Is planned obsolescence for smart devices becoming obsolete?

Electronics that once lasted generations (and still do) are getting a smart upgrade. But what if those upgrades come with first-generation software that can't be updated?

Recently, Philips announced they would be discontinuing support for flagship smart hub, Hue Bridge, from April 29, 2020, onwards. Although this doesn't mean the product will completely stop working—it can still be controlled locally via the dedicated phone app—the Hue Bridge v1 will no longer be able to access the internet or uphold security standards. Only affecting the first-generation Hue Bridge, Philips has made it clear that for a fully functional Hue Bridge, consumers must upgrade their systems to the latest model.

Early-adopters of smart devices may find that this is happening more and more often. We see planned obsolescence regularly with smartphones, so why not other smart devices? The issue with this is, the hardware may still be fully functional, but without a software update, the system may be vulnerable to security threats or may not support the internet without the latest upgrade. Leaving the device unusable or rendered 'dumb' (no longer classified as 'smart').

Smartphones

No matter how far we've come with mobile phones, you could power up a chunky 90's brick phone right now and still receive calls and texts, so long as it had a functioning SIM card and a chargeable battery.

There have been many upgrades since the introduction of mobile phones in 1973. The ever-shortening life cycle of today's smartphones is now around two years, but not necessarily because the hardware isn't functional. Instead, it has to do with the system the smartphone runs on. For example, Apple no longer supports updates on iPhones that pre-date 2014, meaning the iPhone 6, 6S, and those devices before it will no longer receive updates.

The introduction of a new smartphone every 1-2 years, usually promotes the latest features such as camera, audio quality, screen, etc. But even after all of the hype around the new phone wears off, one must ask themselves: are smartphones getting boring? Aren't they still just a phone that calls texts, only with extra built-in features?

A few years ago, Google supported Project Ara, a prototype for a build-your-own phone, similar to Dave Hakkens' Phonebloks. This project aimed to fulfill the demand for smartphones that are easy to repair and upgrade while also being customizable to the user's individual needs. Virtually the 'anti-obsolescence' smartphone. However, after years of research, prototypes, and resources, Project Ara was dropped.

Just text me

Even since its introduction in 1992, SMS is still front of mind when anyone asks, 'can you just message me?'. It's been around for almost three decades, and although texting has had its own upgrades (read: emojis), SMS is still a go-to form of communication.

You don't need to download an app or update your phone system to send or receive SMS. The texting feature is already built into the mobile device, whether it's brand new, three years old or 20 years old.

Whether it's personal messaging, marketing texts, or business SMS, texting functions without internet or connection to apps no matter your phone provider. All you need is a functioning mobile phone and SIM card to receive SMS.

Related: 'Why SMS will remain the winning mobile channel'

Related: 'Happy Birthday: The SMS Turns 25 Years Old!'

Kickin' it old school

Pre-smart devices are still fully functional today, without the need for system updates or security measures. If you purchased a speaker 30 years ago, the chances are that it would still be functional today, particularly if it were well taken care of.

Sonos, an innovative speaker company, decided to take a simple product that already worked perfectly fine and make it smart. Since 2005, Sonos has been connecting devices to the internet, to apps, and to other devices to create a smart experience and audio ecosystem. Earlier this year, Sonos announced that all 'legacy' products would no longer be receiving software updates. Sonos stated, "If you have at least one legacy product in your system, your [entire] system will no longer receive software updates."

The humble computer

In the ever-evolving tech era, it's been clear since the beginning of computers that innovative technology moves quickly. Much faster than almost every other industry, computers have developed from large, room-sized machines that have minimal capacity to the exact opposite—slim, streamlined devices that are capable of more than the imaginable.

Fast-paced computing and tech innovation have changed the mindset of consumers. We have seen how fast the turnover in tech is and began to associate it with standard electronics with the introduction of smart devices. Now, the concern for the functionality and lifetime of physical devices and e-waste come into question.

Moore's Flaw

It has been observed that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, and the cost of computers halve. Moore's Law grows evermore true, stating that every couple of years, the speed and capability of computers increase while the price decreases, asserting that growth in computing is exponential.

Related: 'Iconic Olympic Ads - 10 Of The Very Best'

What about the consumer?

What impact will e-waste have on the environment long term? Is it economically sustainable for the planned obsolescence of smart devices to continue at the current pace? Will consumers have to become savvy and hold on to their longlasting 'dumb' devices of the past?

In the current climate, with a strong environmental focus, smart device companies have kneecapped their future success. All enthusiastic early adopters of smart products are now restricted as products' primary value proposition becomes redundant.

Not to mention the amount of e-waste piling up in landfill. Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted 582-40 in favor of banning proprietary charging cables for smart devices and implementing a universal cable.

"50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person. Total e-waste generation in Europe in 2016 was 12.3 million metric tons, equivalent to 16.6 kg on average per inhabitant," stated the EU Parliament.

Smart devices that are 'old' and no longer updateable are perceived as disposable. Because the tech industry moves so quickly, with new devices available every month, it isn't very easy for consumers to keep up. And with little regard for the e-waste that is increasing exponentially, tech companies almost ignore this, suggesting that innovation is more important.

Is it time to get back to basics?

Learn more about SMS communication via a robust platform in our Information Centre and take a look at our free eBook and Factsheet selection.