JULY 2018 IN

Ten Years Newer

Technology products are lasting longer than ever. Consumers save money by replacing phones, cars, computers, and other products less often, but when the upgrades finally come, the changes can be jarring.

We have come a long way since 1970, when a car dealer would recommend replacing a family car with a new car every two years, and a thrifty driver was one who put off the inevitable replacement until three to five years had gone by. Now the thrifty consumers are the ones who replace a car only after it is 20 years old or has driven 300,000 miles or 500,000 kilometers. In the near future, the electric car era will stretch out this replacement cycle to more than a million kilometers.

In the meantime, the technology in a car continues to advance. I saw firsthand how large these changes can be in the last three years. My car was approaching 200,000 miles and had a problem that was consider unrepairable, and I replaced it with the same model of car, but 12 model years newer. Then I saw another driver do the same thing, but advancing by 14 model years. Staying with the same make and model surely provided some protection from unexpected changes, but not as much as we might have expected. Many of the new features we encountered are considered standard features now — rear-view camera, steering wheel and touch-screen audio controls, trip fuel efficiency estimates — but it took months to get comfortable the changes.

My latest phone upgrade was a generally similar experience. Here, I was seemingly not advancing so far, replacing a smart phone model that was 12 years old with one that was 9 years old, but perhaps phones are advancing more rapidly than cars. The changes were nearly as unexpected as those I found with the car. I try to imagine what would happen if I jumped 12 years in phone design. I would surely have to spend a solid week studying the new phone and its capabilities.

Desktop computers are not subject to quite the same discontinuities, at least not anymore, but my latest computer replacement away out a computer that was 10 years old, replacing with one that was 8 years old. The mere fact that my “new” computer was 8 years old shows how much the computer sector has changed. In my first ten years of owning a desktop computer, I bought four computers, all of them new, and not by choice but out of necessity. When I saw colleagues replace their desktop computers almost every year, it did not seem extravagant. Now if you buy a new desktop computer, there is a good chance that it will last for ten years, or longer if the latest security features are not a priority.

Along the way, countless changes in hardware features have come as a worry to computer buyers. What do you mean, there is no floppy drive? — Printer port? — Optical drive? — Hard disk drive? I can’t entirely predict what changes I will find the next time I buy a new desktop computer.

With major home appliances such as refrigerators and water heaters, we expect a longer product life, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t major changes. I wrote about a big jump in efficiency when I replaced a refrigerator, with the electric consumption falling by about two thirds. It was probably a similar jump when I replaced a 20-year-old dishwasher and water heater with new models, and if I were to replace these appliances now, I might find new convenience and efficiency features like timers and indicator lights.

When advancing through ten or twenty years of technology in a single purchase, consumers need to plan on spending some time to learn what has changed. Of course, it is hard to find the time. I still have not read the entire owner’s manual that came with my current car, but I really should just for the sake of understanding what I own. Product designers need to recognize that purchasers of durable goods may not always be conversant with the technology trends of the last five years, and must plan for a reasonably gentle way to get these new users up to speed.

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