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The new iPhone 5 (courtesy buzzfeed.com)

At their hyped-as-ever product launch yesterday, Apple announced the iPhone 5, a new version of the classic that’s longer, thinner, and lighter. The new phone’s screen is four inches long on the diagonal (adding 176 pixels to the height of the display), has a faster internet connection, and a better processor. So why do I feel like we’re constantly getting short shrift as consumers with technology updates like this?

Maybe it’s because the new phone also has a back plate made of metal instead of the oh-so-shatterable glass of earlier versions and includes a new port that’s smaller than the last version. These are undeniably positives for buyers of the new phone, but they’re also symptoms of the constant cycle of upgrades and re-designs that makes money for companies and titillates power-users yet don’t actually serve normal consumers.

iPhone 5’s new cord (courtesy buzzfeed.com)

Planned obsolescence is the strategy that manufacturers use to make sure their ceaseless updates are snapped up as quickly as possible. Making the back of the phone out of metal is great, but it’s a solution that could have been added a while ago — obviating a whole lot of people buying new phones to fix those fall-induced cracks. The new port size has its advantages, but it also means that every docking stand and case made previously is now obsolete. No amount of $30 adapters are going to help that.

If technology design truly had the needs of the average consumer at heart (which it obviously doesn’t, and doesn’t need to, but still), flexibility would be the name of the game. New devices would take steps to be more reverse-compatible with older equipment, and basic design issues would be solved faster. Instead, we have technology-as-entertainment, with the launch of new smartphones taking on the air of blockbuster movie openings.

It’s an interesting comparison with visual art, a world in which objects are valued for their permanence. A great painting never changes or undergoes annual updates, yet it manages to remain relevant. High design pieces like Eames lounges or vintage wristwatches are things that can be passed down to children and grandchildren, gaining significance as they age. In comparison, a ten-year-old computer or  five-year-old PDA is basically unusable. In the realm of technology, permanence has very little value. It would be to our benefit to value it more.

This morning, public artist Leon Reid IV sent out a mysterious email proclaiming that he would be releasing the “iPhone 6” on September 19 in Brooklyn. An Oreo ad turned the hysteria for a bigger iPhone into a visual pun with their rectangular cookie. Apple’s product launches have already turned into jokes. The sped-up cycle of planned obsolescence might be one of the reasons. (Let’s not even get started on the schizophrenic bizarreness of the new Nano, huh?)

New iPod Nano (courtesy Apple)

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

7 replies on “Apple’s iPhone 5 and Getting Angry at Planned Obsolescence”

  1. I just measured my iPhone 4S: it’s 4.5 inches tall. Why is the iPhone 5,
    according to your second sentence, “four inches long”? If you’re referring to the screen height, the four inches covers a diagonal distance, measured the same way as television screens, from an upper to lower corner, not from top to bottom. Knowing that might require a readjusted pixel count. Or not, depending on where you found that figure.

  2. “High design pieces like Eames lounges or vintage wristwatches are things that can be passed down to children and grandchildren, gaining significance as they age. ”

    Not all high design pieces are like this. I was at a Dieter Ram’s exhibition and couldn’t help but notice that much of his work involved technology which is already essentially obsolete (records, radios, and reel-to-reel cassettes)

    http://njwv.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/less-and-more/

    This isn’t planned obsolescence. It’s merely a recognition of how consumer products and technology works. The apple dock connector has been around, unchanged, for a decade. That’s long time in consumer-productland. Now that a third of the connector is obsolete, Apple has chosen to drop the obsolete functions and reclaim the wasted space.

    http://www.cultofmac.com/178093/the-future-of-apples-dock-connector-feature/

    1. Thanks for the comment. It is true that a lot of Dieter Ram’s stuff is now obsolete technology, but the style certainly endures, as it will with Apple. But maybe objects like the calculators (given that they haven’t changed much) are more what I wish the phones were like — tools you can keep using.

      As for the connector, it’s definitely a real estate issue, but I still do wish there could be backward compatibility in some way. It’s just frustrating that this technology isn’t built to last — not exactly planned obsolescence, but it definitely bows hugely to obsolescence. It could be inevitable given the pace of change, but designers can still do more about it.

      1. I’m actually impressed that the design of the original dock connector lasted as long as it did. In a world where planned obsolescence does exist, Apple managed to design something which was expandable over the coarse of the decade. A different company would have redesigned the connector each time new functionality came out. Or used something like USB which requires significantly more work on the accessory side.

  3. I think “planned obsolescence” is not at all what is going on with Apple. Have you ever tried using a cell phone from 2005? they obviously promote the hype, but that’s a different thing than actual product design.

    I generally agree with John Gruber at Daring Fireball’s analysis of why Apple keeps evolving things so quickly. http://daringfireball.net/2012/09/iphone_5_event

    One quote sums it up nicely: “It has never been more true that Apple is obsessed with making its products ever lighter and thinner over time.”

    How long are they supposed to keep the same adaptor? It’s been in use for a decade already! Would 100 years be better? Should we still be using floppy disks because every single computer in existence had a floppy drive at the time?

    I for one can’t wait for a new adaptor. The old port was big and clunky and designed for heavy harddrive based iPods to be docked vertically, while the new port seems to me to be easier to use, reversible, smaller, and most importantly allows for a thinner iPhone.

  4. The older mobile phone market was very mature. Changes were incremental, mostly based around style or a few minor feature enhancements, with each generation. The smartphone market, especially with the advent of the app ecosystem, jumped from a small somewhat linear market to the hockey stick, and will commoditize into the new standard phone. During the growth phase the emphasis is not on backward compatibility. Your idea of how long a new model takes to produce may not be realistic either. Just because they come out a year apart does not mean they have been in development for a year.

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