How Apple Could Really Change the World

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africa-ipad

Apple Chairman Steve Jobs has always wanted Apple to “change the world.” Of course it has, but only the wealthy, tech-savvy, privileged part of the world. Despite its incredible success, Apple hasn’t changed the world for billions of poor people.

To date, Apple has changed the world only by solving only first-world problems: “My Windows laptop came loaded with crapware and stickers.” “My PC is noisy and ugly.” “I hate audio CDs and CD players.” “My cell phone is counterintuitive.” “I want to surf the web while watching TV, but my netbook sucks.”

These are the kinds of problems Apple has solved for millions of people.

But there are bigger problems out there that Apple is in a unique position to solve.

In fact, a single solution could help solve five real problems, and change the world in five meaningful ways. It could even accelerate Apple’s phenomenal growth.

I challenge incoming CEO Tim Cook to consider the following proposal.

Here it is: Apple should set up a program to transfer used Apple hardware from the wealthy first world to the needy third world.

Here are the key aspects of this program:

  • Make devices as long-lasting as possible, and easy to disassemble
  • Establish a trade-in program with a big discount on the new if you turn in the old
  • Set up facilities in target third-world countries for safe, quality refurbishment
  • Sell some of the devices at very low cost to authorized local distributors
  • Donate the rest to non-profit organizations that focus on third-world education

Here are the five major problems this program would help solve.

The e-waste problem

Toxic e-waste is a massive and growing problem for the entire world. Apple itself is a mixed bag in its contribution to e-waste. On the plus side, the company has an unusually responsible materials and recycling program. (Apple uses better materials and makes an effort to prevent environmental and health problems in recycling.)

On the down side, the company makes “disposable” products that are quickly obsoleted by newer and better versions. A LOT of products. (No doubt you read Killian Bell’s post this week about Apple making 150,000 iPhone 5 units a day. A DAY.)

While Apple is more responsible than most, the consumer electronics industry in general is an e-waste disaster in progress.

While recycling is better than tossing electronics into a landfill, it’s really a lousy solution to the bigger problem of e-waste.

If you’re unfamiliar with the e-waste crisis, this short video and this one will get you up to speed quickly. These videos show a type of recycling that Apple’s policies avoid. But my proposal would enable Apple to significantly reduce the unsafe recycling of other companies’ discarded products.

Manufacturing millions of gadgets a day (industrywide), then recycling those gadgets a few years later, is part the problem. The most environmental solution is to reduce the number of products manufactured in the first place.

A well-executed Apple program could increase the number of Apple products manufactured, and decrease the number of other products made.

Millions of refurbished Apple goods dropped into the third world would reduce the market for the shoddily manufactured goods now enjoying brisk sales.

Instead of buying a toxic, unrecyclable brand-new junk cell phone with an exploding battery made by some disreputable sweatshop, a person could theoretically buy a used Apple iPhone at the same price, and be far better off for it. Best of all, the crappy phone would never be built in the first place.

If you multiply this replacement of new junk with used Apple products by millions of units (millions of junk gadgets never manufactured), Apple would start to have a major impact on the e-waste crisis.

The materials shortage problem

China controls more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare-earth metals, some of which are used in the kinds of products Apple builds. Shortages, hoarding and other possibilities make these materials especially precious, and increasingly expensive.

The program I’m proposing would reduce the world’s demand for some rare-earth metals, as total product manufacturing would go down, and the materials in Apple products would be used for a longer period of time.

The digital divide problem

The world is divided into technology haves and have-nots. By funneling high-quality refurbished iGoods into the have-not marketplace, Apple could make a profound improvement in the lives of millions of people around the world.

Combined with Internet connectivity provided by local governments or global NGOs, a single iPhone or iPad could transform the economic fortunes of an entire village. It would open up new markets for their hand-made goods and crops, provide weather information for more efficient farming, bring a universe of educational materials into the school and much more.

The OLPC problem

The One Laptop Per Child program seeks to “empower the world’s poorest children through education.”

A key part of their mission is to design and build low-cost, low-power, child-safe and rugged laptops purpose built for environments with limited or no connectivity, intermittent power and harsh conditions.

But for every child supplied with one of these OLPC devices, a hundred go without. A single ruggedized case could transform iPads into OLPC devices, too.

Apple could partner with the OLPC organization to design the special case and distribute the iPads.

The upgrade guilt syndrome problem

Hey, first-world problems are still problems.

The Atlantic Monthly recently pointed out that millions of people are probably hoping and praying that their iPhones, iPads and iPods break or have some problem so they have an excuse to replace them with the latest thing.

Apple could solve this whole guilt-ridden, shame-inducing problem by providing a healthy trade-in program for old goods.

When the iPhone 5 hits, I’ll probably stand in line and buy one on the first day. Meanwhile, my iPhone 4 is in perfect condition, just as my iPhone 3GS was when I abandoned it.

Millions of us do this. The new thing comes out. We want it. But our old one is still working perfectly. This happens with phones, tablets, laptops and desktops.

Let’s look at the current reality: The majority of Apple products that users stop using are either fully functional or mostly functional. With mobile devices, the only problem is often reduced battery life. These unused products either sit in a drawer or a box in the garage. They might be recycled, or even thrown in the trash.

Apple could take the lead in doing something Insanely Great with these older models. They could be brought by the millions into their re-distribution program, checked for functionality, loaded apps appropriate to the language and conditions of the country where they’ll be distributed and then sold at very low cost or donated to philanthropic organizations.

A well-designed Apple refurbish-and-redistribute program could reduce the number of gadgets manufactured, help the environment and improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

Apple: Do you want to sell luxury goods to rich people for the rest of your life? Or do you want to listen to me and change the world?

(Picture courtesy of NPPglobal.)