Estimated Usage does not equal Planned Obsolescence

In case you can’t tell from the tone of this post, this is Bart here standing in for Allison this week.

This morning I was listening to the radio, like I always do when getting ready for work. I listen to RTÉ 1, Ireland’s national radio station for serious adults (lots of talk, very little music), and at the time I’m getting ready for work, I get to listen to the first half of Ryan Tubridy’s show.

The news came on at the top of the hour, we still don’t have a government, and then Ryan got stuck into his hour. His first main topic was Apple – ruh roh – I always get a little nervous when RTÉ take on tech topics. In my experience they have generally proven to be about as technologically literate as my cat. Ryan had a supposed tech expert come on to explain that in their environmental report, Apple had accidentally admitted to practicing planned obsolescence. In case anyone didn’t understand what that was, they explained that in the early years of the last century the lightbulb manufacturers had a cartel which they used to artificially shorten the lifespan of light bulbs to boost sales. The implication was clear, Apple is doing the same kind of thing, designing their iPhones to die early so they can sell more.

Really? Could this really have happened and it not show up on any of the many tech news sites I read? Colour me VERY sceptical.

The show mentioned the environmental report as the place where Apple made this ‘admission’, and I knew a new one had just been released, so off I went. I read the thing cover to cover, no mention of planned obsolescence, or of iPhones being designed to last 3 years. Huh? There was a bit about how Apple designs their products to be durable, and how those robust designs are environmentally friendly – is that not the inverse of what Ryan’s ‘expert’ was telling the nation?

If it’s not in the report, it must be in the tabloid media or something – I’ve yet to see Ryan invent entire news stories from scratch. There had to be something that triggered the segment. A Google news search soon revealed the source – some of the British tabloid press were reporting a story that sounded just like what Ryan’s expert was going on about. Those stories contained an important extra piece of information – the offending numbers came from an FAQ, not the environmental report. The Environment section of Apple’s website has an FAQ, and sure enough, it contains the kernel of truth at the root of this nonsense.

As part of the answer to the question ‘How does Apple conduct its Product Greenhouse Gas Life Cycle Assessment?’, we find this innocent paragraph:

To model customer use, we measure the power consumed by a product while it is running in a simulated scenario. Daily usage patterns are specific to each product and are a mixture of actual and modeled customer use data. Years of use, which are based on first owners, are assumed to be four years for OS X and tvOS devices and three years for iOS and watchOS devices.

So, when calculating CO2 emissions, the length of time Apple assume the person who buys an Apple product will use it before passing it on is 3 to 4 years. Clearly implicit by the explicit inclusion of the phrase ‘first owners’ is that Apple know the products live on as second hand devices after their first owner finishes with them.

The tabloid press have managed to twist an estimate of how long people DO use their Apple products into a decision by Apple to design their products to break after that amount of time. The absolute nicest thing I can say about that is that they are grasping at straws.

To turn this innocent sentence in an FAQ into the assertion that Apple designs iPhones to break after three years is outrageous. More over, throwing around the inflammatory phrase “planned obsolescence” is also highly irresponsible. Finally, making the comparison to the lightbulb cartel ramps things up a whole other level – making Apple appear down-right malicious. RTÉ should be ashamed to have wasted Irish tax payer’s money broadcasting nonsense like this to the nation!

3 thoughts on “Estimated Usage does not equal Planned Obsolescence

  1. Tim - April 19, 2016

    Bravo Bart!

  2. Allison Sheridan - April 19, 2016

    This kind of thing makes my blood boil, Bart. Thanks for writing it up.

  3. Sean Johnston - April 20, 2016

    Out of all of the tech companies I know of, Apple essentially hobbling their devices and making them last for a shorter time than they otherwise might is the most ludicrous. Imagine the stain that would leave on Apple’s reputation, at least their reputation for quality. They are smarter than that.

    No company is perfect, of course, but the assertion talked about here sounds like somebody just taking potshots at Apple–looking for dirt where there is none. Or just making clickbait.

    Could Apple be doing this? Sure. ARE they? Not likely. I’d have to see a lot more convincing evidence than that excerpt to believe it.

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