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Planned obsolescence. It’s the reason we can’t have nice things. Instead of making high-quality products, manufacturers design them to fall apart or die.
This practice feels particularly arbitrary in the software industry. A new version of paid software is a chance to charge you again. Updates might be free, or they might be an incentive to pay for a license. Software requires constant support, leaving you out of luck when the developer loses interest.
This is not just a desktop issue. Unlike a 5-year-old PC, a 5-year-old smartphone can barely run any modern apps. Smartwatches, smart TVs, and smart fridges are trying to make us comfortable with the idea of regularly replacing products that used to have lifespans of over a decade.
We don’t have to buy into this. There are ways to enjoy the benefits of technology without falling down this wasteful cycle. And one of the easiest ways to do so is by embracing Linux and free software.
Linux is an open source operating system that’s free to use and distribute. No commercial entity owns the Linux code. Many companies use and develop Linux software, but most of what they produce is free for anyone to adopt. Take Red Hat, for example.
Plus Linux is adaptable. You can place it in anything from laptops and smartphones to appliances, robots, and medical equipment.
People can use Linux to create locked-down experiences, like what you encounter on a new Android phone. That’s why you want to check not only that you’re using Linux (or another open source operating system), but free software. Developers and companies that embrace the ethos of code being free as in freedom typically want to empower you to use software as you wish and for as long as you can, rather than view you as a customer.
If you view yourself as a customer, your computer will always remain a reason to spend money. To protect your budget and use software that you can trust to stick around, we’re going to change this mentality.
Making the transition may require a change to the way you approach the concept of computing. Unfortunately, most marketing and retail space will push you towards commercial solutions that will likely change or go away in a few years. Many of those options will also try to lock you in, forcing you to pay to keep access. To avoid this trap, you need to know what you want, conduct research, and avoid most mainstream products.
There’s a free and open source way to do many of the tasks we see advertised in today’s onslaught of tech gadgets and “smart” products. Let’s go through them, one category at a time.
When was the last time you replaced your computer? Was it because of genuine hardware failure, or was software starting to slow down and crash?
Windows doesn’t run as smoothly after a year or two as it did when you first powered on your new computer. No matter how many new versions have come out, this hasn’t changed. That’s because Microsoft has little incentive to fix the problem. The company wants you to buy newer versions of the operating system. Microsoft also partners with hardware manufacturers who would prefer you buy a new computer than revive the one you have.
Linux doesn’t have this conflict of interest. Most distributions don’t make money from downloads. There also isn’t much of a relationship between Linux developers and consumer hardware makers.
Instead, Linux developers focus on making software that helps them complete tasks. These programs may not be the most stable or feature complete, but you’re free to use them for as long as you wish.
Sometimes a program goes away when no one wants to continue development or maintenance. Even then, the software continues to work until it loses compatibility with the rest of your operating system. This is something you can plan around.
Free software changes your approach to computing. Rather than a laptop being a mere appliance, you have a say in how it works. You pick the operating system, and you pick which applications to use. You control when you upgrade and when you switch one piece of software for another.
The result is that you can use your existing machines for much longer.
Most computers come with Windows or Mac OS X, and on newer machines, replacing them can be a pain. Try buying from a company that supports Linux such as System76, ZaReason, or Think Penguin. They will sell you a computer running Linux and empower you to alter the software however you want.
2. Smartphones & Tablets
The mobileindustry is more volatile than the desktop market. Apple and Google are making bank, and other companies want a piece of the action. New devices continue to flood the market.
Most of these devices won’t receive updates in two years. Many will never see a single major upgrade. Manufacturers and carriers view major software changes as a reason for you to buy a new phone. And since even an ideal device wouldn’t last more than a few years due to rapid technological change, companies see little reason not to speed the process along.
This is wasteful behavior. Replacing mobile devices requires a steady supply of non-renewable resources and money. Keeping a phone around is better for the environment and our budgets.
Breaking free is harder on phones than PCs, but it can be done.
Android is the most popular mobile OS, and it happens to be open source. Communities have used to code to make alternative firmware to replace what’s on your phone. CyanogenMod is the most popular option. Installing this custom ROM will give you more control of your software and may extend your phone or tablet’s life for years.
Sprint launched the Motorola Photon Q in 2012 with Ice Cream Sandwich. Official updates stopped with the first version of Jelly Bean, Android 4.1, in 2013. CyanogenMod users are running Marshmallow on the Photon Q three years later.
Making a smartphone last depends on more than hardware and OS. Today’s phones ship with apps that don’t work without Internet access. Say goodbye to advanced search, GPS, and music streaming services once companies decide to shut those things down.
Open source apps tend to be different. I only use free software on my Android phone by ditching Google and getting apps from F-Droid. My GPS app lets me download maps. My music player manages files saved locally.
I may not be able to do everything I could with Play Store access, but I have a phone that can continue to do what it’s doing several years from now — without receiving another update and regardless of who decides to shut down their servers.
There’s a certain comfort that comes from quantifying aspects of our lives. Want to know how healthy you are? Get a wearable! Use one to monitor your heart rate, count your steps, track your sleep, record your calories, map your jogs, and measure your weight. All you need is a Fitbit bracelet, something similar from Jawbone, or an Apple Watch.
Except these gadgets lose their usefulness once their companies close down or move on. Some of these platforms integrate with others, but you don’t have control over your data, which you store on the provider’s servers. Worse, some of these products are designed to be impossible to upgrade
The market isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with open source options. Startups and more established companies hope to lock you in and regularly sell you hardware. They can then take your cash and carry it to the bank.
Taking the open source approach to wearables involves getting your hands dirty, so to speak. With a Raspberry Pi, you can create your own smartwatch or an alternative to Google Glass. The Adafruit Flora development kit provides a chip you can sew into clothes and bags. Talk about wearable!
4. Smart Home
Smart home gadgets are the latest big thing. Take any household function or appliance, connect it to Wi-Fi, and boom, it’s smart! Many people see an allure to automating every aspect of a home. You can turn off the lights, activate the alarm system, and enable security cameras using a single app on your phone.
Smart home products do not agree on a single unifying standard. But unlike with Wearables, there is more of an effort. ZigBee and Z-Wave are two competing standards with corporate support.
Not every product supports an existing standard. Some companies only want to lock you in to their line of products.
There are several security risks to consider when investing in a smart home. Several of them are directly related to trusting your privacy to a closed source remote service.
OpenHAB is a mature open source home automation platform. It’s far from consumer-friendly, but you’re no consumer, right? Here you supply your own hardware, whether it’s a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino, and get to work.
Simpler products are in the works. Mycroft is an open source alternative to Amazon Echo that’s currently available for pre-order. It’s adorable, and it promises to let you control aspects of your home using only your voice.
Planned obsolescence may be good for business, but it’s bad in many other areas. They hurt our own personal finances as we spend thousands of dollars re-buying hardware that, aside from unsupported software, would hold up for years. We waste resources creating devices that will only see a year or two of use before ending up in a landfill. And we deal with the psychological impact of perpetually lusting over the next big thing and forgetting how to respect and value what we have.
Breaking this cycle isn’t easy. Billions of dollars go into keeping us wanting more, spending more, and wasting more. You will have to actively resist advertising. Some people may think you’re weird.
But you won’t be alone. Products like the Fairphone exist because enough people care about changing the tech industry into something more sustainable. A growing movement is forming, and this means more options for you going forward.
What other ways can open source software free you from planned obsolescence? Have you kept old computers running longer using Linux? I’d love to hear your experience, so please share your thoughts below.