How software drives obsolescence, hurting our wallets and the environment

Manufacturers often use software to push us into the whirlpool of replacement.

HS You via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0 | Used by permission

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Our country has a growing waste problem. We see it in overflowing landfills and toxic smoke spewing from incinerators. “Traditional” waste is bad enough for our health and environment;  e-waste rife with toxic heavy metals adds another dimension to the problem. As a country, we dispose of about 6.9 million tons of e-waste each year and 416,000 phones each day. We’re stuck on a “disposability treadmill” that coerces us into replacing our phones, laptops, and appliances at a rapid rate. One key solution: making it easier to repair electronics. 

At a White House event in October, we witnessed a positive step. Apple announced its intention to comply nationwide with California’s recently passed Right to Repair law. The Right to Repair will eliminate a lot of premature device disposal. Now, it’s time to set our sights on the other major drivers of e-waste: software locks and “planned” obsolescence. 

For decades, manufacturers have designed their tech products to be disposable. Many companies have adopted the “razor-and-blades” business model that printer manufacturers exploit. Those companies learned they could sell printers at a loss to get consumers locked into buying expensive name-brand ink cartridges. Once we’ve taken the bait, manufacturers sell their ink for a much higher cost than a competitive market would allow. They pressure and prod us to buy their expensive ink with software that restricts our use of cheaper and more environmentally friendly third-party options. It’s no wonder printers are some of the most hated products in our homes and offices. The profit margin that comes with disposability is too tempting for some companies to resist unless customers push back against restrictions.

Morten B | Shutterstock.com
Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones per day, and only 15 to 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled.

Manufacturers often use software to push us into the whirlpool of replacement. They commonly end software support after just a few years and restrict how we use products by locking portions of the software. Printers block affordable third-party ink cartridges. iPhones use software locks to pair most parts, so that replacing them properly requires Apple’s permission. Tesla’s software rejects some third-party accessories. Tractors stop farmers from DIY fixes. Manufacturers increasingly use software to lock us into only using our tech in ways that just-so-happen to generate the most profits for them. 

These restrictions are the poster children for the growing conflict between commonsense ideas of ownership and restrictive corporate copyright claims. Since the tech industry, on the whole, has refused to take more consumer-friendly actions, we need the government to regulate these unfair business practices. The Federal Trade Commission should clarify that these software restrictions violate “anti-tying” provisions. Companies are not legally allowed to tie the use of one product to the purchase of additional items or services. We should stop companies from tying more fees to the repair and replacement of parts. 

Policies that ensure that consumers have choices could save Americans billions of dollars and lessen the adverse impact of technology on our environment. Without governmental enforcement, we can’t protect our fundamental freedom to fully own what we’ve paid for. 

Federal and state governments can also provide transparency in the market with clear software support dates and provide consumers with repair scores that list how fixable a device is before we make an expensive purchase. Repair scores for tech such as laptops, phones, and appliances, are like EnergyGuide labels for repairability. They provide consumers with a 1 through 10 score that measures availability of spare parts, ease of disassembly and longevity of software support, before we purchase expensive devices. Manufacturers already have these scores to comply with laws in other countries. American consumers deserve to see them, too. Americans also deserve to know the “support date” that guarantees the length of a product’s software support, so we’re not kept in the dark about when a phone or laptop will reach its  “death date.”

When support does inevitably end, manufacturers should give up control of our products and allow us the right to tinker and install any software we please. If it’s no longer economically viable to continue to support an older device, companies should have no reason to restrict third-party software. The open-source tech community could breathe new life into older devices. Apple’s, Microsoft’s, and Google’s (now 10 years of) support for computers pales in comparison to the open-source community supporting a chip released in 1985 for 27 years.

A few years ago, the latest phone or laptop had impressive new features we needed (or just wanted.) That’s often no longer the case. With the majority of our work happening on websites there’s no reason we can’t treat our laptops like we treat our cars. When I need winter tires, new headlights or a tow hitch, I don’t toss my car and buy a new one. After a decade of use, when we need more memory, or a faster processor, or a bigger screen, we ought to be able to buy just that component to upgrade our system

With e-waste the fastest growing waste-stream in the world, it’s not sustainable to consume technology at this rate. We need to push back against repair and software restrictions until we have products designed to last.

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Authors

Lucas Gutterman

Director, Designed to Last Campaign, PIRG

Lucas leads PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, fighting against obsolescence and e-waste and winning concrete policy changes that extend electronic consumer product lifespans and hold manufacturers accountable for forcing upgrades or disposal.