Disposable Electronics

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, September 2012

I understand that about a half million cell phones are thrown away every day in the US alone.  This means that the life of a cell phone is about two years, which puts dog years to shame.  In human terms the cell phone loses about a month of its life every day.
This suggests a new perspective about electronics as disposable systems, with relevance both to the consumer and the designer.  In recent years I’ve had a fair amount of experience from the former perspective, but none from the latter.  As a consumer I’ve had a hard time getting it right.  I haven’t figured out the best strategy of what to buy when, or even how to live with my choices afterwards.

In the back of my closet is a padded leather case containing my precious 35mm film camera and lenses.  I thought the investment in these things would last me forever.  Now, however, that leather case is forgotten and there is a drawer in my desk with a careless jumble of digital cameras, including the most recent one.  I feel no special affinity with them, as they just come and go, and rather quickly at that.  I have evolved a completely different mindset about my electronic gadgets.

When a new gadget is announced, I feel an irresistible urge to go out and buy it.  It’s an emotional thing, because I know that this will be version 1.0, full of bugs and ripe for improvement.  No sooner do I buy this first model than a second generation model hits the market.  Then I have this terrible dilemma: do I stick with the old clunky one or put the same investment into the new one?  Millions of people have experienced this dilemma, for example, with the iPad.  When do you buy a new one?  I remember worrying about how much memory I should get and whether I should purchase a screen protective film.  But then I thought: why bother?  I won’t have this thing very long.

I’ve been wondering about the philosophy and strategy of electronic design when you know that the product of your work will be sizzling in some forgotten garbage dump in just a few years.  The approach would seem to be the polar opposite of the usual design of military equipment, where durability, robustness, and longevity would be prime considerations.  The design cycle there takes years and in the end the relatively small production quantities lead to high prices.  Meanwhile, the commercial equivalents will have gone through multiple generations.

I can only imagine how engineers would think about the design of disposable electronics.  I suspect that they don’t really worry much about the philosophy and just try to do the best job they can under the conditions.  Nonetheless, the question of timing must be foremost.  You can’t miss a generation in the market or your supernova company turns into a dwarf star.  We’ve seen it happen.  So there is no time to tweek the design, and at some early point you have to stop seeking improvements or looking for bugs and just go with what you have, which may be difficult for an engineer.  Perhaps there is some analogy to the fruit supply market where they ship green bananas and suggest a sell-by date.  The big difference is that the electronics doesn’t ripen on the way to the store.  Quite the opposite really.

Then there is the supposition that nobody is going to upgrade this thing.  Maybe it’s ok to glue the battery in, and perhaps a USB port would be an unnecessary added expense.  But there is a fine line where we might suspect that the designer is going out of his way to be sure we buy the next version instead of upgrading.  When the memory is soldered in and special tools are required to remove the back, we might be forgiven for being suspicious.

In the midst of this chaos of time pressure is the context of dealing with a tremendously complex system.  I think only an engineer has any appreciation of the deep complexity of a cell phone.  I can never quite get over the image of opening the back of a cell phone and seeing that there is apparently nothing inside – just a big battery and display.  The complexity is largely hidden in the fossilized chips that have evolved over the fast moving generations.  I think of it as a true work of art, but its transience may tend to make a consumer think of it as something it will soon be – a piece of junk.

I got my present cell phone about a year ago.  It’s already showing signs of senility.  But I dare not speak too loud.  It might hear and become discouraged.