Designing for Destruction

It’s been two entire weeks since Apple’s WWDC kickoff keynote, and therefore two weeks since the new MacBook Pro with Retina display [sic] was launched. Reviews have begun to trickle out since then, and the overwhelming consensus seems to indicate that the display is amazing, and that it’s a ridiculously powerful machine, and that the screen is so incredible that everyone wants to lick it (no, really!), and something something display. Seriously — that display.

But, as with all products, it isn’t perfect, and compromises had to be made. That’s how design works. In the new MacBook Pro, the RAM and battery cannot be upgraded post-purchase, and that has some people truly offended. The largest group of detractors seems to consider this outrageous because they actually do upgrade their own RAM and frequently swap out batteries. They refuse to buy the product on these grounds, and that’s absolutely fair. If you actually change your battery on a regular basis, this is not the product for you.

A smaller group projects this into a bigger picture, and wants to know what reflection this is on our society. Kyle Wiens, for example:

We have consistently voted for hardware that’s thinner rather than upgradeable. But we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Our purchasing decisions are telling Apple that we’re happy to buy computers and watch them die on schedule. When we choose a short-lived laptop over a more robust model that’s a quarter of an inch thicker, what does that say about our values?

Assuming the premise is correct (the rest of the piece is rather lacking in facts), it’s a good question: what does this say about our values?

Khoi Vihn is also concerned with this 1:

Several times a year, Apple rolls out hardware products that are, in terms of pure design smarts and innovation, leagues beyond what their competitors are capable of. Their machines are more beautiful, better built and, admittedly, longer-lasting than just about any other high tech hardware out there. But if the durability of, say, a Dell laptop is two or three years, and if Apple’s hardware improves on that two or even three times, it’s still not doing that much better than the mean. What would be really impressive is an iPod or iPhone that lasts for decades.

I respect Khoi Vihn a lot, but I think his argument is weak. Nobody wants an iPod that lasts for decades. Vihn points this out in his next paragraph:

[W]e don’t really want hardware that’s capable of lasting more than two or three years. By the time a laptop reaches its third birthday, most of us start thinking about its replacement.

This is the way we live and consume goods now. As a side-effect of the rapid progress of technology, we seek to upgrade after a relatively short period of time, historically speaking. The argument seems to be that we should reduce this temptation as much as possible, and that Apple and other companies should emphasize upgradability and future-proofing as a product strategy. This argument will fail every time.

The vast majority of people have never held a stick of RAM in their lives, and probably have no idea why the OS X hard drive icon looks the way it does. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. People are busy with their careers and raising their kids. The “correct” solution would be to educate everyone in the internals of technology, and give them a basic understanding of how to upgrade their machine. But as the sales figures for the iPad and MacBook Air demonstrate, most consumers don’t have an interest in doing so. Most people just want their email without any fuss.

The pragmatic approach, then, is to mitigate the damages of a rapid consumption market. In the past twenty years or so, the education for an industrial design student has changed. The past curriculum concerned the so-called “cradle-to-grave” philosophy — a consideration of how the product gets made, used, and disposed of. This education has changed into a “cradle-to-cradle” strategy, with students now taught to consider how the product will be deconstructed and those materials made into new products.

This is the design philosophy that is best for the foreseeable future as the market has evolved. Apple could make an iPhone that lasts for ten years, but there wouldn’t be a point because almost nobody will use a ten year-old iPhone. A more appropriate solution is to make the iPhone work wonderfully for three years, and then make it incredibly easy to disassemble into individual components so it can be recycled. To the best of my knowledge, this is the strategy they have embraced.

The reason Kyle Wiens is upset probably isn’t because of his dire concern for the earth. If it was, he would have written this post instead. No, the reason he’s concerned is because it impacts his business. While the Wired article mentions that he is the CEO of iFixIt, and that iFixIt provides repair guides, it does not mention that the website also sells parts.

Some people will, no doubt, be dismayed by a computer that is not future-proof. But the vast majority of professionals I know do not use old gear, and most of the people I know don’t want to change their own RAM. It’s not just good for Apple’s bottom line; this design philosophy makes sense for the industry as a whole, less a tiny percentage.

  1. Vihn’s argument, as he clarifies in his follow up post, is more about the aesthetics of technology products as they age: “[devices can] be built so that they acquire an emotionally appealing patina as they age, increasing their desirability if only to a select few.” I would argue that this is a matter of personal preference. The patina on a first-generation iPod might not be like aged silver, but it’s not ugly. ↥︎