Could unmanageable scale create a more sustainable business?

Jul 21 2017

There’s currently a lot of speculation about what Apple’s next iPhone might look like. Most suggest that alongside the usual iterative improvements, we might see a new model commonly being dubbed the “iPhone Pro”.

It’s thought that this “Pro” model will be “tomorrow’s iPhone, today”, using advanced tech that would drive the retail price above $1000. The higher price would both allow for cutting edge technology in raw costs, but also restrict the number of sales.

As Jason Snell touches on in a recent article, scale can be a real problem if you’re trying to push the technological boundaries. Often, manufacturing cutting edge technologies is considerably less efficient, making it almost impossible to manufacturer and sell upwards of 200 million units a year, as Apple does with it’s iPhones.

Now, if Apple are moving towards higher priced units because it can’t manufacturer them as quickly, could we see a change on how people buy hardware?

At present, phones are most definitely a consumer product, and often people will upgrade to the latest model every year. Whether that involves selling on the old model themselves, or returning it to Apple (for either recycling or sale) — it’s obvious that this is a grossly inefficient model and incredibly wasteful.

I’m no eco-warrior, but strongly believe we should be buying products that endure and have as long a lifespan as possible. Not only is it wonderful watching a quality product like a leather jacket or bag age gracefully and develop a unique patina, but it’s much kinder on our dwindling resources. Even if a product has a highly wasteful manufacturing process, a 50 year life span does a great deal to offset that!

Now, leather bags aren’t revolutionised every two years the same way that technology is. Moore’s law ensures that if you own technology older than two years, you’re substantially behind the curve. This is what drives the disposable nature of products like iPhones and laptops, along with their lack of repairability or upgradability, which is another bug-bear of mine.

However, most people don’t need the technology that they own. I upgraded my old iPhone 4S this year to a 7 Plus. Did I need to? Possibly. The 4S was starting to show it’s age with dodgy battery life, but it was still perfectly functional — something proved when I had to use it whilst my 7 Plus was being repaired.

Side note: I gave that 4S hell. It survived without a case for five and a half years without any damage. It regularly fell out of my pocket and hit the deck, and I even dropped it from the roof of a van once! I smashed the screen on my 7 Plus, with it’s protective case, by dropping it onto grass… It is undoubtedly a fine phone, with incredible engineering, but the 4S feels far more solid and of higher quality — something it’s proved with it’s durability.

What I’m trying to say is, for the most part, the majority of people could get by with a phone that’s a little older. If Apple create an iPhone that’s a few years ahead of the curve, with an eye for durability and quality (which they’ll need to justify the price), could we see the upgrade cycle slowing? If people don’t feel a compelling need to upgrade, beyond the new features of the next iteration, and the cost of upgrade is higher, are they going to keep their phones longer?

Given my philosophy and a desire to buy high quality items that stand the test of time, I certainly hope that this is a trend that develops, and Apple encourages. Apple have also committed to developing a proper Mac Pro again that can be upgraded, and long been very keen to emphasis how they try to make their products as recyclable as possible. Are we seeing the genesis of a shift in Apple’s strategy to something less dependant on annual upgrades?

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