Kyle Wiens and his team at iFixit, a Web site that provides free repair manuals and advice forums, are some of the smartest Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) geeks around. They’ve taken apart countless iPhones, Macs and iPads to see what makes them tick-and, of course, to find out how to repair them.
A few weeks ago, iFixit first reported Apple’s screwy behavior to put tamper-resistant “Pentalobular” screws into its products that stymie do-it-yourselfers from making repairs. Then iFixit manufactured a tiny screwdriver that works on the Pentalobular screw’s five-point flowery design.
Just how obsessed are these guys? Wiens flew to London to get his hands on the first iPhone 3GS before it debuted in the United States, and to Japan for the iPhone 4. Wiens was also a featured speaker at Macworld 2011 in San Francisco last week.
CIO.com sat down with Wiens at Macworld 2011 to get his impressions of the components that Apple puts into its products, as well as the strategy behind the components. He also gave his predictions of what might be inside the upcoming iPad 2 and iPhone 5.
Did Apple’s switch to tamper-resistant Pentalobular screws surprise you?
Wiens: It surprised me that they were swamping out [standard Phillip screws] in their stores. I can see them switching production for new products, but to retroactively switch something they did in the past is a little disturbing. It’s like a locksmith changing the locks in your house so that only he can rekey the locks in the future.
Some manufacturers have tried this. Mercedes removed the dipsticks in their cars so that you couldn’t change the oil. There was a huge furor, and they had to put them back. Nintendo has a proprietary connector called the Gamebit, but it’s become popular enough that there’s a lot available today.
You’ve built a Pentalobular screw driver, mainly for hacking out the screw and replacing it with a Phillip screw. Tell me about making this screw driver.
Wiens: The quality of the screw driver is better than how we’ve been describing it. You can use it for multiple uses. It’s not exactly the same shape as Apple’s [Pentalobular] screw driver, because we were concerned there might be patents. We haven’t found any patents yet.
Our screw driver is basically a five-point star. We’ve got a professional-grade version of the tool. Manufacturing this was really a challenge. It’s so tiny. The screw driver is 0.7 millimeters across. You can’t even really see it [with the naked eye].
COO Tim Cook said Apple had invested US$3.9 billion to secure component supplies and capacity. Is this a good strategy?
Wiens: Apple has been shifting more of their cash to long-term investments, such as manufacturing partnerships. I think it’s a very wise place for Apple to be spending their money. It’s relatively low risk. Apple has such a line on the market that they are in much better position to forecast that risk than everybody else.
With all the other tablets coming out, it doesn’t matter how competitive they are hardware-wise. We haven’t seen anybody compete with the iPad. Certainly, nobody can come close to competing with the iPad on price, partially because of these bulk purchasing deals that Apple has set up.
When Apple first introduced the iPod, they were buying up all the Flash in market from all four suppliers. Nobody has been able to come up with an iPod Touch competitor because nobody can hit that $200 price point.
What do you expect to see in the iPad 2?
Wiens: The iPad compared to the iPhone 4 feels like a very primitive device. It doesn’t have Facetime and some sensing capabilities. So I expect to see Facetime. Apple also has to increase the RAM. Right now, app developers do not get enough RAM. I think we’ll see substantially improved graphic performance.
Wiens: I think the iPad 2 is going to play catch up to the iPhone 4, with the exception of a higher resolution. Apple will have to double the resolution, which is four times as many pixels. Otherwise, apps would not work well.
Right now, the iPad’s pixel density is terrible, only 129 pixels per inch. The Galaxy Tab beats the iPad with 169 pixels per inch. But I’m not aware of any manufacturer that has the capacity to deliver double the iPad pixel density on a 7-inch display yet.
I can see Apple doing some deals in the last six months, spending billions of dollars to get those factories online, and producing those displays 18 months from now.
Will the iPad 2 have a multi-core chip?
Wiens: This year? I don’t know. They desperately need it. Multi-tasking on iOS is painful. Part of that is CPU limited. You have a single in-line processor and you’re trying to run multiple end-to-end contact switching. You end up pushing the thing really hard.
What about a bigger battery?
Wiens: You open up the iPhone or iPad, and it’s mostly battery. Thermal dissipation is going to be an issue. We might have thermal-limited mobile devices.
Look at the new Sony PSP. It’s packing four cores and has pretty sophisticated graphics. I didn’t see a battery life number, but let’s say it has a two-hour battery life. That means it has to dissipate the heat of, maybe, a 6- or 8-watt battery in two hours. It can get really hot. The iPhone 4 certainly gets a lot hotter than the iPad.
Sounds like you’re not expecting too much from Apple this year.
Wiens: What they do with wireless and cellphone technology is going to be interesting. I’m hoping Apple surprises us. Certainly, there’s a lot of talk about the payment systems. Apple picks segments they want to go into, like video editing. I suspect that the next big thing for Apple is going to be mobile payments. We’re definitely going to go to near-field communication, local payment systems soon.
That would be mostly for the iPhone. What do you expect to see in the iPhone 5?
Wiens: It’ll be interesting to see if Apple continues to go with glass on the back panel. People break the iPhone 4 glass often. The failure rate is not something people are happy with. The iPad, on the other hand, is very durable. We’re seeing very few failures.
For the iPhone 5, I want to see dual core and more RAM. The camera is already pretty good. It would be nice to see some more around HDR (high dynamic range imaging), such as speeding up the shutter speed and HDR processing. Maybe a new antenna design.
I do not foresee Apple going to 4G LTE this year. I suspect the chip sets are still very expensive. Apple also likes having as few SKUs (stock keeping units) as possible.
You and a friend started iFixit in a dorm room at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, seven years ago. Why?
Wiens: The world in 2010 manufactured 1.4 billion cell phones. The number grows every year. You can’t really run a linear manufacturing cycle on a planet with finite resources. You have to start recycling and looping back in.
By creating a central database of repair manuals, we’re hoping it will lower the barrier to entry to repair, and people will extract more value. Let’s say a cell phone lasts two to three years. We should be looking at a cell phone lifespan similar to the cell tower technology, which is maybe every five to 10 years.