Google promises eternity of updates for Chromebooks – that's a decade for everyone else

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, laptops on fire off the shoulder of Orion...

Google said Thursday it will provide a decade of service updates for recent model Chromebooks, a policy change that reflects the growing political clout of right-to-repair campaigners.

Introduced in 2011, Chromebook hardware initially came with a three-year-life span. That's how long Google provided software and security updates via its Automatic Update Expiration date policy. And after those updates stopped, expired Chromebooks ended up as e-waste, to be recycled or just thrown into landfills.

Over time, faced with complaints from customers and advocacy groups about planned obsolescence and environmental harm, Google extended the maximum Chromebook lifespan to five years by 2016 and eight years by 2020.

The US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) nonetheless continued to press Google to support Chromebook hardware for longer periods of time. The group earlier this year issued its Chromebook Churn report, which argued for the benefits of more durable electronics. Long-lived, repairable Chromebooks mean less environmental waste and greater savings for taxpayers because schools, for one, don't have to replace expired hardware as frequently.

That pressure preceded, and perhaps contributed to, Google's latest Chromebook lifespan extension, which applies to hardware from 2021 or later.

While a decade of support is a decent stretch for most people, it is an utter eternity for Google, which is infamous for creating interesting products only to kill them off mere years later. That's because, according to those in the know, within the internet giant there is or has been, among other factors, generally more reward (think promotions and pay rises) attached to launching products and services than maintaining them. That said, important stuff like Chrome, ads, and search persists.

"All Chromebook platforms will get regular automatic updates for 10 years — more than any other operating system commits to today," said Prajakta Gudadhe and Ashwini Varma, each senior directors of engineering for ChromeOS, in an announcement.

"We're also working with partners to build Chromebooks with more post-consumer recycled materials (PCR), and rolling out new, power-efficient features and quicker processes to repair them. And at the end of their usefulness, we continue to help schools, businesses and everyday users find the right recycling option."

Note, if you've managed to get an OS onto your Chromebook that will continue to get updates and support for years to come independent of Google and its Linux-based ChromeOS, then good for you; this announcement won't mean much for you.

Lucas Rockett Gutterman, director of PIRG's Designed to Last campaign, hailed the hardware longevity breakthrough.

"Google’s decision is a victory for the parents, teachers, students and environmentalists who asked to extend the life of Chromebooks in response to our Chromebook Churn report," he said in a statement.

"With a lifespan of 10 years, fewer working laptops will be disposed of because they've reached their 'death date.'"

Ensuring that products can be repaired generally saves money and helps the environment. It also promotes competition by allowing third-party businesses to sell repair services without paying product makers fees to participate in manufacturer-run repair authorization schemes.

Those advocating to make vehicles and tech gear easier to fix have racked up a series of political victories over the past few years. "Right to Repair" laws have been adopted in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and (any day now) California, with at least 20 other US states considering such legislation.

Even Apple, which lobbied for years to thwart repair legislation and excels at extracting revenue through gatekeeping, offered a qualified endorsement of California's proposed DIY repair law. And the iBiz, which has made concessions to accommodate third-party repairs, actually mentioned repairability at its Wonderlust iPhone launch this week.

"For the first time, Apple openly acknowledged the importance of 'repairability' in their product design," noted The Repair Association.

"There is also a new internal chassis architecture that makes iPhone more repairable, thanks to a new structural frame that allows the back glass to be easily replaced," said Isabel Yang, material science engineer at Apple, during the corporation's smartphone launch event.

Nonetheless, despite such momentum, repair advocates worry that tech product makers may be able to undo domestic political will through international trade agreements.

Earlier this week, a handful of rights groups – American Economic Liberties Project, Center for Democracy & Technology, Consumer Reports, Farm Action, iFixit, National Farmers Union, The Repair Association, Public Knowledge, and US PIRG – wrote to President Biden to express concern about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

The groups warn that the "source code" provision added to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in 2019 is vague and could be interpreted to disallow requirements to share information about algorithms and software, thus undermining repair rules. Some in the tech industry, they say, want similar language added to the IPEF.

The advocacy groups ask President Biden to ensure no such language gets added to the IPEF and to modify the code provision within the USMCA so it cannot be used to thwart repair requirements. ®

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