Product Longevity

My dad’s watch has lasted 30 years. It wasn’t particularly expensive ($50) when it was purchased, but it was a fairly advanced “digital” model at the time. It is still available now for $20. It was also a well regarded brand: Casio. It isn’t rated for scuba diving levels of waterproofness. He has however worn it scuba diving, and it is still working.

Total maintenance over 30 years has involved replacing the battery a few times. It hasn’t crashed. It hasn’t suffered water damage. It hasn’t slowed to a crawl due to a firmware update intended to make it better. It also has a longer battery life than a modern Apple Watch. The battery life is about seven years, so that makes it roughly seven years longer battery life than the Apple Watch (which is 1 day). It also doesn’t have a cracked screen despite years of rough sailboating, salt spray, hiking and other outdoor activities. It does have a scratched screen, but then my friend’s Apple Watch that is a few weeks old has that as well.

Why are some of the products that we use so long-lasting and yet often fairly inexpensive? My Costco gold-toe socks have been derided by my more fashion-conscious friends, but my socks haven’t worn out after 6 years and theirs die after a year. So why are we capable of making socks that practically do not wear out, and yet can’t manage to integrate that technology into high-end fashionable socks?

Why are some of the most expensive items we purchase obsolete or non-functional in 2 years? I purchased a pair of Marmot climbing pants with a “lifetime warranty” which I regularly wore for a year. Then the pocket zipper broke and the material on the legs stretched and became unsightly. When I brought them in for repair/replacement they said “pants do wear out you know” and then they only fixed the zipper. And yet, unbeknownst to me, I was wearing a pair of REI canvas outdoor pants as I was having that discussion with the Marmot clerk. I had owned and worn that pair regularly for at least 6 years. Why is it OK to sell pants that will last a year and brand them with a lifetime warranty that isn’t fulfilled? Furthermore, why don’t many pants last longer?

The list of products that seemingly last forever is endless, and it’s not just non-digital items. Here’s a short list of common items that seem to have very high levels of durability (thanks to Facebook for contributions):

  • Leatherman tool, Victorinox knife, tool sets (40+ yrs)
  • Computer monitors and TVs (30+ yrs)
  • Casio digital/analog watches (30+ yrs)
  • GE clock radio, Sony clock radio (31+ yrs)
  • Pelikan fountain and rollerball pens (23+ yrs)
  • Hondas, Subaru cars, Dodge Durango (20+ yrs)
  • bikes, motorcycle helmets (20+ yrs)
  • backpacks (15+ yrs)
  • cheap toaster (13+ yrs)
  • Delonghi coffee grinder (13+ yrs)
  • Curiosity rover (nuclear powered) (11+ yrs)
  • hair straightener (10+ yrs)
  • generic BBQ (10+ yrs)
  • microwave found in trash (10 + 10 yrs)
  • iPod Nano (10+ yrs)
  • Bose speakers (9+ yrs)
  • Mac laptops (8+ yrs)
  • socks (6+ yrs)
  • jeans (5+ yrs)
  • Light and Motion bike light (5+ yrs)
  • Simple kids toys

The longest-lived items don’t necessarily have a lot in common. Some are cheap (socks), some are expensive (laptops). Some are very analog and mechanical (BBQ), while others are digital (watch). Some are quite simple (toaster) while others are exceedingly complex (TV). There do seem to be a lot of kitchen appliances on the list and I know many people have ancient fridges, freezers and washers. So there’s no clear trend other than quality crafsmanship, good materials, durability and designing for extended use, which are probably factors.

Increasingly we are moving to a build-on-demand culture where broken things will be recycled and new ones with the latest technology are printed out on the spot. In this scenario things typically don’t need to last as long, and we may not even want them to last long. The new thing is better, and as long as it survives the current vacation we’re on, then we can print out a new one when we get home. We also live in a faddish society where one year rectangular glasses frames are “in” and the following year, rounded frames are “in”, regardless of how they look on your face. In this sort of consumer society you either need hardware that can morph to the latest desire, or a way to cheaply update the shape of devices repeatedly and rapidly. Basically hardware and physical product design is increasingly more about memetics than about physical needs of the user.

This leaves us with the question of whether longevity even matters any more. The cost of replacing things constantly can be high, but as the cost of most types of products falls over time, it is unlikely to be a primary concern. Environmental concerns related to consumption of more products are likely to be mitigated by better atomic-level recycling technologies. The only scenario where you actually need one device to survive is post-apocalyptic or “stranded on a desert island” situations where replacement is not an option and features of the device are critical.

Still, it seems that as technology gets better, even the things we choose to recycle every 6 months could be physically capable of operating for 100 years. And there are reasons to make things last for an eternity. Babylonian clay tablets have lasted thousands of years while our modern books fail to survive a hundred, resulting in data being lost forever. If our devices only last for a fleeting moment, the history they embody and records they carry may not last long. It is also likely that consumers will come to expect higher levels of durability. “What, sitting on my phone cracks the screen?” “What, I can’t take my Internet chat scuba diving with me?” However, some types of objects have very practical reasons for being designed with longevity as a high priority. Data storage systems, basic human essentials (food, buildings, heating systems), transport devices, shoes, appliances, and a variety of other products have significant advantages if they last for very long periods of time. Additionally, maintenance will always cost something, and building products that don’t need it will be a better investment. Our species will definitely be better off if they at least know how to make long-use devices, even if don’t always choose to use them that long.

Related links:
The Long Now Foundation
Buy Me Once

Thanks to the following people for long-lived product submissions:
Joe L, Jennifer N, Chris K, Aaron M, Qays P, Melodie T, Stas K, MikeK, Alex M, Sara G, Elisabeth K, Beth O, Steven L, Steve D, Mark G


Originally published at www.uxoftravel.com.