The iPhone 7 announced yesterday is water-resistant. This is a big deal. More mobile phones reach the end of their useful lives because of water than by exhausting the battery or being run over by a truck. A water-resistant iPhone means that the number of iPhones that have to be manufactured will be smaller by almost half. Looking at it this way, this is the biggest savings in manufacturing costs in the history of the smart phone. Apple itself will enjoy much of the savings — its protection plans often oblige it to replace a water-damaged phone. Apple customers will benefit too, saving hours of inconvenience and perhaps $500 every time an iPhone falls in a puddle and isn’t damaged.
This will look like a negative event for Apple. By making the iPhone more durable, it’s giving up the chance to sell 50 million replacement iPhones per year. To make a water-resistant product Apple had to streamline its design in ways that are sure to draw complaints at first. But that is the short-sighted way of looking at it. An iPhone that is not so easily damaged is a “stickier” product, staying with a customer for a longer period of time. That’s more of a negative for Apple’s competitors than for Apple itself. The phone manufacturer that sells its customers three phones in five years does not come out looking good if Apple customers need only one during that same period of time. Meanwhile, when customers are using an Apple phone for five years in a row, that will end up being an advantage for Apple in other ways that may prove to be just as important as the initial hardware sale.
When products are more durable without being harder to make, that is a boost for sustainability in some obvious ways. It is just one of many ways that manufacturing is become less central to the functioning of the world economy.