By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Sep. 12, 2019
As other phone companies scramble over each other to rip off the iPhone's latest design, Apple should go a step ahead and create sustainable phones. In an age where there’s increased awareness of climate change, surely following an eco-friendly trend will become as important as adding a screen notch.
Another Apple launch event.
Another series of predictable reactions from fanboys and haters alike.
Another set of topical marketing posts (right on cue, Zomato).
And, definitely, another thing for other phone companies to rip off get inspiration from.
Let’s get this out of the way: Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, Apple is the mobile phone industry lodestar. Other companies can claim innovation and hyperbole with futuristic videos and promises of never settling, but Apple is the company to follow. Even Android loyalists (raises hand) have to admit: If Steve Jobs hadn’t unveiled the iPhone on January 9, 2007, we wouldn’t even be having the OS debate now.
Features by Apple that were initially mocked, soon became standard. When Retina Display came around, incredulous pundits debated the need for so many pixels per inch. Today every phone company tries to cram more pixels with every iteration, disregarding their own “can-human-eye-even-register?” arguments. More recent examples include the “notch” and the exclusion of the 3.5mm audio port (the latter taking “courage”, according to marketing head Phil Schiller). Just a few years later, several critics — most notably Samsung — have incorporated these features into their devices.
In this industry, Apple is the Pied Piper (no Silicon Valley reference intended). Whether the irrational fandom around it is warranted is another debate. But one thing’s certain, when the folks from Cupertino make an announcement, executives and designers from every other mobile phone company are paying attention.
If Steve Jobs hadn’t unveiled the iPhone on January 9, 2007, we wouldn’t even be having the OS debate now.
Sure, other companies have innovations too. But they tend to be prototypes, half-baked, or with lacking discernible use case. Take the example of Huawei’s headline-ready folding phone that faced production snags after a much-hyped announcement. Or the difficulty of real-life usage of modular phones from Motorola and Essential. When Apple has an innovation, it’s not just consumer-ready, but it’s built an entire ecosystem around it. “It just works,” as Jobs famously said.
Which is why, slowing sales be damned, Apple is the most powerful and influential mobile phone company in the world. Its innovation and design labs subsidises your low-cost Chinese flagship killer. It also de-risks innovation: Apple’s loyalists will test and make something trendy, so companies with lower appetite for volatility can take the leap, worry-free (look at what happened with AirPods, or “truly wireless earphones” as they are now called).
Now, let’s get to another truth of the industry: Mobile phone technology is not going to exponentially change in the near future. Sure, processors will get faster, and cameras will have the few more perfunctory megapixels, but this is not innovation as much as your annual increment is (sorry for giving HR ideas).
This is why I feel Apple’s next innovation should come from somewhere else altogether. Sustainability.
Let’s look at some facts: Global e-waste is growing every year, and will reach 60 million tonnes by 2021 — that’s the weight of 350 million smartphones. More importantly, this relatively small amount comes with a massive amount of harmful elements. It’s estimated that e-waste contributes to only 2 per cent of America’s landfills, but to 70 per cent of its toxic chemical waste. And that’s not to mention the human cost. Many of these rare elements are extracted after risky mining and processing.
When Apple has an innovation, it’s not just consumer-ready, but it’s built an entire ecosystem around it.
What’s worse is that our phones last 1.5-2 years on average — you know this anecdotally when your “latest” device magically stops working. It’s as if an internal clock has been triggered, something that several tech giants, including Apple, have been accused of deliberately doing. Phones have low hand-me-down-ability and specialised recycling facilities are too few and far between for more than dedicated green warriors to make the effort. As a result of this, people are also tired of needing to upgrade phones. Several “upper-middle-class” folks will now make do with a 25k phone, knowing they will need to change phones again in 15 months. Design uniformity and almost-mandatory protective cases have nullified the badge value of expensive phones, too.
If Apple were to make their devices last longer or more eco-friendly on disposal, it would have a tremendously positive environmental impact. It would also inspire the army of copycats to do the same. In an age where there’s increased awareness of climate change, surely following an eco-friendly trend will become as important as adding a screen notch.
And if Apple were to actually make devices last longer, it would also mean everyone could just calm the bejeesus down and collectively drop out of this hype-fuelled 100-to-101 yearly race, and focus on actual innovation. The first iPhone took years to prototype, test, and get right. How great would it be to have some of those engineering minds trying to solve a real problem rather than figure out how to cram more megapixels into a selfie camera, or turn your face into a fucking emoji?
Some might be compelled to say that increasing device lifespan will negatively affect Apple’s revenue. In the short term, definitely. But look at it this way — if a company assured you a phone will last at least three years, you probably wouldn’t mind shelling out over 50k for it. And as more people increasingly ditch Apple for Android, this could actually help the company stem the drain. Don’t forget: Apple makes a huge chunk of its revenue from services. So having a larger base at the risk of lower hardware revenue might not be an altogether bad pitch to investors already nervous about slowing top-lines.
Not to mention the impact such a move will have on goodwill and branding. In a time of increasing cynicism and hate for Big Tech, Apple could gather some serious karma points by doing what it’s often done in the past — standing up for something it believes in. This is a rarity in tech today, and could even provide a moral high ground for Android loyalists to switch over, especially as Google is increasingly showing flexibility on its “Don’t Do Evil” mantra.
Global e-waste is growing every year, and will reach 60 million tonnes by 2021 — that’s the weight of 350 million smartphones.
To be fair to Tim Cook and his team, Apple has already started some efforts in this direction. Last year, it opened up the technology of its recycling facility, Daisy, to other phone companies. In 2018, it was globally powered by clean energy, and now works only with suppliers who do, too. But there needs to be more. The green outlook that’s friendly for press releases needs to be built into the product itself. Responsibility cannot be offloaded onto the consumer.
Yes, it will be expensive, and possible scary for employees and investors. It’ll involve deviation from the “moar! moar!” hardware thinking of recent years. But no other company can pull it off. And if it starts with phones, it will eventually work its way into all of consumer tech.
Apple has two things that can help it get there: An incredibly loyal user base, and very deep pockets.
Oh, and courage. That’ll come in handy too.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.