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Why are companies intentionally bricking their own technology?

Lisa Iscrupe

Jul 19, 2020 — 6 min read

There’s a pervasive policy called “bricking” and it’s costing you money. We’ll explain what it is and what can be done to protect your tech investments.

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You may have heard of fast fashion, the method of churning out tons of low-quality clothing that is cheaper to replace than repair. Well, there’s a technological equivalent, and it’s happening every day, right under our noses. 

It’s called bricking, and it’s costing the American consumer some big bucks. Not only does this system generate more waste and feed into the fast-technology turnover, but it also creates a never-ending cycle of retiring and buying technology, at a faster rate than ever before. What companies are behind this practice? What can you do to avoid replacing your pricey tech before you’re ready? Find out here.

What is bricking?

Simply put, bricking is the implicit policy of many tech companies to only support upgrades and fixes for their most recent generations of products. “Older” products (that were the most advanced technology just a few years ago) are no longer supported and eventually rendered obsolete and useless. 

With the rise of the Internet of Things (IOT), this issue doesn’t just affect old cellphones anymore. Bricking can happen to nearly any device that connects to the internet, uses Wi-Fi or gets regular operating system updates

What can happen once your smart device is on the road to being bricked? There are lots of possible side effects, such as:

  • No longer get OS updates 
  • No longer get bug updates and fixes
  • Device will become less secure (due to not receiving updates)
  • Device will stop being able to support new programs 
  • Over time, the device will lose all effectiveness, thus becoming like a brick

If this sounds eerily similar to the plot of WALL-E, Pixar’s animated criticism of consumerism and human environmental impact, it’s because it is. Even the most frugal tech user will eventually be affected by this business strategy, because, hey, you can’t use that computer from 2002 forever, right? We’ll show you a few ways to lessen the impact and get the most life out of your devices. 

How does this affect you?

To a certain degree, every company engages in bricking in some form. If they didn’t, we’d all still be carrying around our iPod shuffles in one pocket and our smartphones in another. For technology to progress, a certain number of products will ordinarily become outdated over time. 

Of course, not all outdated devices are total “bricks” if they still function to some degree. For example, your circa 2005 iPod shuffle may still play music, but you’ll likely have a hard time updating it with new music or getting it fixed at the Apple store if it were to break. 

Another example on the tech horizon is the coming 5G revolution and the eventual need to upgrade to 5G smartphones. While 4G and 4G LTE phones work perfectly fine for now, that will likely not hold true in another 10 years. 

However, there are a number of companies that are refusing to update and support computers, tablets and similar devices that are just three to four years old. And since you never know if that brand new laptop you’re purchasing today is going to be one that is “discontinued” a few years from now, even a smart shopper can get roped into having to upgrade earlier than they planned.

Which tech companies are doing this?

Sonos, Nest, MacBooks, Apple HomePods and Pixel 3 smartphones are some popular products that have been recently bricked, just to name a few. 

Consumers are starting to catch on though, and no surprise, we’re not happy.

In a few instances, incensed customers have even managed to roll back some bricking policies, thanks to their ability to rally together online and challenge these policies. Take a look at these recent examples of bricking and the outcomes.

  • Sonos “recycling mode” — In 2019, “high-end speaker manufacturer Sonos announced it would no longer be providing software updates to any hardware that was released prior to 2011,” according to Popular Mechanics. Customers were told they could put their devices into “Recycle Mode,” rendering the product unusable (as in, it can’t even be resold), and trade it in to get 30% off new Sonos products. 

    Of course, with a price tag starting around $200 per speaker, and easily adding up to over a thousand dollars for a complete home audio system, that so-called deal rubbed some Sonos buyers the wrong way. Six months later, after the customer uproar became impossible to ignore, Sonos changed course, somewhat. The company still will end support for their older “legacy” devices eventually, but customers will not have to brick their old speakers. They can sell them, re-gift them or whatever else they choose. 
  • MacBook Pro security features — Normally, we’d say more security is a good thing, but when Apple rolled out their proprietary diagnostic software in 2018, it caused a whole lot of headaches for independent repair shops. Customers who thought they were doing the responsible thing by recycling their old MacBooks, which came with an original price tag of about $3,000 just a few years prior, found that Apple’s T2 security chip prevented reuse.

    According to Vice, one affected MacBook refurbisher noted, “you can’t get to recovery mode and wipe the machine without a user password, and you can’t boot to an external drive and wipe that way because it’s prohibited by default,” essentially reducing the resale value of the laptops to the cost of their parts as scrap. 
  • Apple HomePods iOS updates — In 2019, Apple released the iOS 13.2 update to its line of smart speakers, which basically shut down all functionality to a large number of HomePods. Apple later recalled the update due to customer complaints. 
  • Samsung Galaxy Note7 safety hazard — Bricking was a necessity for the ill-fated Note7, the Samsung smartphone that became known for bursting into flames and was subsequently recalled in 2016. Since not all consumers returned their affected devices, Samsung sent out an update to brick the devices, which permanently shut off the phone’s data connections and prevented the device from charging.

What can you do about it?

So, what can you do to prevent bricking and protect your tech investments? There are a few proactive actions you can take to get the most out of your tech devices.

  • Speak up — Use social media to your advantage. Outlets like Twitter and Reddit are great for calling out unfair bricking practices and connecting with other affected consumers. And don’t forget, plain ol’ customer service can still help out in many cases. 
  • Do your research — If a company has a history of bricking devices in rapid fashion, think twice before investing heavily in their product lines. A quick search online can point you in the direction of articles like this one, so you can learn which companies you might want to watch out for. 
  • Be careful of accidentally bricking your own devices — Bricking your own device by mistake can occur when trying to update operating systems or other firmware that are too advanced for the generation of device you are using. It can also occur if there is an interruption in the updating process, such as the device loses power or its battery dies mid-update.

    If you have your devices set to automatically update, it’s a good idea to change that setting to manual updating. That way you can wait a few days before installing any updates to see if other users report any issues. Long story short, if you suspect your older device may not be able to support a newly-released update, check with the manufacturer’s IT or customer service department before proceeding with the download. 
  • Be aware of passive bricking — At a certain point, older devices will be bricked, perhaps not entirely on purpose, but simply because they will outlive their tech lifespan, which leads us to our next point…
  • Recycle your old tech — Once your device is bricked, or you decide it’s past the point of usefulness, make sure to recycle it. You may even be able to find a few ways to repurpose old devices. And, of course, make sure to wipe any personal data beforehand.

Find other ways to get the most out of your broadband by following the Resource Center and signing up for our weekly Allconnect newsletter. 

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Lisa Iscrupe

Written by:

Lisa Iscrupe

Writer, Broadband & Data Content

Lisa uses years of experience in sales and customer service for internet-TV providers to inform her writing on broadband. Her work has been referenced by CNN and other national sources. … Read more