Is it time to make obsolescence obsolete?


With yesterday's Apple launch of three new iPhones, it is fitting to wonder whether they have missed a trick in identifying their next big thing. Is the eye-wateringly expensive iPhone X, with its focus on new features such as wireless charging, facial recognition and an edge-to-edge display, enough to motivate consumers to reach deeply into their pockets and replace their current handset, and if people are spending £1,000 on a phone, might they expect it to last longer than a year or two? Instead, what if Apple had addressed the issue of sustainability and product obsolescence in as creative, disruptive and compelling a way as it has with other ground-breaking launches in the past?


Iphone X, 8 and 8 Plus 


We could all still be using the same mobile phone we had 3 years ago, but we’ve all had about 5 in the meantime"

…so noted industrial designer Marc Newson in Gary Hustwit’s 2009 film “Objectified”, discussing consumer behaviour and the desire to have new things. In the smartphone market, this consumer desire has been fuelled by the dizzying pace of technological advancement since the launch of the first iPhone ten years ago. But, does the relative slowdown in new features mean that this is starting to change?

In a recent survey, tech retailers, Dixons Carphone found that consumers today replace their handsets every 29 months, compared to every 20 months in 2013. The buzz of excitement around an Apple launch event may not be enough to encourage users to upgrade their hardware, with more users deciding to continue using their existing handset.

This asks the question about technological obsolescence. What if hardware could be upgraded in the same way that software versions are updated?  In 2009, Kinneir Dufort, developed a concept for a smartphone that was capable of being upgraded, and encouraged users to retain it for longer. 

Based on insights gained through working with remanufacturing specialist Regenersis, whose business is based on extended the life and value of their customers’ electronic hardware, we envisaged a rapid service upgrade model, delivered by sophisticated remanufacturing facilities. Users would be encouraged to upgrade by a membership scheme which with greater rewards the longer the phone was used. In design terms, the Revive smartphone would be produced using timeless materials that become more beautiful with age. We considered the digital experience too, building in character to the interface, encouraging users to build an emotional attachment with their phone.

What if hardware could be upgraded in the same way as software?”

The concept gained traction, featuring in a number of publications, including the New York Times, which featured the “Longlife Smartphone” in their 2010 annual “Year in Ideas”. 

Since then there have been a few, worthy attempts to commercially embody similar concepts. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, realised his modular, upgradeable, Phonebloks concept in 2013, and continues to use it to encourage consumers and manufacturers to shift towards reducing e-waste and creating more sustainable models. PuzzlePhone followed a similar path but, like Phonebloks, has failed to reach the commercial market. The entry of Google into this space with its Ara project promised the hope of powerful backer with deep development pockets, but the project was suspended in September 2016. Most recently, and successfully, Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise company founded on the premise of fair and sustainable sourcing of materials and manufacturing practices, released its Fairphone 2 last year, which includes some modularity, repair and recycling as part of its proposition.

Despite being the pre-eminent example of good design, Apple has consistently failed to provide leadership on sustainability and long been accused of adopting a policy of planned obsolescence, with a recent example being the removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone rendering millions of headsets unusable with the phone. Often regarded as the current epitome of Dieter Rams 10 principles of Good Design, it would perhaps be fitting if Apple had embodied its new iPhone with Rams’ 7th principle: “Good Design is long-lasting”.  

Kinneir Dufort 40