A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Science

Contemplating the real cost of that shiny new phone

A decade after the first iPhone, its eighth incarnation is about to be revealed. But there are clues consumers are wearying of the churn-and-burn tech economy.

Words by Ayeesha Cain
 

It’s become a ritual performance of the digital age.

One more sleep until the breathlessly-hyped unveiling of the iPhone 8 at Apple HQ in Silicon Valley. Then begins the countdown to the main act – the pandemonium of snaking queues through shopping malls, and door-busting hordes of tech fans tearing open white vacuum-sealed boxes. Just when the curtain will rise on that scene remains a mystery.  

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Tipped to feature wireless charging, facial recognition to unlock the phone and authenticate banking, and an upgraded camera – the details will be unveiled 5am tomorrow Melbourne time –  it will be a quantum leap from the game-changing original iPhone launched by Steve Jobs a decade ago.

And the pricetag?  The money’s on something around $US999 – that’s  $A1,240 on today’s rates.

But the true cost isn’t the damage on your credit card. A new phone also buys the opportunity to toss your existing phone, and all the resources that went into its production, into a drawer and forget about it. And we can’t just blame profligate millennials and tech-heads for casting off perfectly functional devices. Australian households are holding onto a reported 23 million discarded phones. That’s almost one dormant phone per person.

Research shows that Australia is one of the world’s worst performing wealthy nations when it comes to dealing with the growing mountain of e-waste from discarded technology products.

But there are signs that consumers are pushing back against the carefully constructed churn-and-burn technology economy. Not so long ago Australians were upgrading their phones every 18 to 24 months, pretty much as their contracts with network carriers ran out, says Spyro Kalos of MobileMuster, a program run by the Australian Mobile Phone Industry. “But these days we’re seeing a move to two to three years ownership before upgrading.”

Worldwide, the technology repair sector is booming. Leading player iFixit was born back in 2003 when a frustrated Californian college student discovered that it was all but impossible to mend his busted Apple laptop. Today the DIY repairs and spare parts enterprise Kyle Wiens co-founded, which provides free repair guides and markets hardware solutions, has racked up almost 100 million visits from users wanting to fix their failing gadgets.

“When products wind up in the landfill because they’re not repairable, nobody wins,” says iFixit’s Australian director of advocacy, Julia Bluff. “Not the consumer and not the environment. We’re facing a global e-waste crisis. We need to reuse, repair, and recycle a lot more of these products than we actually do. Otherwise, they land up in a landfill before their time.”

Given the hefty price tags on each new generation of technology, “consumers should be able to operate under the assumption that they can be fixed—easily, quickly, and affordably,” says Bluff. “Unfortunately, lots of manufacturers throw up roadblocks to repair. And lots of consumers don’t like that trend. You can see the pushback against disposable tech in the rise of Right to Repair laws in the US.”

As hype around the next iPhone shifts into high gear, iFixit is joining forces with Greenpeace East Asia to fight back, empowering consumers to chose for longevity in their devices rather than planned obsolescence. They have published a scorecard ranking 44 of the best-selling phones on their repairability to support these claims.

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Scoring phones on a scale of one-to-10, with 10 being the highest score possible, they looked at how easy a phone was to pull apart and repair, and the availability of certified spare parts and repair guides. See a full list here.  

Greenpeace is urging consumers to weigh up the true costs of disposable phone culture. “Tech companies are designing their gadgets to be short lived, making them difficult to repair, using non-durable materials or not providing repair manuals or spare parts. To save Earth’s limited resources, and our wallets, this must change.”

In Australia, there are efforts to try to undo some of that damage by mining the vast pile of discarded phones squirrelled away in Australian households through a program called MobileMuster, run by the Australian Mobile Phone Industry.

“They are dormant resources that could easily be recovered through recycling, that way lessening the need to continually mine the planet,” says the program’s recycling manager, Spyro Kalos.  “As consumers, we have a vital role to play when it comes to product stewardship.”

In a hard-fought market, consumer attitudes can bring about change. Rigorous development cycles today fix problems consumers didn’t know they had, regularly delivering free software upgrades to our gadgets. But inevitably there comes a moment when the old hardware won’t support the new software functionality. Better design changes, like the use of steel rather than plastics, better cameras, microphones and battery life and clearer visual interfaces are a response to the fact that consumers are demanding more longevity.

“Over time we have seen mobiles replace a number of other pieces of technology,” says Kalos. The humble mobile now acts as our camera, media player, e-book reader and, of course, our mobile phone.”

If, after all that, you still absolutely must have a new phone, consumer group Choice advises consumers to proceed carefully. New technology is notorious for disappointing customers. “If the phone is faulty, dial up your right to a repair, replacement or a refund to ensure you’re not left hanging,” a Choice spokesperson said.

While speculation about what’s in the iPhone 8 will all be over by tomorrow morning, it will be some time yet before the verdict is in on its potential and performance “We always approach new releases optimistically,” says iFixit’s Julia Bluff. “The iPhone has historically been a pretty repairable phone—but we encountered some software limitations to repair in the iPhone 7 that we’re hoping not to see repeated or expanded in the next models.”

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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