Efficiency, Hardware and Consumer Choice

These days I'm reading through Energy and Civilization. I'll write a review of it at a later point, but in short I can say two things about it: it's filled with a lot of interesting data, and I'm not able to keep up the interest because it's essentially a lot of data that I'm not going to use on a day to day basis.

One pattern that I've been looking throughout the book is how we're constantly going after more efficient means of creating and using energy. We've moved from using an extremely inefficient fuel (dry wood) to options which are relatively more efficient (crude oil, solar, wind) and how the last few hundred years have been all about getting more and more efficiency out of either the fuels or the ways we use them, e.g. the efficiency of converting Iron into Steel has increased from 60% in late 1800s to 97% currently. Another pattern is how the efficiency has always been going on continously over decades, so it's never a big bang but series of smaller "updates" which sum up to create what seems to be a really efficient output.

It's sale season here in Canada and a lot of electronics are going up for sale, even though Black Friday is still around a month away. Just to do some online window shopping, I checked out the website of Lenovo because they usually give a lot of discounts on Thinkpads during the sales. Thinkpads have been a series of well known laptops because they allow almost everything inside to be updated and replaced, so that the hardware itself can continue working for years to come. It's not difficult to search on the internet and find out people who've been using their Thinkpads for years, and the laptops are still going strong because the inner parts keep getting upgrades.

The other end of the spectrum is perhaps Apple who've been famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) of soldering almost everything to the board, so upgrading it essentially becomes impossible by the end user. iFixit has detailed information how to fix your laptop, notice how all the recent Macs have a repairability score of 0 or 1 with the older ones not having more than 4 or 5.

So the consumers who've been buying these new laptops/mobiles/tablets are not given an option to upgrade their devices, and the reason given is almost always efficiency. But it's not really like that in any other domain of engineering, everywhere else from bridges, roads, factories, cars, and even the software that runs inside these hardware is designed to be updated. Factories don't really tear down and build themselves up all the time because something more efficient was found in the cutting edge research, they upgrade the areas where more efficiency can be introduced. Bridges and Roads can be repaired, and each time they are fitted with more efficient parts and materials instead of throwing away the foundation.

Coming back to the electronic devices, I wonder how would the hardware manufactures, or companies like Apple/Samsung/Microsoft etc. react if they were only asked to use hardware which could not be upgraded? Imagine if each time Intel had a breakthrough in the chip fabrication, they had to shut down their manufacturing plants and create a new one from scratch. How would Microsoft react if they had to throw away the Azure cloud nodes that faulted instead of just replacing the parts that faulted.

How much the profit margins of iPhone be if Apple had to keep throwing away their manufacturing machines with each iteration of their series A chips? They are obviously changing parts of their supply chain to manufacture the newer chips, but not the entire chain itself.

So why is it fine for the hardware companies to push this inefficient design on to the end customers, still under the guise of efficiency?