1st Floor,
62 Bridge Street,
Nelson,
New Zealand
+64 3 928 0130
[email protected]

17th of September 2020 was a big day for millions of people around the world. A day that only comes around every 6-7 years - the release of a new Sony Playstation.

In an office full of keen gamers this caused quite a buzz & we lost the morning to hype, debate, speculation & for half the office - ordering the new Playstation 5. 

It also got us thinking about the lifespan of technology. Somewhere in the midst of the PC Master Race vs Console Peasant debate it was pointed out that what other pieces of technology last for several years? 

For those of you not familiar with the lifecycle of a gaming console - a computer designed to play video games - a new model is released every 6-7 years, but previous models are then supported for many years beyond that. As an example, support for the Playstation 2 lasted for 18 years. And yes, people are still using them 20 years after launch. Our household Playstation 3 (launched 2006) is still in daily use as a media/ streaming device.

Look at your phone - how long do you expect it to last? 2-3 years? 4-5 years if you’re lucky? More importantly how long do you think it is designed to last?

The current cost & waste of our technological churn is horrific. Devices that were bought for hundreds or thousands of dollars become obsolete in a couple of years & often end up in landfill. 

Our office discussion quickly moved on to identifying longer life technology. Stereos, TVs & whiteware can certainly last a decade or more - but from a technological standpoint they are pretty basic.

The closest other example I could find was my family’s 2004 Toyota van. It’s a 4WD petrol/ electric hybrid with adaptive cruise control, lane assist & a host of other features. That everything is working flawlessly on a 16 years old van that climbs up perilous mountain roads is testament to it’s engineering. The only part that hasn’t kept up was the factory stereo/ screen which was built in the era of CDs & got replaced by something which understands streaming & 4G internet connectivity.

I’ve been thinking about what dictates tech lifespan & have come up with two influencing factors:

 

Fixed Platform vs Evolving Platform

When a device is designed to be upgraded & run a wide range of software the goalposts will shift. By their nature software engineers will try to squeeze every ounce of performance out of a platform & may also employ lazy resource hungry coding techniques if they can get away with it.

The problems appear when the performance limits of a platform are improved. Think of the new models of phone that appear every year. Developers have more resources to play with, but doing so puts stress on the previous model, degrading performance in an all to familiar way.

On a fixed platform like the Playstation 2 the available resources are unchanging for it’s 18 year (supported) lifespan. Any games developer making a game does so in a fixed environment with no Playstation 2.1 coming out next year.

Our Toyota van takes this a step further - the software is baked into the systems controlling the battery/ motors/ transmission/ air conditioning/ sensors/ radar/ cruise control etc. Not only is the hardware fixed, but so is the software.

 

Planned Obsolescence

This is the elephant in the room. How long are devices built to last - especially when someone gets on a stage every year to tell us we need to buy the latest version?

My grandfather was an electrical engineer who used to repair his neighbours small appliances in his retirement. I remember him fretting about appliances that were deliberately built in a way that you couldn’t repair them. In the past few decades we’ve accelerated towards a throw-away culture where technology isn’t built to last or even be repaired.

Why do Microsoft, Nintendo & Sony behave differently when it comes to their gaming consoles? For one expectations are different - gamers buy consoles expecting them to last at least several years. A console that lasts as long as a phone would be met by virtual rioting & loss of customers. For two the business model is built around game licencing - there’s very little money made from selling the hardware, but they clip the ticket on every game that’s bought for their platform. 

This business model motivates them to offer the best performing value for money hardware they can & then to have it last as long as technically possible - as the longer it lasts the more games are played on it. The outcome of this approach is fascinating - the Playstation 3 was so powerful on launch it was used to build supercomputers. When my original Playstation 3 stopped working after years of hard work Sony gave me a new one for a fraction of the price.

 

Summary

Moving to longer life/ more sustainable technology requires two big changes:

  1. A change in culture around what consumers & companies think are satisfactory lifespans. This can be consumer led - i.e. if people refuse to buy a new phone every couple of years. Or the companies can drive the change & make longevity part of their value offerings.

  2. A business model that depends on content/ services consumed, not units of hardware sold. There is certainly movement towards this model, but it’s not without its challenges. The gaming industry is already setup to work around locked down game licencing. Applying this model to smartphones or computers is challenging & do we as consumers really want walled gardens where we’re encouraged or forced to pay for a limited number of locked in services?

The first change I think we can all embrace with open arms. The second change has some worrying implications & could end up being a solution that’s worse than the problem.

As someone in the office pointed out, some people like buying new stuff all the time. But let’s hope for the sake of sustainability we can move towards devices that last as long as a Playstation or a Toyota.

 

Banner Photo by                                                       Eirik Solheim