Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No, you can't fix it

I'm gonna come right out and say Apple can put any kind of screws they want in my phone. I respect the engineers at Apple. Anybody that thinks they know better can suck it.
My iPhone 4 with the new fabulous pentalobular screws
I've had to two of my friends pop up on IM to complain about these tiny screws on the iPhone 4, like it's some kind of personal insult that Apple designed their own screw head. They were of the same frame of mind as MJ on iFixit in this video.

Apple's Diabolical Plan to Screw your iPhone from iFixit on Vimeo.

I can't watch that whole video because it just annoys me unnecessarily, particularly when it gets to the part where she's trying to sell something. I don't believe MJ has ever had to develop a bill of materials for a piece of consumer electronics nor deal with the transition to manufacturing and roll out of a new product. Well I have. So MJ can suck it. Repair is not the main concern of the Apple engineers when they specify their screws. They are thinking of how the assemblers can most easily put these things together. The next issue is how a proper service technician will reliably remove the screws to refurbish the phone with a new battery down the line. How the iFixit girl will take the back off so she can take it to her manicurist and get it decorated to match her nails is really not their concern. They probably only used those Philips screws in MJ's early version American phone because they had a box full of them they had to use up and they were waiting for the factory to ramp up making their special screws.

The ones in iPhone 4s now are five lobed flower-shaped screws apparently specific to Apple. After this became a news story "pentalobular screwdriver" shot up 1000% in Google searches. These screws are freaking tiny, by the way. The actual part where the screwdriver would go is smaller than the end of a toothpick. From inspection with my bookworm eye I can tell you the sides of the indentation are not angled like a Philips, they are straight, like a square bit. There are a lot of different screw drives and there are reasons they exist. Square bits, for example, hold the screw better at an angle. This one looks like that, straight sided cylinder cut out of the head of the screw, not angled like Philips. Say the Apple assembly line wanted to have the phone sideways when the screws were installed, like my phone in the picture above. I mean, I would, to keep the screw from accidentally falling into the docking connector. You're going to want a bit that will hold the screw. Phillips wouldn't work at all. The screw would fall off the bit as you tried to get it in the screw hole.

I checked with my friend Cheryl Tulkoff, a reliability engineer, to see I could find ANYBODY who would be with me on the side of the pentabular screw. Here's what she said:

It's funny that Apple ever used Phillips head screws to begin with. We routinely recommend against them in manufacturing because they are notoriously easy to strip - especially when they're small. So, you don't want to use them in situations where you'd expect to have to a need to remove them. I could see where you could end up doing cosmetic damage to the case trying remove stripped screws.
However, the real advantage is really in the replacement options from a manufacturing perspective. The Torx are supposed to save money in the manufacturing process now that torque controlled screwdrivers are so widely available. The Torx head wears the bits much less so they last longer before needing repair. And, they're supposed to stay tight once installed correctly - no backing out. 
But, tamper-proofing is also an important concern for warranty costs. Contrary to the opinions of folks who hack their devices, the majority of users aren't savvy enough to do anything but damage their device by opening it. And, everyone lies when they take a product in for warranty about what actually happened to it. :-)
In your face, iFixit! I think the pentalobular screw head is probably better than Torx since it is SO VERY TINY. Any sharp edges would just break right off. I think this screw design is kind of genius. I'm really sorry these people on the internet are being so mean about it.

Some stuff just isn't designed to be taken apart or repaired. I took apart my Mighty Mouse to try to fix it.
Once I got it apart and cleaned it I found that that my sweaty hands had just corroded through the conductor on the flex circuit and it was a goner. Saved me the trouble of gluing it back together. I bought another one for $60. I accepted that I just wore it out. I used it A LOT. I bet it cost me about $0.0001 per hour of use, so that's perfectly acceptable. But it doesn't make me mad that they designed a product that was held together with glue. They didn't do it to keep me out. They did it because that was the best way to make it. The scroll ball had issues though, and they phased it out. Now I use a big glass trackpad that won't corrode.

I bought the iPhone because I expected a high level of build quality, plus it was highly subsidized by the phone company. I'm not even sure I agree with MJ's claim that once she buys her phone it's hers to do with as she wants. We're really just renting it from AT&T. I plan to use my iPhone 4 until they are ready to entice me into getting a new one with fabulous new features. People are lucky if they even keep the same phone for 2 years. We already know what happens when I drop it in the creek. I just go straight to the Apple store and get a new one. I could tell by looking at the outside there was no way I could clean the condensation out of the camera lens even if the rest of it wasn't damaged. This is not something I'm going to try to "repair," even if I had the right screwdriver.

So to recap, ifixit.com thinks the pentabular screw is evil. In this article on cnet.com they kind of take my side and think iFixit overreacts. In the background of MJs video you can see this poster. Honestly I find this iFixit manifesto kind of offensive. I bet these people also want their new products to be inexpensive. R&D is a bare bones business. When I designed consumer electronics I was usually creating a Quick Start guide right after I finished checking the first sample off the production line and I was lucky if I even know how it worked since that was kind of a firmware thing and not really my area. It's not like there are separate people writing the instructions, let alone a whole team to work out the instructions for how to repair it. I don't think repair teaches engineering as much as trying to design stuff from scratch does. Especially since these dopes on iFixit seem to have no appreciation whatsoever of what goes into designing and manufacturing a product like the iPhone.

Now if they were talking about a lawnmower I'm completely with them. My Snapper back in Beachton came with a wonderful book that tells me exactly how to do all the maintenance on it. Step by step instructions for how to change the oil, how to drop the deck and get the blade off, how to tension the belt, on and on. Because it's a LAWNMOWER! Built by people in McDonough, Georgia with hand tools. OK, they're probably pneumatic, but the point is that it's MADE to be worked on by humans. Circuit boards today have components 1.8 the size of a piece of rice. The solder is silkscreened on and the parts are placed by precision robots, soldered in an oven and tested on a specially designed test station. They are not user serviceable. They're just not. If you want to get your phone apart so you can paint it then that's not repair, that's art, and I am fine with that. But I would think a real artist would recognize the beauty in that design and wouldn't be demanding inferior screws. And then try to sell them to you.....


  1. Seeing as I am one of the two people who mentioned this screw to Barbara, I would like to respectfully disagree and say Yes, I can fix it.

  2. OK, that's a really good rebuttal. In MY face:
    "This screw was not the result of an engineer solving a manufacturing problem, it was the result of an executive solving a servicing problem: that Apple was not making money from people replacing their own batteries. It's not that most people can't fix their own phones, it's that too many COULD."

    I guess I just didn't think of it that way. Despite my misanthropy I'm an optimist when it comes to the one company that seems to be trying to manufacture something with a well thought out design. Steve could be completely right about the choice of that screw head being made independently from R&D or the manufacturing engineers. I guess I was just avoiding that perspective because it fills me with a dark sadness. I was doing a good job of repressing those days when some marketing wank would make me do something stupid, like that time I had to change a warning label from "stay back 1 meter," my calculated distance of safe radiation plus a fudge factor, to "stay back 2 meters" because the marketing guy said that's what the competitor's sticker said. They claimed 1 meter made our antenna seem weaker. I claimed 2 meters meant you'd have to jump off the boat and swim around the damn thing, but they won.

    But when it comes right down to it neither Steve nor I know the real reason for this choice of screw head. There is little chance we'll hear from the person that pushed for this choice or the people who fought against it.

    Steve's also right that he can probably change a cracked screen. I wasn't thinking about that particular failure mode. I imagine I could also fix that, yet I still honor Apple's decision to use a special screw of their own design. The fact is there is a warranty involved. When I got my new phone after I dropped my first one in the creek it wasn't like buying a brand new one. I got the subsidized price again, and it didn't change my contract.

    I don't remember if I signed anything promising not to open the phone though. Last time I logged into iTunes on my phone it asked me to sign a new agreement. I got to (page 1 of 52), laughed, and clicked Accept.

  3. I enjoyed this tons. I love your POV here. Thanks.

  4. Thanks Nicole! My first comment not written by a man! I suppose you were compelled by karma to comment because about an hour ago I wrote on another woman's science blog that I'd never gotten a comment from a woman, except some by my mother :) http://bit.ly/dJdgqb

  5. Thanks for the reply!

    I tried to read the iTunes agreement once or twice, sometimes I forward it to my email, but I have never read the whole thing (in spite of having accepted its terms numerous times). I did a quick scan and didn't find anything that would limit what you can do with your device, but rather limits on what you can do with content from the iTunes Store.

    As for the radiation warning, ugh. Did you suggest using a four times more powerful transmitter to justify the label? I might have gone my smart-alek route and suggested a warning label like: "CAUTION: This radio emits radiation at levels easily detectable for up to five miles." Yeah, now THAT is scary! :)

  6. It was actually an Inmarsat M parabolic antenna that was detectable by a satellite at least 35,700 km away. But it would only be pointing at some point over the equator, with a narrow beam, so wasn't really dangerous to somebody standing below it. The upside is I still have a hundred silkscreened decals that say "Radio Frequency Radiation Hazard. Stay back 1 meter." Want one?

  7. Steven (Scrib) said practically everything I wanted to say regarding the Pentalobe issue, and in a clear and un-offended fashion, so I'll let that stand on its own.

    I also notice that he didn't resort to insulting my intelligence or make jokes at the expense of my gender. If there's anything worse than a man berating a woman in troll-like fashion, it's a woman berating a woman in troll-like fashion. I'm sure you're aware of how few women there are in science and technology, and I'd bet that you've been treated the way that you've treated me in this post. If not, then I'm (sincerely) happy for you, and I hope you never experience that kind of ignorance.

    I wonder if you would get more comments from women (the lack of which you yourself mentioned) if you weren't so quick to relegate them to irrelevance?

    Regarding your statement "these dopes on iFixit seem to have no appreciation whatsoever of what goes into designing and manufacturing a product like the iPhone": Clearly you have no idea what we're (iFixit) about, or the borderline reverence we hold for Apple's design process. I make mention of it in my video (but perhaps you ignored that in favor of sensationalizing your post?), and you can watch our CEO praise the iPad, specifically, in his feature presentation at Macworld a couple of weeks ago: youtube.com/watch?v=0eEI50icgv8

    Finally, I wonder what you find so offensive about the first three premises of our manifesto? (Repair is better than recycling, Repair saves the planet and Repair saves you money.) I suppose if you're the type that believes that we will never run out of resources, conservation /does/ seem kind of silly. But offensive?

    I'm sure you never intended on my reading your post, and I'm sure you didn't mean any harm by painting me as a vapid, Swarovski crystal-encrusted-iPhone wielding idiot. I'm treated this way (by men, mostly) fairly often, and usually those folks turn out to be decent people. I feel like, commands to "suck it" (suck what, exactly?), and jokes-at-the-expense-of-our-gender aside, your writing could be quite good! Best of luck with your blog!

  8. Hi MJ!

    I'm reflecting back over my life in high tech and I'm pretty sure nobody has ever painted me as a vapid Swarovski crystal-encrusted-iPhone wielding idiot. I think most people would be surprised to know I've even ever heard of Swarovski crystals! I guess I am lucky, like you said, that I have so assiduously avoided being trolled. I guess I don't much think about being one of a few women in science or technology because I've always been the ONLY woman. So I just don't really think about gender that much. I'm just one of the guys. Which is probably why I use gender inappropriate expressions. Once in a crisis I blurted out "Suck my dick!" I'm like a baby pig that was nursed with a litter of puppies. I forget I'm different from the dogs that share my cardboard box.

    As for the manifesto I think I covered that pretty well in my essay. The extra R&D work involved in creating microelectronics that are repairable would make the product too expensive, too big, and would be a competitive disadvantage for the maker. And I stated that non-electronics are different.

    My blog speaks for my dedication to repairing big things. I'm actually even more excited about reuse of parts that were thrown away when somebody repaired something.


  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.