Planned Obsolescence v2.0

Nick Bilton had a perceptive piece in the New York Times about Apple’s product strategy.

Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s vice president for marketing, strode across the stage of the California Theater in San Jose last week trumpeting the virtues of new Apple products. As he caressed the side of the latest iMac personal computer, he noted how thin it was — five millimeters, 80 percent thinner than the last one. Then he said, with an air of surprise, as if he’d just thought of it: “Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing instantly look old?”

Umm, yes, Mr. Schiller, you design your products that way. It’s part of a strategy that Apple has perfected. How else can the company persuade people to replace their perfectly fine iPhone, iPad, iMac and iEverything else year after year?

It’s called planned obsolescence and it’s an old marketing trick. Mr Bilton traces it back to Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer who specialised in automobile design in the 1950s. He’s the guy who inspired cosmetic changes (tail fins etc) on American gas-guzzlers of the period to ensure that new models always made their predecessors look dated.

But actually the idea goes back even further than that. Wikipedia traces it to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet entitled Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence, the nub of which was that the government should impose legal obsolescence on consumer articles in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumption.

The funny thing about Apple’s strategy is how blatant it is. I have an iPhone 4 which is a perfectly satisfactory device, in the sense that it does everything I need from a phone. But with the launch of the iPhone 5 my handset has suddenly become the oldest iPhone that the company will support. It’s been scheduled for obsolescence, in other words, not because of any functional inadequacy but because its continuation threatens Apple’s corporate need to have me ‘upgrade’ to a device that I don’t actually need.

When researching his piece, Mr Bilton spoke to Don Norman, who is a real design guru IMHO and who observed that consumer electronics companies like Apple

have adopted the same marketing techniques the automobile industry perfected decades ago. Introduce fancy upgrades to the top and then, each year, push them down to lower-tiered products. This way, customers on every level feel the need to buy a newer version. “This is an old-time trick — they’re not inventing anything new,” he said. “Yet it’s to the detriment of the consumer and the environment, but perhaps to the betterment of the stockholder.”

He added: “For Apple, you forgot the other trick: change the plugs!” While the rest of the electronics industry has adopted micro-USB ports, Apple just changed the proprietary ports and plugs on all of its latest devices — laptops, iPads and iPhones included.

Spot on. We laugh derisively at our fathers’ (and grandfathers’) pathetic obsessions with tail-fins and chrome fittings. And then we contemplate the long queues of mugs lining up to buy the latest glass rectangle from Cupertino and ask: are we getting smarter?

Answer: no.

After the attack on Iran, then what?


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are agreed on one thing: If Iran refuses to give up its apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons, at some point we will have no choice but to intervene with military force. The discussion, to the extent there has been one, is just about where that point lies. But an attack on Iran would not be the end of matter. It would just be the start.

So says retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, who stopped by the Tribune last week to talk about what might happen after U.S. and/or Israeli planes carry out a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear sites. The question he wants to ask those in charge, he says, is: “Do you understand what you’re getting into?” As head of Central Command, which covers the Middle East, he gave questions of that kind a lot of thought.

An American president might have in mind a brief campaign that would cripple the Iranians. But the Iranians have the option to strike back in all sorts of ways. “What if they lob a missile into Fifth Fleet headquarters?” he asks. “Or we have another 9/11?” He advises, “Don’t think it’s necessarily limited.”

Zinni notes that Iran has mobile missiles — which it could use to hit Israel, Europe or U.S. bases in the region. It could send suicide boats to fire cruise missiles at our Navy ships. They could lay mines in the Persian Gulf, which would disrupt shipping and send oil prices through the roof.

If Iran escalates, he says, the president needs to know he will respond. In an expanded war, we might find ourselves forced to try to bring down the Iranian regime. For that, ground forces may be unavoidable. Can he envision using 100,000 troops to march on Tehran? “You’d have to plan for it,” he warns — not assume it will happen, but be ready for the possibility.

The opiates of the (American) masses

Religion, Marx famously observed, is “the opiate of the masses”. And Americans are pretty heavy users: at any rate they seem to have religion the way dogs have fleas. But, as Scott Shane points out in a terrific piece, they are also addicted to another opiate — exceptionalism, the notion that the US is, somehow, better than anywhere else on the planet.

Imagine, he writes, “a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States trails its economic peers”.

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the U.S. ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the U.S. trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Answer: Nowhere.

Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.

Candidates and presidents generally oblige them, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney included. It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems — but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence: Unemployment is too high, so I will create millions of jobs. It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the U.S. leads the world.

And that, my friends, explain why US Presidential elections seem so puerile to the rest of us. Or at any rate to those of us who think that the US is really just another country, with some good points and an awful lot of lunatic downsides.

Thanks to Jon Crowcroft for the link to the chart.

Old combatants, new wars

This morning’s Observer column.

This has been quite a week in that strange, frenetic universe known as techworld. Two major companies did things that they once vowed they’d never do: Apple launched a small iPad in order to attack similar-sized devices marketed by its rivals – Samsung, Google and Amazon – and Microsoft launched the first computer it’s ever made (a tablet called Surface). So we have Apple playing catch-up and Microsoft getting into a business – hardware manufacture – it had hitherto wisely avoided.

Love or nothing: The real Greek parallel with Weimar

Fantastic blog post by Paul Mason setting out the similarities — and differences — between contemporary Greece and the Weimar Republic. Difficult to summarise, but very measured and perceptive.

Of all the operas written during Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-33), probably the most haunting is the last.

Kurt Weill’s The Silver Lake, written with playwright Georg Kaiser, tells the story of two losers – a good-hearted provincial cop and the thief he has shot and wounded – as they make their way through a society ruined by unemployment, corruption and vice.

After spending a week again in Greece – amid riots, hunger and far right violence – I finally understood it.

Well worth reading in full.

It’s the ecosystem, stoopid

Thoughtful ZDNet piece by Jason Perlow arguing that the fact that the iPad mini is more expensive than the Nexus 7 is actually irrelevant. Why? Because it’s not just about comparing hardware. It’s really about comparing apps and content ecosystems. As someone who runs both a Nexus and an iPad, I’m afraid that I have to agree with him.

No matter how much hardware you stuff into a device at less cost than your competitor, if your ecosystem is inferior, and your apps just aren’t as good, then it doesnt matter what you put in that pile of silicon, plastic and metal.

As a device manufacturer, the ecosystem that you are capable of offering to your customers is worth more than all of your component integration, period. 

However, it just so happens that Apple’s component integration is also better than the Nexus 7. Don’t believe me? I own a Nexus 7 and I’ve been travelling with it as my only tablet device since the device was released.

Also Read: Nexus 7, Push comes to shove, I prefer my iPad

I also own an iPad 3 and an iPhone. The only reason why I own a Nexus 7 is that I like to travel with at least one current generation iOS and Android device at any time, because I actually write about this stuff.

But as a consumer? If I had to choose between the Nexus 7 and and iPad mini, I’d much rather have an iPad mini. And I’m a real bona fide, certified geek, a Linux and open source evangelist, and a professional technologist that actually works as one for a living. I don’t just play one on TV, folks.

It’s true that on paper that the 8GB version of the Nexus 7 is only $199 (the 16GB version is $249, and the iPad mini starts at with 16GB at $329) and has some theoretically better components in it, such as a quad core processor, more integrated RAM, and a higher resolution display. It also has a similar resolution front-facing camera.

Have you ever actually USED most Android apps on a Nexus 7 versus an iPad 2, which shares the same SoC and screen resolution as the iPad mini? No? Well I have.

Despite the fact that the Nexus 7 has more horsepower and more memory, the iOS apps on balance are better, run faster, and are more stable.

The Skype implementation on Android is a joke, the video rendering and capture is pathetic and the audio transcode is horrendous, so if you plan to do video chats with that 720p camera, fuhgeddaboudit. And Google Video Chat on G+ is even worse.

Worth reading in full.

How not to do it

Composing headlines that are both funny or striking AND accurate is a pretty difficult art. On the other hand, composing headlines that are funny and misleading is dead easy. This lead story from the Cambridge student newspaper is a textbook case of the latter. The peg for it is the fact that Cambridge University had a very successful 40-year bond issue yesterday to raise money for the next phase of the University’s development, which includes a massive new development in North-West Cambridge. The issue — which was for £350 million — was massively (four times) oversubscribed.

The Varsity story under the headline is actually reasonably accurate. But clearly the sub-editor who composed the headline hadn’t read it. A bond issue is not an asset sale, but a standard way used by governments, institutions and corporations to borrow money at favourable rates. The real story behind the bond issue is that the ratings agencies — and the pension funds that rely on them to assess creditworthiness — think that Cambridge University is a better bet than most of the governments in the Western world.

Still (to look on the bright side), the kid who wrote the headline may have a promising future — on the Daily Express, perhaps. Or perhaps the Star.