The Truth About Planned Obsolescence

I hear plenty of people talking about their phones, computers and even cameras getting slow, not being as fast as the first days or event not working anymore ! Most of them, including my friends think it’s due to planned obsolescence… that is the manufacturer company’s policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional, after a certain period of time… That’s one of the reasons why smartphones user upgrade their phone every 21 months in average. Well… In my case I am editing my photos on a Macbook Pro from 2012, which runs almost as good as day 1 and I still use an iPhone 6S from 2015. Now I am going to tell you what all these people have wrong or just don’t know about, taking the example of a smartphone and a computer.

Know your device

A smartphone is a very basic device, it’s basically (1) a processor that uses (2) the RAM for temporary calculations and store the results on (3) the hard drive using (4) the battery as a power source. First of all,  a more powerful processors will use more battery. If your battery is of a small capacity then the processor will turn it into the lifespan bottleneck as the amount of cycles of charge and discharge of you battery is limited. Disk space usage is key to make your device last longer, indeed, the less of your disk space you use, the less you actually use your hardware. Even if you smartphone is made out of SSD and no longer spinning optical drives, SSD have a lifespan, we can’t overwrite the same cell of memory forever. So lighter apps are a solution to increase the lifespan of your device.  RAM is limited and also suffer the same problems as the disk space, if your system and apps constantly use 50+% of your RAM then you end up using your hardware. So quality of the hardware matters and then there is the way all these components are bonded together, mostly Copper or Gold soldering… you guessed it, Gold bonding will make your smartphone more expensive and last longer while Copper will make it cheaper but eventually connection will damage quicker making your device slower over time.

Choose your device wisely

Now you know what causes a smartphone to actually become obsolete, you also understand that you need to buy the smartphone with the more RAM, the more Disk Space, the more battery capacity… but… the less powerful processor ! Don’t go for the highest specs on all departments, remember that the fastest processor isn’t your best friend on the long run, choose the one that requires the less energy to run. That’s something which is not really doable with the Apple brand however as soon as you look into Android phones manufacturers you see you have the choice ! You need to look for the more energy efficient chip when you have the choice. Let’s take the example of the iPhone X versus the Google Pixel 2, the iPhone X has a A11 chip from apple that is really powerful and also power hungry while the Pixel 2 packs a Snapdragon 835 chip that has a more performance per watt efficiency.

Bigger Apps as a result of faster CPU

When processors were not as powerful as today’s, developers had no choice, you had to code the most efficient app. Reduce the amount of code needed to perform an action quickly. As the processor became more and more powerful companies started de delocalise the workload to countries like India with very cheap developer rates that will code the same program with attention to cost instead of efficiency. True story. This actually won’t make any difference to you as long as you are using the latest and greatest devices… however if you have an older device then you are going to have more and more difficulties running these new apps and will slow down.

Ever Heavier Apps : Libraries for lazy developers

As time goes by, smartphones pack always more powerful processors, always more RAM, always more disk space, better graphic chips, etc… but on the other side, as time goes by two things happen, users want more features, at no extra cost of course, just to get the most out of their powerful devices and developers, to cope with customer needs, use libraries to code their apps making them heavy as hell. The advantage of using libraries is that developers can import them quickly into their code and add features to apps very quickly, the disadvantage is that using libraries means importing a lot of code, making you apps bigger and not as efficient as coding the feature from scratch. The disadvantage is importing this all this generic code to perform a single task using libraries is basically like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

New processors architectures and technical obsolescence

Nothing to deal with planned obsolescence, new processors that are built using totally new architectures to optimise the calculation process and the battery consumption make technically more sense to use and manufacturers and developers team up together to make their OS use the most out of the hardware. As a result, older architectures of processors tend to be obsolete, but this is called technical obsolescence and it is a by-product innovation. This is not planned obsolescence.

Buying new smartphones makes older smartphones obsolete

When companies launch new version of their apps, they are rolling new features which can’t necessarily be accessible to all generation of hardware. What happens practically when launching a new app or service is that studios adopt a customer-data-driven strategy. They bring a bunch of so-called market analysts that will say something like this “Hello team, in average, customer upgrade their phones every 21 months, so we don’t care about phones that are 2 years and older”. So what’s the deal ? Well… this is problematic if you buy a flagship smartphone and plan to keep it more than 2 years, you will need to look at third parties solution for your apps and OS to make it last and changing your smartphone less often may actually make them last longer ;).

Heavier Apps full of ‘features’

One example I have in mind here is the Facebook app. it used to weight under 5 MB and is now almost 50 MB on the play store… but effectively went from under 50MB to more than 450 MB on your disk space once the APK unpacked ! 1/2 Go of disk space used for the Facebook app, because it is coded importing libraries instead of raw code, because users want more features and Facebook new developers need a way to develop apps without having to re-read another’s employee code. Same for the Messenger app.

So what is the solution to this problem ? I personally keep the Messenger app to communicate with my friends worldwide but I use the Facebook Messenger Lite version and I don’t install the Facebook app and use the web browser of my phone instead if I absolutely need to check something… which never happens because I put all my Facebook contacts into the “acquaintances” group and my feed looks more or less like this :

loic Magnien Facebook Feed

Lighter apps … what about a Lighter OS then ?

You can extend the principle of lighter apps to lighter operating systems ! This is the best way to give a total second life to your smartphone : you can install Android Go. An android version with smaller app sizes gives you more storage space, and way more control over how your content is stored that helps your device last with fewer pre-installed and much lighter apps you get 2x more available storage out of the box. Storage issues, solved. Apps designed for lighter updates and downloads help create more space while significantly improving performance.

Minimize your Device storage

Instead of keeping all your files on your smartphone’s hard drive, just upload them to the cloud. If you look into the disk usage of your smartphone you can quickly identify the types of files that eat up space. In my case these were photos, so I decided to use Google Photos app to store all my photo on the cloud. The second kind of items were music files, like MP3 or similar, so I subscribed to Spotify, I now can listen to any artist I like using my internet connection instead of my hard drive, Spotify is still storing the music files temporarily on my device but I clean the cache after use. The third type of files that were taking space on my phone were applications and the OS.

Quick notifications / Slow smartphones

To provide with constant notifications, your Apps run on the background and use RAM, GPU and even disk space for that matter, that’s called RTA, real time application, always requesting distant servers for updated information and status, fetching results and downloading to your device 24/7 ! This has a lot of consequences, first of all your devices are constantly using disk space, memory and the processor and this uses your battery but also decrease the lifetime of your device as the memory and disk space can’t be overwritten indefinitely.

The Apple iOS case

All my friends and coworker always say “Apple makes my device obsolete because of iOS, they make iOS version only for new devices and I can’t install newer apps at some point”… Yea sure… so let’s have a look :

loic magnien statista ios iphone compatibility chart

When I see this chart, I see that apart from the iPhone 5C, all iPhones are more and more compatible with newer iOS version. So it’s not all as bad as you can see, so why do Apple users actually upgrade their phones every 21 month in average if their phones are supported for 4+ years ? Because they buy into the heavy marketing and social pressure of having the newest device. I personally still have the iPhone 6S from 2015, I changed the battery for free when apple deployed the iOS 10 causing the battery to drain (new OS, unoptimised) and again late 2018 for £45. The phone runs as good as long as you turn off all the useless notifications, remove the heavy apps or replace them with lite versions.

Upgrade your device : My laptop case study

Let’s take the example of my 2012 Macbook Pro. First of all I bought it in 2013 as Apple announced their new lineup with more powerful processors and faster RAM… faster because it’s actually soldered to the board ! As soon as I saw that the new apple hardware was soldered onto the board I ran into the Apple store and bought the previous version because I knew I could upgrade the RAM, hard drive, etc. In 2014 I replaced the optical drive with a brand new 250 GB SSD drive and upgraded the RAM from 4GB to 8GB for less than £150. I used a flancrest kit composed of a caddy to place a SSD instead of the optical drive and placed the optical drive I removed into an USB enclosure.

loic magnien macbook pro 2nd ssd optical drive enclosure

I migrated the system onto the SSD drive and use the 750 Go Spinning drive for storage. I now have a total of 1 TB storage and this operartion provided me with a very good upgrade for cheap, extending consequently the life of my computer.

loic Magnien 2012 macbook specs

loic Magnien 2012 macbook specs 2

When I don’t need to access the data on the spinning drive I actually don’t need it to spin and thus use the battery. For that reason I made a script that basically “ejects” or unmount the drive when not needed :

set answer to the button returned of (
    display dialog "Internal Macintosh HDD action ?" 
    with icon caution buttons {"Do Nothing", "Sleep", "WakeUp"}
)
if answer = "Sleep" then
    do shell script "hdiutil eject disk1s2"
else if answer = "WakeUp" then
    do shell script "diskutil mountDisk disk1s2"
end if

and compile it into an app :

 

Et voilà! Now I can save the battery by turning off the spinning drive when not using it.  The battery lasts less 2 hours on heavy usage, like photography exports using Lightroom or when running Python scripts for data analysis or machine learning, however it still lasts 5+ hours on web browsing or blog posting which is still very good for a 7 years old battery.

Update causes Upgrade / Upgrade causes Update

When it comes to updating your system, you don’t really need to but it’s recommended for security reasons, older OS no longer receive security patches making them prone to hacking. So you are entering a cornelian choice :

  • Running an older version of the phone with less features, less security but overall faster
  • Upgrading to a newer version, having more features, more security but overall slower

Personally, I am not installing the newer version of MacOS. I am still running the MacOS Sierra, 2 versions behind the current one, I installed HighSierra and it was just slowing down my system for nothing more, also most of my Adobe apps were not compatible with the newer OS so I reversed to Sierra and got anti-virus and anti-malware.

The truth about planned obsolescence

The reality is planned obsolescence is not voluntary, it’s the result of customer always wanting more and newer features, newer designs and the manufacturer and developers adapting as fast as they can to these customer needs and competing against one another for market shares. Consumers are as lazy as developers, instead of choosing a device wisely to be as future-proof as possible and taking care of them, cleaning the RAM, making sure the hard drive is not full of crap and always as empty as possible, they will always chose the path of less resistance, not maintaining their devices, buying into heavy marketing instead of opening their devices and fixing or upgrading it themselves, always buying new ones and then blaming the manufacturers for planned obsolescence. bottom line, Just know your stuff, be curious and try to understand how technology works.