Life Cycle

Technology is disposable.

One of the challenges of managing technology in schools is the fact that you have to keep buying the same thing over and over again. Every time I put a computer into service, or a flat panel display, or a piece of network equipment, I have to remember that at some point, I’m going to have to throw that equipment away and buy another one.

Traditionally, we blamed this on Moore’s Law. In the 1960s, Intel founder Gordon Moore predicted that computing power would double every two years. In very general terms, the computer you buy today is either twice as powerful or half the cost of the one you bought two years ago. Moore’s Law has held for more than 55 years, despite my prediction that it would end in 2016.

iMac G3 Tangerine (1998), from Wikimedia Commons.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The first law of technology marketing is that the technology must have a killer app. That is, there has to be an application — a computer program or a use case — that is so powerful that people are willing to buy the technology just to do that one thing. For the personal computer, it was spreadsheets. On the Macintosh, the killer app was WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get. Thanks to the graphical user interface, people could see on the screen exactly what would be printed on the paper. That was a game changer.

Think about your first smart phone. What made you trade in the simplicity of that old flip phone for this big, complicated, expensive device? For me, it was the ability to replace so many devices. I no longer needed a phone, personal digital assistant, camera, music player, and GPS system. There were lots of reasons to make the jump to a smart phone.

I made that switch nearly 11 years ago now. Since then, I’ve replaced my phone four times. But when I look at the apps on my home screen, I’m doing the same things I was doing a decade ago. I check email, calendar, weather, and social media. I occasionally use the timers and alarms and calculators. The flashlight app is useful. I play music and podcasts. And that’s about it. It’s basically the same stuff. So what makes me spend hundreds of dollars every few years to get a new one?

The technology industry can’t sustain itself on innovation alone. If Samsung or Apple or Lenovo had to come up with a new killer application every time they wanted people to buy a new device, we would be so overwhelmed by the constant barrage of transformational technology that we’d stop using it. The technology companies have to used planned obsolescence. They have to get you to keep buying the same thing to do the same thing.

We see this most strikingly in computers. What do you use a laptop for? I run a web browser. At this point, that’s pretty much it. I do still have Putty, and I use a text editor, both of which could run easily on 20 year old hardware. Once in a great while I’ll edit or enhance a photo. Other than the memory requirements of having dozens of browser tabs open, I don’t have any special requirements. With a RAM upgrade, the laptop I used four computers ago could do all of that stuff. But that computer wouldn’t get software updates anymore. It’s insecure. I can’t get modern drivers for it. The battery doesn’t hold a charge anymore. It only has wifi G instead of wifi 6. So it has been replaced.

For the last couple weeks, I’ve been making a list of things that need to be replaced at school. That is, everything. The tough part is estimating when it needs replaced, and how much it will cost. When students had Chromebooks, that was pretty easy. Google works with the manufacturers, and for every model of Chromebook, you can tell exactly when it will stop getting updates. That is the point at which it needs to be replaced. While the consumer doesn’t have any control over these dates, at least we know up front when they are.

In the Apple world, things are different. I emailed my sales rep and asked that question. If I buy new iPads for every kindergarten student, when do I need to replace them? Can they get through third grade before they need a new one? Fourth grade? I’d like to get the students through all 13 years of school on three devices. Can I do that? He said he needed to set up a call with an engineer. The engineer didn’t get back to us. They don’t want to be pinned down. Buy the iPads for the kinders now. We’ll let you know when we want you to buy new ones.

That doesn’t work for me, so I did a little math. I looked at every iPad model since 2010. I recorded the release date and the the date of the first OS update that couldn’t be installed on the device. For example, the original iPad was released on April 3, 2010. iOS 6 was released on September 19, 2012, and it wouldn’t run on that original iPad. So the device was supported for 900 days. I did this for all of the iPads that are no longer supported, and came up with an average: 1728 days. On average, iPads are supported by Apple for 4.7 years from the release date. Then, I realized that all of this data is already on Wikipedia. I could have saved an hour.

To save you some time, I did the same thing for the MacBook Air. Surprisingly, the average is 7.2 years. That’s a pretty decent lifespan. That’s good, because ours are starting to get old, they’re expensive, and replacing them is not in the budget yet. At least we have a little breathing room.

So if we buy the iPads for kindergarten the day they’re released, we can get — on average — 4.7 years out of them before they stop getting updates. That means theoretically, we could get our kids through 13 years of school on three devices. But practicality gets in the way. The iPad 8 was released on September 18, 2020. To get the most life out of it, we would have had to issue an older device to the students when school started on September 8, ordered the new ones on September 18, hopefully received them by the end of October, and then rolled them out to students in November. Then, they would probably last through fourth grade. But there are no guarantees. No wonder the engineer didn’t respond.

I think it’s more likely that we’re going to have to live with part of a year when devices stop getting updates. It’s not the end of the world. Upgrading devices to the latest, greatest, fastest, most secure, robust, and bug-free software in February, and then expecting that software to still be usable six months later isn’t unreasonable, is it?

As I get older, I become more frustrated with this cycle. If we’re going to continue to make this investment, we really need to make sure that we’re not just using new technology to do old things. I keep asking the same question about technology in education: what are we doing with the tech that can’t be done without it? How do we use technology to differentiate? How do we meet the individual needs of every student in every class every day? How do we empower our learners to build critical thinking skills, connect their learning to the world around them, work together, and communicate effectively? How do we foster creativity and innovation and entrepreneurship and leadership? How do we make learning relevant and exciting and engaging? How does technology transform learning instead of merely enhancing it? There’s so much work to do.

When my superintendent walked by the other day, I said “I need 5.7 million dollars.”

“What are we buying?” he asked excitedly.

“Everything.” I replied.