The Half-life of Tech

broken-smartphone-image-from-shutterstockThe Half-life of Tech: a reader asks…

How come these expensive tech devices don’t last very long? I’m having to replace my Windows laptop every few years because it gets messed up and becomes unusable, and it seems like my various smartphones die within a couple years or less. I feel like I’m personally investing in filling up landfills with stuff that should last a lot longer. What gives with this?

In a word, money. Companies that make consumer electronics are in business to make money and it is not in their best interests to have a one-time sale customer. For the most part, the laptop manufacturers for Windows-powered PCs are racing to the bottom in terms of the sales price, and that drives the need to cut manufacturing and development costs. So to get a cheap computer, you get a cheap computer. Same thing with smartphones, tablets and other consumer technology. We as consumers are always searching for the cheapest price on things, and the manufacturing industry is simply working towards our goals.

I should say that some companies are worse than others about this, and you should absolutely stay away from their products. These are usually either bottom-of-the-barrel companies that sell stuff for rock-bottom prices, and some companies that rest on their brand reputation and forget to continue to innovate and improve their products. I’m not going to name names here, your best bet is to not consider price as the first and/or only consideration when buying consumer technology. Before spending (I won’t say ‘investing’) in any consumer technology device or service, you should do some research to make sure you are getting a decent value.



What you call ‘expensive’ really isn’t when you consider the true cost of mining the resources, developing the design, constructing the device, transporting it to your purchasing entity, and ultimately delivering it to you. Not to mention the tail-end costs of supporting the whole customer service gamut along with returns and refunds, replacements, warranty service and technical support. The rush to low selling price has also driven manufacturers to look for other ways to get money. That’s why so many PC’s come ‘from the factory’ with a lot of trial software pre-installed. They get money from the makers of that trial software, who hope you’ll pay for the full version. IT folks generally call this ‘crap-ware’.

Radioactive materials like Uranium-238 have a half-life of 4.5 billion years. That’s when the radiation would be half as strong as it was initially. Consumer technology’s half-life (when it’s only about 50% effective at doing what it was designed to do) can be measured in months or years. Even the top-of-the-line Apple Macbooks generally last about 7-10 years before they are so obsolete as to be unusable. Especially in today’s high-risk environment for hacking and computer/information security, consumer technology is being rendered obsolete very quickly. Many cheap Android-powered smartphones never get a security update, what they had from the factory is it. So they can easily become obsolete within the first year of ownership, and a risk to your digital life to use beyond that point.

The solution is to stop thinking of your tech dollars as an investment, and treat them as consumables (like Kleenex). For the most part, consumer tech is supposed to only last a while, and be replaced fairly often. I’m not saying I’m happy about this, but that this is what we have. I last wrote about this back in 2015 in my article Old gadgets don’t last, and I don’t think the situation has noticeably improved.


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