When Kyle Wiens and his colleagues flew to New Zealand two years ago, they weren’t on vacation. They had a serious mission: to purchase one of the first iPhones and then ruthlessly tear it apart.
Wiens runs iFixit, a tech company that can be described as eccentric, to say the least. The staff of 20 engineers and college interns specializes in disassembling gadgets while documenting the process with photographs and writing. The end result of their work is an unofficial, illustrative instruction guide on taking apart and repairing each gadget. Their stated goal is to help consumers avoid the hefty costs of professional repairs or buying new products.
But it’s also a savvy marketing strategy in an increasingly competitive slice of what the tech industry calls “teardown culture.”
Some other companies, including RapidRepair and iSuppli, run similar businesses taking apart products. Hardware hackers, too, disassemble hardware as a hobby to learn how to tweak their devices into the gadgets of their dreams.
But teardown businesses don’t make money tearing down these gadgets, taking pictures of their insides or offering manuals. Rather, iFixit and RapidRepair both sell the parts for consumers to order and perform their self-repairs. And if customers are too afraid to do their own repairs, RapidRepair offers their professional services for a fee.
Photographing and documenting the teardown process, then, is mostly a marketing tool for these businesses to gain media attention and exposure in an effort to attract customers. IFixit, for instance, regularly sends tech publications (including Wired.com) their teardown observations and free photographs for use in articles.
Playing the “time zone game” with iFixit’s 2007 New Zealand flight gave the crew a head start of 27 hours before the iPhone was released on the U.S. West coast, where Wiens lives. But they still faced a number of challenges.
First, they had never been to New Zealand, so they had no office to work in and knew nobody who could help them. They couldn’t just set up shop in a hotel room, either: They needed lots of space, light and a fast internet connection to upload high-resolution photos documenting their process. Fortunately, the owner of a copy shop was generous enough to offer his facility for their use.
They got to work on the toughest part yet: disassembling a brand new product whose innards nobody, except Apple’s engineers, knew anything about. It turned out the first-generation iPhone didn’t even have screws to get inside. The team was momentarily stumped on just how to take apart the iPhone.
Then — eureka! They found they could pop off the black antenna shield and pry off the metal back.
“That was monstrously difficult,” Wiens said in a phone interview. Surprisingly, his team didn’t break the device, though its metal band was slightly bent after they reassembled it.
Marketing aside, why are geeks so fascinated by looking at the chips, wires, ribbons and glue — the hideous part of a gadget — when the gorgeous part is on the outside?
It’s quite simple: By peering into these gadget’s “souls,” you learn their secrets. A teardown of the new iPhone 3GS (the top photo in this article), for example, revealed the handset has an underclocked processor, presumably to preserve its battery life. And when iFixit disassembled the iPod Touch released in September 2008 (shown above), the company found a hidden bonus: an apparently unused Bluetooth chip, whose functionality Apple would later unlock in summer of 2009.
Aaron Vronko, CEO of RapidRepair, added that teardowns serve as a check on a company’s claims. Apple’s Steve Jobs, for example, recently said the latest (third-generation) iPod Touch lacks a camera because the gadget’s focus is gaming. However, iFixit’s teardown of the new iPod Touch found a small compartment that would be perfect for a camera.
“I don’t believe Steve’s explanation,” Vronko said. “I think in six months tops we’ll see an iPod Touch with a camera.”
The more interesting facet of looking inside is the opportunity to see forward, Vronko said.
“Teardowns give us insights on what’s coming up on technology and what kind of technologies people are choosing to integrate,” Vronko said. “It’s cool to see first hand the progression of design.”
A clear observation from teardowns is they keep getting more difficult, as gadgets progressively become smaller, more complex and more tightly packed with components.
Andrew Bookholt, a Cal Poly student studying mechanical engineering and an iFixit intern, flew to Newark to pick up a fifth-generation iPod Nano for teardown. He described the process of tearing down the camera-equipped iPod Nano as “a pain.” Copious amounts of glue held together the miniature device, and the click wheel was not removable and had to be popped out. It was so hard, in fact, Bookholt broke the Nano on his first attempt.
But Bookholt’s hard work (and iFixit’s money) was worth it, because the Nano’s guts spilled some fascinating hints on what’s to come.
“Apple is integrating everything more and more toward the iPhone-sized computer that will do everything,” Bookholt said. “I think they’re just going to shrink everything down, and maybe eventually have a Nano have all the capabilities of an iPhone, plus more. The trend is going toward an all-in-one device that has a lot of functions.”
IFixit’s Wiens has been taking apart gadgets for six years, and he said his favorite observation is the inadvertent harmony between rivals such as Apple and Microsoft. The two are fierce competitors, Wiens said, but once you look inside their gadgets, many of them are made by the same people. The Zune HD and the iPhone, for example, were both made by Foxconn, a major manufacturer in China.
“You’ve got these arch nemesis devices, and they’re the culmination of years of effort by Microsoft and Apple,” Wiens said. “But they’re being assembled and shipped out of China by the same company. At the same time you know the product managers at Apple and Microsoft hate each other’s guts.”
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