably due to the failure of a component that costs 1 cent. But the labor cost to fix it means that the whole thing gets sent to land fill.

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  11. Intended obsolescence is built into the system. And it’s pretty easy to program and hide this from a typical consumer, inside an embedded system.

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  12. Do you think there is going to be any money in repair work? I mean lets take a $400 Android tablet. If it breaks and it needs something replaced on it how much is that going to cost?

    The problem is that the current value of the device drops so quickly that if you charge $100 to repair it by the time the repair is needed the device may be worth $200. That reaches a tipping point where people generally don't want to spend to repair something. How many people want to spend $1,000 to repair a car worth $2,000? So that puts pressure on repair businesses to lower the costs which makes them less profitable. I see little incentive for a business like this to start up and flourish.

    So I think this was an evolving problem since people started buying VCRs and realized repairs cost >= 50% of the price of a new VCR so they just bought new instead.

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  13. This very interesting post and good comments really made me think.

    Maybe we grew up appreciating electronic devices because they were around long enough to become dear to us. Now the "experience" is sold, not so much a device. And just like with fashion, there is an annual life cycle of consumer electronics.

    Which makes sense from a producers viewpoint - I want you to buy my products but don't hesitate to replace them as soon as I have something new for you. And because producers compete... well we know all that.

    I think anyone with a history of used and now useless but not really broken devices feels a little cheated, at least I hope that my kids will have an understanding some day why we skipped the XBox 360 and waited for a 720 instead.

    But like one commenter said, It's maybe delusional to think we can change it back, maybe it will go this way:

    We will have a different production line with mushroom replacing plastic, circuits printed on sheets of mushroom and different business models - just download the blueprints and 3D print your latest gadget from home - with your own customized design and glossy finish.

    Then we might not feel the guilt of wasting precious elements for our little vain pleasures anymore, who knows?

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  14. Nice article! congratulations! A little sign of hope: the mobile industry stopped delivering recharger with every phone some time ago because you (customer) could re-use the previous recharger on the new phone. Of course it happened after EU 'asked' it.

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  15. As long as there is a monetary system exsiting in a society, there is no way to implement your idea in the current profit-driven world. Take Intel for example, they are releasing new CPUs every year. While if you look at the tech spec, there might only be .x GHz improvement. Why did they do that? Because the current economic model force them to release obsolete products so that they can keep the company running. Not to mention the limited natural resources on earth are consumed just for the sake of generating profits.

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  16. There are a couple of other things to consider in this.

    One is that much of the real innovation of this (21st) century could only have come about so rapidly because a willingness to buy and re-buy smartphones every 3 years. I have a 2 year-old smartphone, and its GPS is already broken. It has suffered a broken screen once (which I got repaired). It really is pretty disposable - 3 years is a long time for a modern smartphone being handled typically in the real world.

    For larger things, such as washing machines, televisions etc, I agree they should not be viewed as disposable. However, they are a lot more reliable than they used to be. My Dad used to supplement his income by repairing TV sets in the neighbourhood. Nowadays, not only are they hard to repair - they actually don't really go wrong often enough to justify repair shops.

    As individuals, we have a lot of control over consumerism. For large items (that clearly consume a lot of resources) I do buy for the future. I almost never buy the cheapest model - on the basis that it will last longer. I recycyle my older hardware (the living room TV is now in the bedroom, I give away appliances that I upgrade). I turn older computers into server appliances. Those that are too obsolete I take to the local scrap metal dealer - and even get some cash back (small amount - based on the circuit board gold).

    Where we need government regulation is in reducing the amount of toxic material that goes into making things, and ensuring that the extraction of rare materials required is done ethically.

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  17. ...it all went to hell about the time Heathkit died...sad...

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  18. Our rate of resource exhaustion accelerated. We knew this cannot substain, but the real cost does not reflect in our usual buying decision metrics: in dollar values, or some kind of number that we can easily compare.

    Interestingly enough, our ability of manipulating numbers also accelerates, but honestly, other technology/art that not digitally related are dismally underdeveloped and cannot handle this vast abundance of digital ability.

    To change, we have to be less faithful on the dollar value (economic measure), find a better metrics of measuring the real value of things.

    Instead making the biggest impact on the earth in our life time, try to leave a zero footprint.

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  19. We cannot resist the human nature of efficiency: using less resource to achieve our goal, or use less money to buy better things, (even the whole green movement would agree on improving efficiency). Therefore, we cannot blame the manufacturers to cut cost to produce ostensibly cheap and better stuff.

    If we tried to explain everything by economics, the real cost of extracting resource and consumer capitalism was not truly reflected in real dollar values.

    We could be blind to our waste by landfilling, or cheaply shipped to China where labour extracted those scrapes.

    Without globalism, inequality and landfill, our lives are definitely costlier and harder, and our techonlogical advances certainly slow down.

    Perhaps only when we were finally trapped with no ability of exploring, expanding and exploiting our boundary (the universe), and more equality among people (or the boarder ecosystem) within the boundary, the real change could finally start.

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  20. Sorry, I beg to disagree. It is not the gadgets that we consume, but the intellectual product of their designers. If you stop buying new products, keep reusing the old ones, then you would stop consuming the intellectual product. You would keep the material but dump the intellect. That doesn't seem to be right. If everybody does that, we would all be out of jobs, because newer and better designs are what we produce. For the modern economy to function, we need to keep on producing those new designs and the consumers need to keep on consuming them. That is the way it is.

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  21. At the rate that technology is changing and continually minimizing makes what you propose far more difficult to achieve. Electronics back in the 90's were much larger compared to the circuit boards/processors of today. Attempting to make everything backwards compatible when everyone's trying to innovate into the next big thing is probably not at the forefront of the scientific engineering communities mindset. The closed box design coming to be standard defends trade secrets and new technologies as well. Domination of the technical world is fierce. Then again, I could be wrong. Nice article, I really enjoyed it - this is the first I've ever commented on.

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