Image: Jason Koebler
It happened suddenly, like most of these stories do. My alarm went off. I kicked my leg out as I jolted awake, making solid contact with my new laptop, which was innocently lying at the foot of my hotel bed for some reason. It landed on a chair leg; the crash was loud. The aluminum next to the Apple logo was visibly, obviously dented. I flipped it open and was greeted with a large blob of dead pixels radiating outward from the dent.
My options were few. $600 for an LCD replacement at the Apple store. $500 to get an independent repairman to do it. On a whim, I searched eBay and was shocked to see that I could get a new LCD for $50, if I was willing to find out whatever the inside of a MacBook Pro looked like. I pressed buy.
And then I saw the screw.
If you’ve tried to open any iDevice—iPad, iPhone, iMac, any of them—within the last four years, you've come face-to-face with Apple’s very small, five-pointed Do Not Enter sign. It's an overt declaration that your phone, or your computer, or your tablet is not really yours to tamper with, a public statement that you are not qualified to fix your own things.
If you’re reading this on your iPhone or have one nearby, look at either side of the charging port and you’ll seem them: two tiny, star-shaped screw heads that, outside of an obscure wheelchair manufacturer, do not otherwise exist in the wild.
Pentalobe screws. Images: iFixit
There is a solution to this “pentalobe” screw, however. A screwdriver engineered by iFixit, a California startup that has been simultaneously antagonizing Apple and making sure that, as electronics get more and more complicated, the layperson will still be able to learn how to fix them. (Other companies have since begun offering pentalobe screwdrivers.)
I spent a few days with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens and professional repair experts at the Electronics Reuse Conference in New Orleans earlier this month to learn more about how your right to open, tinker with, and repair devices that you own is under attack from the very companies that make them.
"Normally if I purchase a hammer, if the head of the hammer falls off, I'm allowed to repair it"
Manufacturers have attempted to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to claim that they own the software that makes an electronic an electronic, and tampering with that software is a copyright violation. There's the fact that Apple quietly stopped accepting applications for "Authorized Service Provider" designations in 2010. There are the seizures of "counterfeit" parts being imported from China that may be legally legitimate. There are the lease programs carriers and Apple have started that ensure you won't ever actually "own" a phone ever again.
“Normally if I purchase a hammer, if the head of the hammer falls off, I'm allowed to repair it and fix it. I can use the hammer again,” Charles Duan, director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, told me. “For a lot of these newer devices, manufacturers want to say ‘We want to be the only ones to repair it’ because they make more profits off the repairs. They've found lots and lots of way to do this. Intellectual property law, contracts, end user license agreements, lots and lots of ways to try to make sure you can't do what you want with your stuff.”
So, Apple has lots of ways to keep you out of your devices. But the screw is a good place to start.
The iPhone 4 shipped with standard, Phillips head screws. Sometime in late 2010, however, the company began ordering its Apple Store Geniuses to replace standard screws with pentalobe ones on any iPhone 4 devices that were brought in for repair. Reuters reported on January 20, 2011 that employees were instructed to not tell customers that they had made the switch. The switch should have, in theory, made it impossible for anyone except for Apple to open the device.
Wiens had expected this, however. Wiens originally tipped Reuters on the story and then, the day after the article was published, iFixit released an "iPhone Liberation Kit" that consists of a pentalobe screwdriver and two replacement Phillips head screws. While on a trip to Japan, Wiens learned that the Japanese iPhone 4 had shipped with pentalobe screws. Using a microscope and a file, a fellow repair-minded man there managed to whittle down a flathead screwdriver into the pentalobe shape, granting him access to the device.
“That was the first screwdriver in the world outside of Apple that would remove the pentalobe screw,” Wiens told me. “Apple was literally screwing their customers, and because we had a heads up, we were able to sell a screwdriver as soon as it came to the United States.”
Kyle Wiens. Image: Jason Koebler
I learned about iFixit soon after I learned about the screw. A few quick Google searches took me to the San Luis Obispo, California-based company's website. After buying a pentalobe screwdriver, I spent a few minutes clicking around, which opened my eyes to an entire thriving community of DIY repairmen and women.
Want to know how to fix the "Red Ring of Death" issue that affects Xbox 360s? iFixit provides step-by-step instructions on how to break into the device, and also sells the parts and tools you'll need to complete the repair. Want to disassemble a DSLR camera lens? Replace the screen on your iPhone (or any other phone)? Install more RAM on your PC? Fix the "alarm" on your alarm clock? iFixit has you covered. Want to see what the inside of a clothes iron looks like? How about a washing machine or a Speak & Spell toy? You got it. Need to learn to sew a replacement button onto a Patagonia shirt? The company can teach you to do that, too.
"We're competing with the garbage dump"
Though I'll mention Apple over and over again throughout this story, the company isn't alone in trying to make it difficult or potentially illegal for you or anyone else to fix your broken stuff. Most manufacturers are terrible at providing service manuals; Apple is notable simply because the repair market for the iPhone is larger than that of any specific Android phone.
John Deere told the copyright office that allowing farmers and mechanics to repair their own tractors would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.” Lexmark has been long-embroiled in a copyright case against a company that reverse-engineered its printers to create and sell aftermarket ink cartridges. The HTC One is basically impossible for a consumer to open, and so on and so forth.
Image: Jason Koebler
The Electronics Reuse Conference was full of people who reject the idea that manufacturers should have control over consumer devices. And, though there are industry secrets and advanced repair strategies that some don't share, they're here primarily to learn how to convince consumers that repairing your electronics is often superior to replacing them.
"Your competition is not each other," Wiens tells the 100-or-so repairmen and women (though it's mostly middle-aged white men) who showed up to his introductory talk at the conference in New Orleans. "We're competing with the garbage dump."
"The first time you open an electronic, it stops being a magical black box and you see it's just a bunch of things plugged together"
When the iFixit crew pulled out the microscopes and soldering irons for a session about repairing and replacing transistors and capacitors, which are a hundred times smaller than a dime, on an iPad logic board, it became obvious that these professionals take the art of repair much more seriously than any electronics manufacturer.
“There are people here doing repairs Apple would never dream of,” Chris Collins, a Texas-based repairman, told me. Collins repairs Apple devices, game consoles, old stereos and turntables, and even has a contract with local cities to repair cameras that survey sewer systems. “The best repair professionals in the world don’t work for Apple.”
Jessa Jones, a former microbiologist-turned iPad repairwoman, is widely considered in the profession to be among the best repair professionals in the world. In between taking care of her four kids as a stay-at-home mother, she spends her days casually recovering priceless data from water-damaged iPads that would no one else would ever bother touching, or fixing short circuits that cause the iPad LCD backlight to burn out. She’s so good that, if she can’t fix a device, she doesn’t charge her customers.
“Even in our community of repair people, people think that [logic] board repair died out when things started getting microscopic,” Jones, who has started a logic board repair school, said. “It’s just not true. The more we have people doing higher-level repairs, the more devices we can save, the more data we can recover, the more we can be ambassadors of repair to the public.”
Image: Jason Koebler
Later, over a beer in the French Quarter, Wiens waxes nostalgic about a time when washing machines lasted 50 years instead of five, notes that larger smartphone screens have led to more broken smartphones—"Have you ever seen a Galaxy Note without a broken screen?" he asks me—and goes on frustrated rants about the fact that his company even has to exist in the first place.
That Apple and other electronics manufacturers don't sell repair parts to consumers or write service manuals for them isn't just annoying, it's an environmental disaster, he says. Recent shifts to proprietary screws, the ever-present threat of legal action under a trainwreck of a copyright law, and an antagonistic relationship with third-party repair shops shows that the anti-repair culture at major manufacturers isn't based on negligence or naiveté, it's malicious.
"iFixit is a hack. The manufacturers should be doing this."
Leaving your broken phone or computer in a drawer or throwing it in the garbage are the two worst things you can do with electronics, Wiens said. Recycling isn't much better.
"When it comes to electronics, recycling should be the last option," Wiens once wrote in a blog post called "Happy Earth Day, Don't Recycle."
In a perfect world, you would get your stuff fixed and keep using it. Repairing it and selling it or making sure it gets repaired and reused is just as good.
"Mining and manufacturing are, in that order, the worst things we do in the world," he told me.
Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Image: Agbogbloshie Makerspace Project/Flickr
There are roughly 50 periodic table elements used in the manufacture of a smartphone, many of them in trace amounts. Most of them are not recoverable by recycling.
“The plastic in your iPhone will be made into a low grade plastic and will be made into a park bench, which is a shame because it's a high-grade plastic that may be worth $30 a pound,” he said. “After it's recycled, it might be worth ten cents a pound because you can't separate them out."
If we're not willing to use our electronics well into their usable life cycle, the answer, he says, is to find a way to keep them working and get them into the hands of people who can use them.
"Everyone in the world should have a cell phone, but we need to find a way to do it reasonably," he said.
Much of Wiens's environmentalism comes from several trips he's made to developing countries. In our conversations, he gets most excited talking about the water pump repairmen he's met in Kenya, Cairo’s best mechanics, or people in Delhi who cut open old CRT televisions and monitors to make new ones. (This is extremely dangerous; each CRT television has roughly 10 pounds of lead in it.)
"We had heard about e-waste, and so I decided to see it for myself," he said.
And so he visited Agbogbloshie, Ghana, commonly referred to as "the world's biggest e-waste dump," as well as a handful of other cities in the developing world. (He filmed a yet-to-be-released documentary during his trip.) It's true that Agbogbloshie is an environmental disaster, but the story isn’t so simple.
"The story is that we're dumping our stuff on Africa. That's not what happens," Wiens said. "What happens is they buy electronics from us because they want them, they stop working, and so they junk it, and they don't have good recycling or waste facilities."
In Wiens's opinion, Agbogbloshie and many other places in the world are lacking access to parts and repair manuals that could prevent devices from being discarded in the first place.
"What’s really the problem is there are products that are complex and the manufacturers are sharing none of the information on how to fix them," he said. "You make a million printers, they’re used in a million different ways. At the end of their life, they also get thrown away or discarded in a million different ways. That’s the lever we can pull by teaching people to fix things. We had accidentally stumbled across the solution to a really big problem. That’s why I keep doing this."
Image: Jason Koebler
When I ordered the LCD screen for my MacBook, I didn’t even think about where it came from. The truth is, I have no idea. But it didn't come from Apple. Go on eBay now, or do a Google search looking for components to a computer or smartphone. You'll find tiny camera replacements, headphone jacks, LCD screens and entire iPhone front panel displays (it is much easier to simply replace the entire thing, including the camera, rather than just the glass). You'll also see that parts have wildly different prices and wildly different names. You'll see "authentic" parts and "OEM" parts and "certified" parts and "used" parts and "salvaged" parts.
What do these words mean? It's unclear, even for many people who repair things for a living.
This is by design. Americans spent more than $23.5 billion repairing and replacing broken smartphones between 2007 and 2014. In 2013, an analyst reported that Apple hoped to save $1 billion by repairing broken iPhones instead of replacing them, which gives you an idea of just how big the repair market is for the world's most popular phone. Apple wants as large a share of that as possible. Because it controls the hardware, it's also trying as best as it can to control the parts market.
It's not illegal to sell or manufacture an LCD screen that fits on an iPhone, but it is illegal to make a back panel that has the Apple logo on it. Apple has trademarks on certain designs, such as a square on the home button casing from a few years back, and even puts logos on some internal cables.
So what is a "counterfeit" part, really? Who knows!
"Apple and Samsung don't like the grey market, and this is very much a grey market," iFixit's Scott Head told conference goers. "There's a difference between what customs thinks is a good argument as to authenticity and what the manufacturers do."
Most repair professionals I spoke to at the conference said they try to do their best to source legal parts from China. But is that order of 500 Sony-branded Xperia backplates overrun from the original manufacturing process? Did they fall off a truck somewhere? Or were they made without Sony's permission? It all matters, and much confusion could be avoided if electronics manufacturers simply sold the parts to consumers and repair shops themselves.
Such questions are how you end up with federal customs agents raiding 25 smartphone repair shops in Miami and seizing $300,000 worth of "counterfeit" iPhone parts. From a local news story published in 2013 shortly after the raids:
"Abel Abella claims there were 20 ICE agents and two people from Apple in his small Bird Road store.
'We got the parts from a company in California. To this day that vendor is still selling parts,' Abella said. 'Why did the come after me?'"
Abella did not want to be extensively interviewed for this article, but told me the raid was devastating.
“Ever since then I haven’t fixed iPhones,” he told me in a text message. “I went out of business because of it.”
Last year, Customs and Border Patrol seized $162 million worth of consumer electronics in 6,612 separate raids as part of a program called “Operation Chain Reaction” that 16 separate government agencies are involved in. Spend some time searching the internet, and you’ll find forum posts written by people who say their businesses or livelihoods were destroyed because of a CBP seizure.
"We got really scared, legitimately. We pulled all our parts out of our stores and we kept them at my house," Ivan Mladenovic, who runs two TechBar repair shops in South Florida, told me about the months following the federal raids in Miami. "We would shuttle parts to the store 2-3 at a time. I’m under the impression that the business of repairing iPhones could just go away one day. Apple could vanish an industry if it really wants to go after us."
Image: Jason Koebler
One thing that’s getting lost as electronics become more complex, harder to open, and more disposable is that we even can repair our stuff. Most modern-day DIY repair advocates had a “eureka moment” that inspired them to pursue the practice. Mine was the laptop.
Wiens listens intently when I tell him about how I used his website to break into my MacBook Pro and, because I was cheap and didn't buy all the proper tools, used the edge of a box cutter to pry the glass away from the broken LCD. I had little idea what I was doing and, after about six hours of problem solving, prying, keeping track of barely-visible screws, it was 4 AM and I was left with a bunch of parts laying on my kitchen table and a frustration-induced headache.
Wiens knows the feeling. A similarly difficult laptop repair he did in college was the genesis of iFixit.
As a student at Cal Poly, he managed to save enough to buy a brand new, $1,800 iBook. Like me, Wiens had a moment of clumsiness and broke his laptop soon after he bought it. Unlike me, he had nowhere to turn to to figure out how to fix it.
He looked for service manuals online, but couldn't find any. He took it apart anyway.
"It was 2 AM and I decided, well, 'I'll leave it in pieces and put it back together in the morning.' That was a really bad idea," he said. "The next day, I had no idea what anything was. I finally jammed it back together and the computer worked but was never quite the same."
Image: Jason Koebler
Wiens did some more research and found that Apple had filed Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown orders against the few websites that had put Apple's official repair manuals online.
"I thought, 'Wow, they're using copyright notices to prevent people from fixing things.' I thought that was kind of fucked up," he said.
Wiens and his partner, Luke Soules, decided to find every iBook and PowerBook, write repair manuals for them, and sell them for $15 a piece. It didn't go too well—they never sold out of their original 50 manuals. But then they put them online for free, got picked up by a few Apple news blogs, and suddenly became the go-to source for this type of information.
"This whole thing is an end around copyright. We decided as a result of our research in developing world that what the world needed was an open source repair manual for everything," he said. "There's two ways of doing that—you get the manufacturers to open source their documents, or you write a new one. We have not given up on the first one, but we have focused our efforts on the second."
To that first point, iFixit has become one of the most outspoken companies advocating for DMCA reform, and won a small victory earlier this month when the Librarian of Congress granted several exceptions to the law that protect "the right to repair." iFixit specifically defeated the copyright use case that John Deere was lobbying for—farmers can now fiddle with their tractors without fear of being sued. Now, the company is pushing for state-level legislation that would require manufacturers to sell repair parts and provide service manuals.
Few small companies whose business model is to directly antagonize the world's largest companies have done very well. Even fewer have thrived.
iFixit, however, seems to have found a niche throwing stones at Apple’s goliath. First came the service manuals. Then came the pentalobe screwdriver. By the iPhone 4S release, iFixit was flying at least one of its techs out to Australia so it could be the first in the world to purchase new devices—and the first to take it apart. The company is profitable, though Wiens won’t disclose how much revenue it brings in. A separate spinoff company, called Dozuki, sells iFixit’s wiki technology to corporate clients around the world.
With every new iPhone, MacBook, or iPad release, iFixit finds itself hacking new tools to open and repair them. Within a week of the Apple Watch release, it had custom-manufactured adhesive strips to put it back together.
"There's this pizza cutter-like thing that's good at opening new iMacs, so we've gone into the pizza cutter business," Wiens said. "We're now a suction cup manufacturer, which I never expected to be, because you need a suction cup to open iPhones."
"We've been poking at them a long time," he added. "Apple deals with things by ignoring people."
After this article was published, Apple responded to one of the three requests for comment I sent them before the story ran: "We don’t talk about our future plans and we don’t break out our revenue on repair. Anything current in terms of our Authorized Service Providers program is available on locate.apple.com."
The cold war between Apple and iFixit has become more heated lately, however. Apple recently deleted the iFixit app from the App Store for breach-of-contract, because Apple sent iFixit the new Apple TV and iFixit does what it always does, which is tear it to pieces.
There was also a curious change between the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 6. Repairs on the 5S are particularly perilous; the wire that connects the home button to the logic board is easily severable when you're opening the phone. (I did this on a phone I fixed.) As a security feature, breaking that wire makes TouchID stop working on that device, forever. On the iPhone 6, this wire is specifically routed so as to be unobtrusive and less likely to break.
"Apple makes over a billion dollars a year fixing iPhones, which is enough that they can tell Jonathan Ive that he's got to design the iPhone to be repairable," Wiens said. "That change took time, it took thought, and it's more expensive to design the phone like that, and it's all in service of it being a more repairable device."
After being slammed by Wiens and by the press over the design of the MacBook Pro Retina, which uses a ton of glue to keep the battery in place, Apple has taken to using more easily removable adhesive strips to hold down the battery in the iPad Pro. This sounds like a small change, but it's not. Apple temporarily lost its "green" status from EPEAT, an organization started by the Environmental Protection Agency, because the MacBook Pro Retina with glued batteries was not recyclable—batteries left in electronics recycling plants regularly start fires if they're not removed from the device.
"The Apple folks came in, used a sledgehammer and a crowbar and got the battery out," Wiens said (I have not been able to confirm this story). Apple regained its certification and has used adhesive strips instead of glue on several products since then. "It's been things like that—we've been fighting this proxy war over some of these green standards."
"I've been at these sessions with their lobbyists," he added. "Their job is to say 'no' to anything that would give their designers less freedom."
iFixit announced this month that it will do what Apple will not. iFixit is going to start selling bulk parts to repair shops, and it just launched a certification program for repair stores that pass an online test.
Most importantly, however, is that iFixit makes it clear to anyone who is brave enough to open their devices that they’re not alone. Most of the repair manuals are written by users of the site, and DIYers regularly discuss little hacks or modifications that will make any given repair easier in the comments or on the forums.
“Our mission is to teach everyone how to repair everything,” Wiens said. “We can’t do that without the community.”
My MacBook, mid repair. Image: Jason Koebler
I fiddled with my MacBook until the sun came up. The screen made a weird clicking noise when I opened or lowered it, but all the little cables were plugged back in, at least. I hit the power button and… it worked.
As someone who pretty much avoided any sort of manual labor—precise or otherwise—my entire life, the feeling was unexpected and foreign. I, myself, fixed something. Somewhere, maybe, I had a small feeling of sticking it to the man. But mostly, I was just proud of myself.
"The first time you open an electronic, it stops being a magical black box and you see it's just a bunch of things plugged together," Wiens said. "A plumber is not necessarily better at plumbing than me, he's just faster and more consistent. That's the case with a lot of this stuff."
"If Kyle could have his way, everyone would live together in one compound and we would be this one harmonious group"
At home in central California, he fixes broken lawn sprinklers, chairs, toilets, and whatever else may break. He's replaced the transmission on his truck, attempted to put a chainsaw back together, and has been chastised by a buck knife manufacturer for trying to replace its spring-loaded mechanism. His nightmare repair is replacing the zipper on a jacket ("An all-day affair with a high likelihood of failure").
The repair industry's bible is Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford's 2010 book about quitting his high-paying think tank job to become a motorcycle repairman—a job he says is both more rewarding and more intellectually stimulating.
"The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit," Crawford wrote in the book. "And, in fact, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to 'hide the works,' rendering many of the devices we depend on every day unintelligible to direct inspection."
iFixit's headquarters. Image: iFixit
That train of thought is found in most everyone who works at the company. When the company moved into its current offices in a redone car dealer in San Luis Obispo, California, the staff spent weeks customizing it.
"We left it unfinished on purpose. We would spend Saturdays planing wood planks we had bought. The tool team is in these shipping containers. They took plasma cutters and layered off these doors and put them on sliders," Scott Dingle, who has been with iFixit for four years, told me. "If we could have built that building ourselves, we would have because that's our mentality."
"It's a bunch of do-it-yourselfers, everyone has had the mentality of build your own thing, make your own mods," Jake Devincenzi, an ex-iFixit employee who now works for an electronics recycler, told me.
"If Kyle could have his way, everyone would live together in one compound and we would be this one harmonious group," Dingle added.
This isn't all about pushing back against Apple or any other company. It's not all about saving the environment, either. Fixing things feels good.
And that's why it wasn't surprising to find a contingent of iFixit employees and repair professionals drinking beer and whiskey as they huddled around microscopes one night long after the conference was over.
iPhone and iPad parts littered the floor and table. Someone was showing off the custom back they had made for their phone. Jessa Jones was fixing iPad backlights and teaching others what each little electrical component does. Wiens and his staff were talking about sci fi books and discussing what toppings of pizza to order and were geeking out over their most recent repairs. Several separate beer runs were made.
At one point, Wiens poured himself a room-temperature whiskey. He grabbed a pressurized can of freeze spray—used to find hot chips on broken logic boards—stuck it into his whiskey, and sprayed. It splashed all over the place, but the drink was colder.
It occurred to me around that time that Wiens spends much of his time fighting to make his company obsolete. I asked him what would happen if Apple and other manufacturers decided to one day teach people how to repair their devices, if they decided to offer "official" parts.
"iFixit is a hack. The manufacturers should be doing this,” he said. “You know, I'd love to do something else.”
I don't think I believe him.