If you own an Apple device and are ‘environmentally conscious,’ an October 16 story in Wired entitled Greenwashing the Retina MacBook Pro may be of interest to you.   Essentially, the article says that despite this computer’s certification as an EPEAT Gold device, the spirit of the certification is questionable.  One reason for concern is that Apple markets itself as a ‘green’ company, and yet it no longer registers its devices with EPEAT.

Environmental concerns may be a bit abstract for most consumers, but this erosion of Apple’s ‘green’ ethos reflects some apparent changes in design philosophy within Apple that have an impact on all Apple users.  It points to a philosophy of planned obsolescence and disposability, which Apple’s service and product life-cycle practices serve to reinforce.

Apple’s current generations of mobile phones and media players are sealed and not designed for disassembly or maintenance by their users.  As the EPEAT situation shows, Apple has extended this design philosophy to the latest Retina MacBook Pros. As a result, most Apple hardware products are no longer ‘user upgradeable.’  This lowers the cost of manufacturing, and provides incentive (coercion?) for consumers to buy an AppleCare service agreement. So it’s all good for Apple.

But it’s not good for consumers.  Let me give you an example of the impact on this philosophy on an Apple user: me.

I bought a fourth-generation iPod Touch – new – in 2011 and had it until a few months ago.  After owning the device for about 14 months – just a couple of months beyond the basic product warranty period – it suddenly stopped working.  The reason was that the battery had expanded, forcing the case open; and making the touch interface useless.  Since I hadn’t bought an AppleCare extended warranty (Why? I don’t know), it would have cost so much to repair the device that repair made little sense.  Apple applied its salvage value to my purchase of a new iPod.  In effect, this cost me more than $300 – between the cost of the original device and the replacement.

AppleCare for laptop computers runs out at the end of Year 3.   Users have three choices at the end of that period: 1) buy a third-party warranty, 2) take the risk and fly without a service agreement, or, 3) sell or trade in your machine for a newer model – revenue-assurance for Apple.

This hardware situation is bad enough, but also, each subsequent release of MacOS X won’t run on devices that are more than a few years old, or at best, renders software that’s more than a few releases old obsolete.  The net effect is that Apple has quietly and incrementally created a new kind of “lock-in,” and worse, has become less pro-active in telling anyone about it.   I’m concerned that my second-generation iPad will eventually follow this pattern as well.

It’s not that Apple hasn’t created lock-in situations before, but in the past, Apple has been much more open with its customers and partners than it is now.  Some Apple history shows how.

In the early 1990s, Apple went from Motorola 68000-family microprocessor chips to Motorola/IBM PowerPC chips, which prompted developers and users to upgrade their software across the board or be left behind.   I worked for an Apple software developer (Aldus, which was acquired by Adobe) in the 1990s and can attest that the changeover was well orchestrated.  Apple did a good job selling this change as being a good thing.

In 2001, Apple released MacOS X (Mac OS Ten), a fundamental change to the Mac operating system.  MacOS X was a consolidation of several technologies that were developed by Apple and NeXT (a Steve Jobs company that Mr. Jobs sold back to Apple) over the course of the 1990s.  Again, Apple wisely built a bridge from old to new by maintaining a way for users to run earlier versions of MacOS for several years.

In 2006, Apple released its first Intel-based computers, replacing the Motorola/IBM PowerPC.  Yet again, Apple bridged the old and the new; this time by providing PowerPC emulation on the Intel processor platform for several years, until 2010.

But sometime between then and now, it seems that something has changed within Apple, and it’s having a direct impact on users.  I don’t like what I see, and I hope that the good ship Apple will make some course corrections.

Apple has become (on and off) the most valuable company in the world, and is hugely profitable.  It has achieved this status in no small part through the loyalty of its customers, many of whom stuck with Apple through some painful times.  I was an Apple dealer before some of the readers of this blog were alive – starting in 1981 – and I have owned Apple products since 1984.

I am of the opinion that Apple owes us something in return for this loyalty.  By providing easy-to-use products that fit (and in some cases, have created) the modern digital lifestyle,  Apple does go a long way to keep up its end of this bargain. But Apple has go the rest of the way – as it once did – by returning to its earlier and more consumer-friendly practices relating to software obsolescence, hardware accessibility, and environmentalism.

Apple can certainly afford to do so.