Upgrading to Depletion

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 10:52 PM

The past few years have seen an awesome explosion of smartphone users and mobile technology. The remarkable adoption has been led, in large part, by Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems (OS's). As these OS's improve in security and functionality, they require hardware to improve in lockstep.

One unfortunate result of this pervasive expansion and evolution is an ecological burden placed by the mining and extraction of rare-earth elements. Setting aside the details of the ecological damage for this article, let's look at at how cellphone upgrade cycles promote excess consumption, in turn stressing demand for rare-earth elements. 

As you read through these concepts, pay attention to the interconnectedness of the factors. The issue at hand is complex. In this short article I don't attempt to address all factors, nor to offer more than a cursory overview. However, as you contemplate these individual ideas, my hope is that a broader perspective begins to emerge in your mind. 
    • Always Improving In order to maintain a competitive edge in the market, OS developers must continually improve their products functionality and security. This leads to ever increasing demands on hardware.
    • Less Capable As the OS is updated, it becomes increasingly less capable of running older apps which were written for a prior version. Similarly, if older OS's aren't updated they become less capable of running new apps.
      • A phone is only as good as the apps it runs, so maintaining a thriving marketplace is important, and a primary source of income. Attracting developers to build desirable apps for the OS requires that the hardware and OS run smoothly.
      • In the case of Google, phone manufacturers need to tweak Android updates to work with their hardware. Google recommends that they do this for 18-months after a phone's release. Because phone contracts tend to be 24 months, the eroding capabilities of the phone drive consumer desire to upgrade by the time their contract is up.
    • Price As market penetration approaches saturation in western markets, price is increasingly a factor.
      • To provide cheaper phones, manufacturers build lower-range phones. Naturally, this implies a shorter period in which the phone will function well.
      • In an attempt to penetrate lower-end markets and build a thriving app store, Microsoft recently began providing Windows Phone OS without license fees to manufacturers. This is bringing the price down to a point where smartphones are affordable in largely untapped emerging markets, such as Africa. Not only with this increase production, but foster the mentality that smartphones are cheap enough to replace if anything goes wrong.
With this brief explanation of the cell phone upgrade system, we have a preliminary understanding of a piece of a complex system that promotes excessive consumption and production of rare-earth metals. Expand your perspective by subscribing to future EcoMerge posts. You can also deepen your knowledge of rare-earth metal related issues by visiting raremetalsandmaterials.weebly.com

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