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.