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Apple Products, Apple Profits.

For the average consumer, the name "Apple" conjures up images of an innovative - and sometimes quirky - computer technology company with the creative but intense late CEO Steve Jobs at the helm. However, the rebellious marketing image that Apply has portrayed of itself in the media and through its various advertising conceals the possibility that Apple has pursued these sometimes-drastic technological changes for its private benefit rather than that of the consumer. Let's explore some of the significant, historical, technical advances Apple has implemented throughout the past decades and see whether or not these changes were beacons of technological progress or a shrewd and calculated planned obsolescence strategy to fatten the bottom line.

 

Genesis (1977): The Apple II and Its Successors

In the beginning, there was the Apple II. Well, more accurately, its predecessor - the bare-bones Apple I - was the first computer to be produced by Steve Wozniak. However, Apple only gained fame and fortune with its release of the Apple II, an all-in-one machine that was a perfect fit for the office in the 1980s. As time went on, Apple released some new editions of the baseline Apple II, including the oddly-named Apple IIe and Apple IIGS. These early machines maintained full backward-compatibility with the hardware and software of the previous generations of Apple II computers.

Verdict: Innovation - NOT Planned Obsolescence

 

Heir to the Throne (1980 - 1983): The Failed Apple III Project

Apple released its Apple III computer as a planned successor to the successful Apple II line. However, stability problems and reliability issues doomed the machine and its reputation, thereby branding it a failure in the marketplace. Notably, Apple begins to put in place special restrictions to make it harder to maintain compatibility with software from the Apple II.

Verdict: Mixture of Planned Obsolescence and Innovation.

 

Boom and Bust (The mid-80s): Lisa and the Macintosh

The mid-1980s is where we begin to see Apple implement its corporate playbook of pushing more product via the breaking of compatibility with previous products. Business owners were reluctant to purchase the Lisa for their offices due to Jobs' announcement regarding the lack of compatibility its successor would have with it. Macintosh, of course, took the company in an entirely new direction from its previous product line.

Verdict: Planned Obsolescence

 

Peripherals and Failed Products (The 90s): The Rise of the PowerBook

A critical piece of the Apple arsenal in the 90s was the Macintosh PowerBook. Along with Apple's other laptop products, they were complicated, though not impossible with regards to replacing or upgrading internal components. While laptops, in general, suffer from this problem of obsolescence, it certainly makes sense in the context of Apple's overall corporate strategy to limit the upgradeability of these computers to persuade consumers to purchase more. Additionally, the use of lithium ion batteries create some issues we'll describe in the next section.

Verdict: Planned Obsolescence

 

Jumping to the Present (2001): The Introduction of the iPod

After a wave of unsuccessful products and failed marketing crusades, the nearly bankrupt Apple reinvented itself by the return of its former CEO Steve Jobs in 1997. Among a variety of innovative products produced during the "Apple Renaissance" was the iPod.

Unlike MP3 players and other portable electronic devices built before its introduction, the iPod utilized a modern lithium-ion battery. While consumers were replacing batteries with ordinary AA and AAA batteries of the past, they were surprised to see that the iPod instead utilized an AC adapter to plug directly into a standard wall socket.

But what consumers did not realize at the time is that lithium ion batteries have only a limited number of power cycles - that is, charging and discharging cycles for the entire life of the product. Sometimes, these periods can be quite small - only 300 or 400 cycles in many cases. As such, the iPod had to be replaced time and time again by newer versions with more modern hardware.

Why would Apple want to create this type of cycle? The answer is simple: If you were Apple, would you rather sell iPod every five years, or 5 iPods every five years?

Verdict: Planned Obsolescence

 

The Next Generation (2015): The Apple Watch

With the release of the Apple Watch, the firm has moved into new wearable territory in an effort expand its market share in the realm of ubiquitous computing. However, the new Apple Watch also has some engineering choices built into its critical hardware systems to force consumers to upgrade to later models.

To summarize, the Apple Watch contains enough industrial components making it next to impossible to replace existing assemblies with new ones in the event of a malfunction. For DIY consumers who are handy with electronics, and for those consumers who are on a tight budget, this poses problems as Apple will certainly make you pay for a new Apple Watch in the event of a simple malfunction.

Verdict: Planned Obsolescence

 

What can we learn from these observations?

The answer, unfortunately, is somewhat more complicated than I initially anticipated. In summary, Apple is a for-profit corporation that is legally required to produce a profit (insofar as it is possible) for its shareholders. Therefore, a careful balancing act is undertaken by the company's leadership - catering to the needs of both its consumers and investors. But, naturally, a for-profit company is going to side with the need to produce a profit.

At the end of the day, so long as Apple maintains its hold on the consumer electronics market and the imagination of the consumers in that market, they will be able to execute their corporate balancing act of producing innovative products with profitability assured. And while it is uncertain where the company will end up decades from now, one thing is sure: Planned obsolescence will remain a part of the company's corporate playbook for as long as they can get away with it, much to the chagrin of the modern consumer.

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