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Thank goodness Apple doesn't make space probes

24 Apr 2024

Some good news for those who have been following the story of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft.

After several months of simply sending back gibberish to Earth, the probe is once again sending usable data about the region it is passing through, some 24 billion km from earth.

A fault in one of the components of Voyager's onboard electronics had meant that the flow of data ceased some time ago, athough the radio carrier was still being received. It was only after much head-scratching and lateral thinking that NASA engineers managed to get things working again.

So what does Apple have to do with this?

Well the Voyager 1 probe is nearly half a century old and, as such, its warranty has well and truly expired -- if such craft ever have a warranty.

Like so many of NASA's exploratory craft, Voyager 1 has exceeded the expectations of its designers by orders of magnitude. Just as those little Mars rovers continued to trundle for years after their official "end of life", so Voyager has been invaluably returning data from places further than man has ever reached before.

And, just like other missions, Voyager has encountered its share of "challenges" which have required Apollo-13-like cleverness to overcome.

Now, if this had been an Apple product, things would not have lasted nearly this long -- not because Apple can't make great products but because they have a rather different attitude to product life and repairs.

The engineers working on the nearly half-century old Voyager 1 have come up with a clever work-around to mitigate the problems caused by a failed memory chip and this has resulted in the relocation of critical code to a new address. I dare say there were many long hours spent diagnosing the problem, coming up with a fix, testing that fix many times on an emulator and then (finally) uploading it over a distance of more than 22 light hours to the probe.

If this was an Apple product, those responsible for keeping it going would have simply said "this is a superceded model, we no longer support it and even if we did then we would just recommend replacing the motherboard".

Yeah, there's a lot more money to be made by forcing customers to buy new gear than there is to provide cost-effective component-level repairs for older (but still perfectly useful) equipment. In fact, designing consumer products to be repairable is a dangerous strategy for the likes of Apple and would hurt their bottom line because people wouldn't have to replace their gear on a regular basis -- they could just get it repaired.

Apple isn't the only company that appears to engage in unfriendly attitudes with respect to repairs and planned obsolescence, it's now rampant within many aspects of consumer electronics and appliances. The result is massive amounts of ewaste and a significantly increased cost of ownership over time.

Yes, the products are cheaper to purchase brand-new but if you analyse the total cost over a 5 year period you may well find that repairability could reduce the TOTAL cost for many people because a cheap repair may negate the need to buy a whole new device.

The argument is, of course, that tech such as that associated with smartphones, TV sets etc, is advancing at such a pace that people want to replce their devices on an annual or biennial basis anyway so why bother making them fixable if it hikes the price?

My response would be that perhaps, in the name of the planet and sustainability, we need to reconsider just how often we replace our devices. As I mentioned in yesterday's column, despite my current computer having orders of magnitude more power than the one I used 30 years ago it still takes exactly the same amount of time for me to type up a letter. Perhaps eventually we'll realise that we simply can't afford to keep generating ewaste at the rate we do and that upgrading your smartphone is often done for reasons other than necessity.

I for one am glad that NASA continue to show just how long-lived you can make stuff and how, when you have no alternative, you can even fix a 50 year old computer from billions of miles away. The galaxy doesn't need our ewaste! :-)

Carpe Diem folks!

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