Some interesting anecdotal evidence:

  • I had to make a 'repair or upgrade?' decision on my 4 year old MacBook Pro a couple of months ago. The latest model had only marginally better performance stats, so I went for the repair. I can't imagine that happening 10 years ago.
  • My dad asked me how old my car was. Ten years I answered. Blimey, he said, think what a typical 10 year old car would have looked like 20 years ago - it would have been a bucket of rust.
  • There was a story in the press that PC sales are down, particularly bulk purchases. As tablets tend to be bought in addition to desktops or laptops, this was puzzling the journalist - maybe the economic downturn was to blame. My reaction was unlikely - did companies ever upgrade their IT on a whim?

Product life cycles are interesting things. Most products are disposed of long before they physically wear out, but rather when they fall out of fashion. This is the (in)famous "planned obsolescence" - a term coined  in 1954 by Brooks Stevens and defined as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." It could be argued that planned obsolescence is at the heart of modern consumer driven society.

But is this changing? With smartphones now able to handle video conferencing and bog standard PCs able to do what used to be thought of as heavy lifting like video editing, what would you upgrade to do? My 10 year old car doesn't look very old fashioned the way a 70's car would have looked in the 80's. In the last few years Governments around the world have had to resort to stimulating new car purchases through scrappage schemes - effectively bribing people to buy a new car. Even in the building trade, old buildings are being 'repurposed' and classic facades are being retained in new developments.

I've done a bit of Googling, but can't find any hard and fast data on product life trends. But if they are lengthening then it is (usually*) a good thing for the environment, but it will require a different approach to business models. The real money could be found in maintenance, added functionality (eg Apps) and support rather than hoping your customer base will fall out of love with the stuff they have and buy something new.

 

* The only downside is that you stay wedded to with current technology - eg petrol cars when you may want a shift to zero emission vehicles.

 

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