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What if Computers Were Designed to Last?

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?