Philip W Schiller, Apple’s vice president for marketing, strode across the stage of the California Theater in San Jose last week trumpeting the virtues of new Apple products. As he caressed the side of the latest iMac personal computer, he noted how thin it was — 5 mm, 80% thinner than the last one. Then he said, as if he had just thought of it: “Isn’t it amazing how something new makes the previous thing instantly look old?”
Umm, yes, Mr. Schiller, you design your products that way. It is part of a strategy that Apple has perfected. How else can the company persuade people to replace their perfectly fine iPhone, iPad, iMac and iEverything else, year after year?In the past, electronics makers could convince consumers that the design was different, because it actually was. The first iMac, for example, was a blue bubble. Then it looked like a desk lamp, and now it is a rectangular sheet of glass with the electronics hidden behind it. The iPod designs changed, too, over time, before they became progressively smaller sheets of glass.
Certainly makers add features like better cameras or tweak the software – Siri and Passbook on the iPhone are examples of that for Apple – to persuade people to upgrade. But in the last few years, consumer electronics have started to share one characteristic, no matter who makes them: They are all rectangles. Now, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google need to persuade consumers to buy new rectangles once a year.
“This phenomenon happened to the TV manufacturers a few years ago. They all started to look the same: flat panels on a wall,” said Donald A Norman, author of “The Design of Everyday Things”.
Each year, Apple and other companies seem to put those rectangles in a vise, flatten them slightly, and showcase them as the next big, or little, thing.
There is a term for all of this: “planned obsolescence,” which was popularised in the 1950s.
If you don’t upgrade to the latest iPhone or iPad, you fear you may look dated and clueless, even though the rational part of your brain says, “This is a perfectly fine, useful device.” It seems, now, that some consumers are starting to feel upgrade fatigue. GNS