Moore’s Law, Planned Obsolescence, and the 5-year lifecycle

In a recent blog, we explained why issues tend to occur more frequently the later you get in the 5-year lifecycle of technology. However, we’ve had a few questions from folks wondering the origin of the 5-year lifecycle – why does computer equipment need to be replaced every five years?

Back in the 1960s, engineer and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore famously predicted that processing power would double every year or two, a pace that was maintained throughout the PC revolution of the 80s and 90s, and powered the Internet age into the 2000s – a prediction that would become known simply as Moore’s Law.

Through that time period, traditional software development cycles meant that major software revisions would typically occur every two to three years (i.e. Microsoft Office 95 / 97 / 2000 / 2003 / 2007 / 2010 / 2013 / 2016 / 2019…), with each revision optimized to run on the processing power of the day. As a result, running software two versions old or older on new hardware would often not work, as the new processors would often out-perform the software and cause errors. Likewise, trying to run new software on platforms two generations or more older would either run too slow to be useful, or not run at all. Therefore, with two technology generations spanning a five-year window, the 5-year lifecycle was born.

Since its useful life is limited, manufacturers design technology with an anticipated life cycle in mind. Why make a hard drive that’s designed to last for 20 years when the equipment will be refreshed in five years? Due to planned obsolescence, they do not. However, in addition to Moore’s Law, a second factor – portability – is also critical when determining lifecycle.

In general terms, the smaller and more portable the device, the shorter the lifecycle.

Below is the average replacement cycle for devices according to their manufacturers. As they say with vehicles, your mileage may vary, but this summary should help when budgeting for replacement or creating depreciation schedules:

  • Servers – 6 years
  • Firewalls – 5 years
  • Network Switches – 5 years
  • PCs – 5 years
  • Laptops – 3 years
  • Tablets – 29 months
  • Smartphones – 22 months

Many of our clients average 4-5 years with laptops, but the 3-year average takes into account devices damaged through misuse and abuse of personal devices, not just those used in a business environment. Similarly, we tend to find tablets and smart phones have a useful life of nearer to 3 years when drops and user abuse are factored out. However, portable and mobile devices still reach the end of their lifecycle more quickly than traditional desktop PCs, ironically enough, due to processing power.

One of the challenges of making anything smaller is figuring out how to dissipate the heat generated through operation. In order to reduce power consumption to lessen the heat generated, as well as to extend the battery life of the device, processing power is reduced. Therefore, a three year old laptop or tablet will feel older than a three year old PC because the processing power of the PC wasn’t as restricted at the time of manufacture due to heat and battery life concerns.