Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Shrines from Shanghai to San Francisco are testament to the fact that, much like my iPod, Steve Jobs died way too soon. There is a cruel irony in this. More than almost any other person on the planet, Jobs embraced the ethos of built-in-obsolescence. Going to an early grave, sadly, appears to be in keeping with his core beliefs. Indeed, it was Steve himself who said back in 2005 that “death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

I only know Jobs through the endless array of devices that I have purchased from him. Going way back, I bought three Macintosh computers when, flushed with pride and optimism but not much cash, I first set up my own small business in the mid-nineties. Foolishly, I should have waited. It was only a few months later that, to great fanfare, the ultra-cool translucent iMac came out. Every advertising or film person worth their salt had to have one. Packing the old ugly boxes away, I excitedly splashed out on this wonderful new curvaceous plaything for our office.

Again, I should have waited. In an industry that values style and fashion, our young company had barely celebrated its first birthday when I realised its technology already looked out-of-date. The multi-coloured clamshell shape of the iBook had arrived on the scene, utterly transforming the way our industry worked. My proud iMac soon joined its clunky siblings tucked away in the company broom cupboard, and our daily business was now conducted exclusively on these stylish, portable new devices.

But not for long. For the next decade, like every other small businessman, I struggled to find the cash to keep up with Steve's never-ending, dazzling array of must-have products. The lolly-colours of the iBook range now looked embarrassing in the new era of the PowerBook, where almost annually a new design or feature superceded the last of these silver-plated miracles. Battling to keep up, I shook my head in disbelief at firewires that no longer fitted, connection ports that seemed to mysteriously change shape, functions that worked on older operating systems but not the newer ones and so on. The list of changes updates and new requirements has been endless. But it was worth it. To be cutting edge.

Meanwhile, as the products became thinner and thinner, so too did their maker.

I'm currently on to my seventh iPod. The first one proudly housed my entire CD collection of many thousands of songs; I was devastated when it abruptly kicked the bucket after about only eighteen months of service. It still sits forlornly in its handsome dock, as dead as the great man himself.

Nowadays, we have a variety of iPods (some for jogging, some for holidays, one for the car) as well as, of course, several iPhones. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Fingers crossed I get to the end of writing this article before my iPad decides to croak.

Beyond the style, the coolness, and of course the intuitive technology, we can also thank Steve Jobs for turning the marketing philosophy of built-in obsolescence into high art. Planned or otherwise, it’s certainly been my experience that too many of his products come burdened with a use-by-date that would make even the most fervent salesman blush. It’s feasible these days that an apple you buy from your local supermarket may well have a longer lifespan than the Apple you buy from your local electronics store.

The recent anti-climactic iPhone 4S release has been criticized for being yet another example of Apple’s addiction to planned obsolescence, along with tamper-resistant screws and other “innovations”, such as the fact that the price of a replacement battery for an iPod Shuffle is the same as a new device. Equally, the iPhone’s Lithium-Ion batteries have a finite life of 300 to 500 cycles, meaning with heavy use they may only last a year. Before the iPhone, mobiles without user-replaceable batteries were virtually unknown. Apple maintains that you can always pay to replace the battery (at the so-called “Genius” bar; what happened to the word “Repairs”?), but it costs more money, takes up to a week, and you lose your phone’s entire memory. So – hang on! – why not just buy a new one?
In 1954, Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, made popular the theory of "Planned obsolescence”, which he defined as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big Apple fan. (God forbid I should ever have to buy a PC.) Each new Apple invention has clearly enriched my life, and I'm grateful for that. It’s just that they never seem to stick around as long as I think they should.

In death, as in life, Steve Jobs stayed true to his brand.

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