Those among you suffering from seasonal affective disorder-induced nostalgia may find yourselves dragging old friends back into the dim winter light this month. For me it was an old IBM XT that has lain dormant in the garage for eleven years. A fox had urinated down the side of the chassis and there was a implausibly fat, dead tropical spider wedged in the 5¼-inch drive. But still, the machine started up without a hitch. This belching, staggering monster from times past still worked like a dream. Why is it, then, that my 11-month-old Motorola Razr V3 is all but dead?
Consumer electronics have largely reached a point where their top performance already far outreaches any demand the average user will put on them. Who is likely to tax a Core 2 Duo processor with a Word document? Who will blow the address book memory of a 64MB mobile phone -- even if they're friends with half of London? My V3 did everything I needed a phone to do. It stored contacts, it made calls, it was small enough to fit in a pocket, but not small enough to be inhaled. Nevertheless, it's falling apart because its delicate clamshell design made it too fragile for the real world.
The keypad emits a constant whining noise, like the shrill battle-cry of a wounded pheasant. The screen intermittently flickers on and off, and it occasionally dials random numbers. While the latter is an exciting way of regaining contact with friends you've neglected to call for months, it's not a great testament to the build quality of modern electronics.
Of course, we live in an upgrade culture, in which mobile phones, laptops and iPods are discarded for cosmetic reasons as much as technical. But there is a splinter cell whose members don't want to upgrade their current product, yet is forced to by the increasingly poor build quality of many modern consumer electronics.
Do owners of Rennie Mackintosh chairs seek to upgrade them each year because the legs have all gone wobbly? Do owners of original Marshall valve amplifiers throw them away because the speaker cones have fallen out? Clearly not. Yet millions of us are expected to discard our phones and our computers each year.
Computers and mobile phones that last a lifetime can already be built. Now that processors have reached a level where the average student has a laptop more powerful than a 1990s Pixar render farm, you have to wonder why the majority of us need to upgrade. Obviously, there will always be creative industries pushing the boundaries, and these groups will need more powerful machines. But my Razr was perfect for me, and now it's dead.
Engineers have built obsolescence into mass-produced technology since the 1920s. There are two kinds of planned deterioration in a product: one is technical, the other is stylistic. The fashion industry relies on your eagerness to keep up with changes in style to keep their new products selling, while the technology industry used to rely on the simple fact that computers were never quite fast enough for the average user.
Now computers are fast enough, mobile phones are small enough and digital music players have enough memory. Manufacturers now have a problem. How will they sell new products to consumers who are perfectly satisfied with their current electronics? My IBM XT, 20 years old, proves that we were capable of manufacturing durable technology decades ago -- now that the performance problem is also taken care of, presumably the majority of us (certainly the shops and offices of the world) can stop buying new computers?
The electronics industry has clearly spotted this problem, and has worked out a simple way to make you upgrade even if you're not a slave to fashion: your gadgets will simply break within the year. The evolution of the microchip to a point where the average consumer cannot tax it technically has ushered in The Age of the Flimsy -- delicate, beautiful supermodels that can't go the distance.
Share your experiences with gadgets that break too easily -- post a comment below. -Chris Stevens