What if Computers Were Designed to Last?

February 25th, 2009

To be sure, Macs have the reputation of offering pretty decent reliability, particularly when compared to a Windows PC. This isn’t to say they don’t fail, but it doesn’t happen very often, except, perhaps, early in the production process and usually due to some unexpected issue rather than a persistent defect.

Where problems are discovered later on in the production cycle, Apple will often set up an extended repair program that extends the warranty on the affected part or parts for an extra two or three years. That means that you shouldn’t have to pay for repairs if one of those parts fails.

Apple also sells AppleCare policies — basically a form of anti-breakdown insurance — that extends the warranty of a Mac from one to three years, and from one to two years on an iPod or iPhone.

After that, you’re on your own, unless you have a third-party extended repair contract that may last four or even five years. Worse, the cost of even a minor repair will usually exceed the cash value of your hardware, and it may not cost a whole lot more to just buy a brand new replacement.

Of course, Apple survives by selling hardware. Their prospective customers aren’t just Windows switchers, but existing users who want to upgrade. No upgrades and Apple’s sales would be gutted. So they have a vested interest in convincing you to replace your hardware after a few years, even if it’s still working just fine.

One way to entice you to get the latest and greatest Mac is to deliver an operating system upgrade that won’t function on older hardware. When it comes to an iPod or iPhone, well they’re supposedly disposable anyway. Two or three years, and they’re history. Thank heavens for recycling centers.

When I look at this planned obsolescence, though, I quickly remember that I have a 27-inch Sony CRT TV in my son’s bedroom that we bought 15 years ago. It still works perfectly, and since we have a cable box attached to it, the end of analog TV transmission is a non-issue. The picture even looks reasonably impressive when you play a DVD on it, and, when my son comes to visit, he never complains, although we have a large flat panel TV in the master bedroom.

That Sony TV has virtually no cash value, so if I tried to sell it, I’d be lucky to get $25 for my efforts, and most of the people who might still be interested in taking it off my hands would prefer I’d just let them cart it away without any cash changing hands. Certainly Sony can’t be too happy that I have no incentive to buy a new TV from them right now.

Now I’m not suggesting that a Mac suddenly becomes useless when support ends. So long as everything functions properly, there’s no reason why it can’t do the very same chores for which it was purchased in the first place, though you’d certainly have problems upgrading some of your software.

I remember a client, a semi-retired interior decorator, who still used her Mac IIci, circa 1990, in 2001. Even when I sold her one of my older computers, an iMac, she kept the IIci at hand as a second computer. Indeed, she still preferred to use it, even though the System 7-based operating system installed on it couldn’t get her online to see the latest sites that required recent browsers to render properly. No matter. She could still use her aging version of ClarisWorks to put her business data in a spreadsheet, or print out mailing labels from the database module.

Lest you forget, today’s iWork, the direct descendant to ClarisWorks and AppleWorks, still doesn’t sport a database feature.

My point? Today’s personal computers really aren’t built to last, not even as long as the ones you bought 10 or 20 years ago. But just try to use the vintage Mac with current applications. Apple has gone through processor and operating system transitions that make it impossible.

With an old TV set, you can still watch the latest episode of “24” without a problem. Even if your local TV stations are all-digital, the cable or satellite box — or even one of those analog to digital converters — will keep it working. That’s even true for the black and white TV you may have bought back in the 1950s or 1960s, assuming it still functions.

Now I am not about to suggest that Apple and the rest of the PC industry abandon their upgrade cycles so that you won’t have to buy new hardware so often. Even in today’s shaky economic climate, it’s not going to be easy to change the direction of an entire industry to accommodate people who would prefer to keep something around a few years longer.

However, you have to wonder just how long the tech industry expects their customers to accept this accelerated planned upgrade cycle before they are told there has to be a better way.

Sure, you may not be able to take advantage of all the sexy new features and eye candy of current products. But do you really think that, for example, Word 2008 runs any faster on a fully-outfitted Mac Pro than Word 5.1 did on a IIci? Or am I missing something?

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10 Responses to “What if Computers Were Designed to Last?”

  1. Walter says:

    Okay, I have a couple of arguments to make 🙂

    >particularly when compared to a Windows PC.

    Saying that a Windows computer is more likely to break down than an Apple computer is, forgive the pun, not an apples-apples comparison – at least when you are talking about hardware failure. In terms of hardware, Apple is a hardware brand. Windows is not. I have some Windows-based PCs that are ancient and have original hardware. Sure some brands of PC are more reliable than others, but from a purely hardware perspective there are some that compete with Apple’s quality.

    >But just try to use the vintage Mac with current applications. Apple has gone through
    >processor and operating system transitions that make it impossible.

    Again, not fair I think. They didn’t create new versions of the OS to make old applications obsolete. It isn’t planned that way. But advanced in technology and OS capability always have to be measured in terms of backward compatibility vs. new ability.

    >But do you really think that, for example, Word 2008 runs
    >any faster on a fully-outfitted Mac Pro than Word 5.1 did on a IIci?

    Word 2008 may not run faster, but it offers a lot more functionality. Functionality that even if the IIci were able somehow to support, it would not do so as fast as a modern Mac.

  2. Joe S says:

    I use my machines beyond the point of upgradability.My 9500 lasted until I replaced it my Powerbook 1400. I have 3 working Macs in front of me right now. The oldest is a 2001 souped up iBook. It has had the motherboard replaced, but it operates in strictly tethered mode and no longer travels. My main machine is a 2005 G4 Mac Mini. It is getting cramped and slow. Users are demanding more as software advances, hence the limited lifetimes of computers. Blame it on software.

  3. @ Joe S: I saved my son’s early-generation 17-inch PowerBook G4 past its normal lifetime, and eventually gave it to my sister-in-law, where it’s still in use.


  4. Scott Schuckert says:

    They used to be. I started in the computer industry in 1983, and I remember when:

    – AppleCare could be renewed indefinitely.
    – The build quality was much higher
    – The cabinets finishes were durable, not glossy and easily scratched (or white and easily stained)
    – There was no “vintage” or “obsolete.” Parts were available almost indefinitely.
    – Computers were upgradeable. My Macintosh II started out with a 16 MHz processor and one 800K floppy; eventually it was a 40 MHz IIfx with two 1440K Superdrives – all with Apple factory upgrades.

    Customers voted with their wallets, for cheap computers that had to be thrown away after a few years. I can imagine how a $10,000 IIfx would sell these days.

  5. Andrew says:

    Some of them still last. I bought a Power Mac G4 in 2001 that was already 2-years-old. Through moderate upgrades to both hardware and software, that machine remained modern and capable into the Intel era, and while no longer up to my needs, remains a powerful machine in the hands of its current owner.

    The Mac Pro that I bought last year is the same way. Whether or not I am able to upgrade it as the years go by (don’t see why not), it was clearly built to last.

    Speaking of building things to last, play with one of the new unibody MacBooks and tell me that at least in terms of build quality that old machines were made better. I’ve had Apple laptops since the PowerBook 145 and none were made as well as the current unibody MacBook Pro that I’m using.

  6. Larry Prall says:

    Your Sony TV will still show all of the broadcasts it was designed to handle when it was new. But TV broadcasts haven’t really changed very much. There was the change from black-and-white to color, and black-and-white sets wouldn’t show color; they would still show black-and-white, though. There is the recent transition to HD; a non-HD set will not show an HD broadcast, but it will continue to show the old non-HD broadcasts. There is also the imminent transition from analog to digital (which isn’t the same as non-HD to HD). In this case, your old analog set will not display a digital broadcast without an adaptor box and there will soon be no analog broadcasts for it to receive. That’s a much more drastic change.

    An old Mac (or old Intel box, if it’s still functional) will continue to run the software that was available for it when it was built, and that’s all it can be expected to do. The pace of change in the computing and network worlds is much faster than it is in the case of TV broadcasting and that explains the difference.

    On a related note, many appliances and devices built today are in general not as necessarily as durable as those made fifty years ago, but there’s a reason for that as well. There are always new features and new capabilities that tempt users to replace a perfectly functional piece with something that has those new features and capabilities. So why should the manufacturer make an expensive product that will outlive its buyer’s wish to keep it? Wouldn’t be a very sound business practice. On the other hand, things made today which don’t have an expectation of early obsolescence are generally far more durable and less expensive than their (nearly identical) ancestors. Think “hammers”, for example.

  7. Kaleberg says:

    The problem you are facing is that modern computers can do a lot more than computers even five years old. Have you tried browsing the web on a 10 year old, 1999 machine recently? Modern users expect web pages to render instantly. An old iMac just seems to take months to render even a simple, all text and a few tables, page. Have you tried working with video on a 5 year old machine? Ripping a CD or DVD? If you are careful, and don’t try to do to much, it is endurable, but even the disk and memory copy speeds give an older machine a molasses like feel.

    Yes, I understand that some people have extremely limited, unchanging computing needs. In audio and video, I’ve always been a slow adopter. I still can’t hear much difference between LPs and CDs, and my eyesight makes it hard for me to tell any difference between VHS, DVD and what little BluRay video I’ve managed to see. Why aren’t new movies being released on VHS anymore? If nothing else, I can hit fast forward or pause whenever I want, unlike on DVDs.

    The reasons aren’t just change for the sake of change. A lot of people claim to hear a difference between LPs and CDs, and I have no reason to gainsay them. Similarly, I can imagine that BluRay video looks better on a 60″ LCD than on a 19″ CRT. Nowadays you can adjust and manipulate a high megapixel photo image interactively in iPhoto or Photoshop. You can throw together a panorama in seconds. Sure, you could keep your old 1.5 megapixel camera and endure sluggish adjustment controls and that endless wait to haul in the next photo. Times change. It’s easy to get spoiled.

    Look at automobiles, Nowadays a car will last a long time. We were upset when our ten year hold Honda was totaled. We had expected at least another five, maybe ten years. But, it wasn’t that long ago that cars kept changing on a regular basis. Some of it was planned obsolescence, but gas mileage has at least doubled. The VW Beetle was a breakthrough at 20 mpg. Speed and acceleration have improved too. The new Beetle out-accelerates most of the muscle cars of the 50s and 60s. Cars are much safer. While nearly the same number of people are killed every year, we have nearly twice the population, over twice as many cars, and we drive them over twice as many miles. Cars are even easier to drive. Only late adopters like me still use a manual shift instead of an automatic.

    Sure, if all you need is text editing, buy a low end PC, or a high end ARM, or one of those word processors in shrink wrap at the Rite Aid. My local bank uses a Mac 512KB as a 3270 emulator and it still works fine. Of course, they could have been using an IBM 3270 data entry terminal except for those greedy swine pushing change for the sake of change.

  8. Dougit says:

    hence the term “overbuilt” for the older tech gadgets, huh Gene?

    I have a Performa 6400 with a Sonnet G3 upgrade card under my desk as my “dummy computer” and foot-rest. (2.4 ghz BlackBook is my “actual” computer) If there is ever a tornado or any other great act of nature in my area I am going to grab onto the Performa, anchored by its own weight, and hang on for dear life…I think it can stop bullets, too!

  9. David says:

    I think the netbook phenomenon is proof that today’s low end computers, ones that would’ve looked slow a few years ago, are fast enough for most people. Thus someone with a well built machine from 2006 is able to be very smug about their wise purchase decision.

    At the same time I know that sometime in the not too distant future some new “must have” technology is going to come along and drag down the performance of today’s computers to the point where new hardware is a necessity. I can’t predict when that will happen so I think it’s prudent to buy more computer than I need today because the next big thing could be announced tomorrow.

    When combined with the fact that I simply can’t afford to be buying a new Mac every year it’s even more important to get something that looks like it’ll last a long time. I’ve already got a Mac that’s adequate for today and continuing to use it costs me nothing. In order to tempt me to purchase a new Mac I need to be convinced that the new machine will last much longer, that it can survive a massive increase in demand for processing power that would leave my current machine gasping for air. That’s why I’m so outspoken about the need for quad core processors and current generation graphics in the next iMac. Without those things even a brand new iMac may get caught by software demands just as soon as my current machine.

  10. Andrew says:

    That is why I bought a Mac Pro last year and consider it to be an excellent value. Like my old Power Mac G4, I plan on keeping this long past its sell-by date, upgrading it judiciously if need be, but otherwise leaving it alone and just using it as a solid desktop computer.

    New OS versions should run on this beast for at least five or six years (the G4 was OS upgradable for ten with its 1.0 GHz processor boost) and with four drive bays and all of those slots any new technologies can easily be added.

    $3000 is a lot of money for a computer, but divided over 5 years its exactly the same price as a new mid-grade iMac over 2 1/5 years. I’d rather use the Mac Pro for the same price.

    The last piece of the pie is that after five years the Mac Pro will still be worth about the same portion of its purchase price as the iMac. So if I sell in five years, cost is identical, but unlike the iMac, I may very well get more than five years out of the Mac Pro.

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