Don't expect the end of electronics obsolescence anytime soon

Software updates can't rejuvenate old hardware.

This post originally appeared in Mike Loukides’ Google+ feed.

Solid State by skippyjon, on FlickrA cheery post-CES Mashable article talks about “the end of obsolescence.” Unfortunately, that’s precisely not what the sort of vendors distributing at CES have in mind.

The general idea behind the end of obsolescence is that consumer electronics — things like Internet-enabled TVs — are software upgradeable. The vendor only needs to ship a software update, and your TV is as good as the new ones in the store.

Except it isn’t. It’s important to think about what drives people to buy new gear. It used to be that you bought a TV or a radio and used it for 10 or 20 years, until it broke. (Alas, repairability is no longer in our culture.) Yes, the old one didn’t have all the features of the new one, but who really cared? It worked. I’ve got a couple of flat screen monitors in my office; they’re sorta old, they’re not the best, and sure, I’d like brand new ones, but they work just fine and will probably outlive the computers they’re connected to.

The point of field upgrades is that your old TV will have all the “new” features — just like my office computers that get regular updates from Apple and Microsoft. But your old TV will also have its 10-year-old CPU, 10-year-old RAM, and its 10-year-old SD card slot that doesn’t know what to do with terabyte SD cards. And the software upgrades will make you painfully aware of that. Instead of a TV that works just fine, you’ll have a TV that works worse and worse as time goes by. If you’re in the computing business, and you’ve used a five-year-old machine, you know how painful that can be.

End of obsolescence? No, it’s rubbing obsolescence in your face. Good for vendors, maybe, but not for consumers.

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Photo: Solid State by skippyjon, on Flickr

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  • Gary

    The Keurig I have at home and the one at the office are both from Costco. They look the same and came in a similar box. Purchased two months apart from each other. Yet, the one at home (older) has three cup sizes and the one at work has four. How will devices outside of our Internet TVs and Computers get firmware updates?

  • I think that the rapid march of technology will only hasten the process of obsolescence. Already venture capitalists are rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunity of funding electronics disposal companies.

  • Hardware upgrades are more prevalent than software upgrades in most cases. And depending on what portion of the hardware would need to be upgraded and whether or not it’ll work with the basic components, you may be better off buying a new gizmo.

    Some companies can make better products, but they want them to fail to force the customer to buy more often. But that’s only a subset of this. Saying that electronics will no longer become obsolete is like saying that we’re going to stop making technological advances.

  • Remember the old days? When you could upgrade a (for instance) Mac IIcx to a Quadra 700 by swapping out the motherboard?

    Unfortunately, technology is no longer designed with future upgradability in mind, and this is Bad for users and Bad for the environment.

  • I would argue that if you keep up on new gadgets, the obsolescence doesn’t matter that much. I am not sure that in my life I will ever see the day when you can pick up a new laptop or TV and not have it outdated in 2 years, and irrelevant in 5 years. So most people are going to just replace the items anyway.

  • The peak of facility upgrades is that your old TV present possess all the “new” features – just similar my role computers that get daily updates from Apple and Microsoft

  • Rob Davis

    Disagree. Ebay for repairs and upgrades and Computer Recycling charities and computing museums (when it finally becomes not worth the maintenance) are your friends.

    I still enjoy taking my robust little nearly 5 year old Nokia 5500 sport mobile phone down the beach in summer. I take it just in case I need to be contacted and to check the train times for my journey home on its more than adequate web browser and GPRS connection. I love simplicity of it. I have replaced the casing several times cheaply from ebay. The only original parts are the logic board and screen. I own 2 Android phones too.

    I still love my 3 year old Toshiba NB100 9″ mini notebook that runs Windows XP and is capable of running Windows 7. A fresh clean install of XP (without the trialware guff) and 2Gb RAM and 120Gb HD makes this a swift dinky little versatile swiss army knife.

    Things that I own that are too old but still working, I donate to my local computer recycling charity – who will sell on the system or its parts and the profits go to helping their parent charity aim of helping the homeless.

    Some charities even do ‘urban mining’ whereby precious metals are salvaged from electronics.

    I have donated old semi-vintage machines to computer museums such as

    OK such donations don’t benefit me personally. But they sure give me a warm feeling to know that they are not being dumped on a landfill, but instead more environmentally friendly recycling perhaps even giving someone else some joy at a museum or someone who buys the old kit. And knowing that makes me more than just a consumer.