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.
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?)