The reaction of the San Francisco-dwelling public to the launch of the fifth generation iPod Nano across the United States on 9 September was as enthusiastic as one might expect: the product sold out in the city in under 24 hours. One local company executive was so put out that he immediately dispatched an intern to the Eastern Seaboard to pick one up. But once there, he did not tell the student to return on the first plane with his newly-purchased prize. Instead, he told him to tear it to pieces.
But the company director in question, the 25-year-old Kyle Wiens, is no ordinary besuited businessman. He is the founder of iFixit, based in Atascadero, a small Californian town equidistant from Los Angeles and San Franscisco, and claims his firm is one of the most successful companies selling Apple components in the US. By getting his intern to disassemble the iPod, then photograph it, and upload the pictures on iFixit (along with information relating to how to repair said gadget when it goes wrong), Wiens hoped to boost his company's sales, as well as share valuable data across the internet.
"My motivation is that it's principally a hobby to show people how these gadgets work, as well as make a bit of money," says Wiens. "These things aren't a black box. I am trying to raise awareness about understanding and fixing things. I am convinced that if you can't open it, you don't own it."
It was a similar story with the UK launch of the iPhone 3GS in London in June. In this case Wiens himself flew out to take the gadget to pieces (the product was being released in Britain before the US). He went to a hotel conference room close to Apple's base on London's Regent Street and completed the tear down in under three hours. The photos appeared online moments later.
The Californian's obsession with "paring" or "tearing down" objects is not just part of a keenly-thought-out business plan – in fact, it represents a growing trend for do-it-yourself repairs, along with the somewhat fetishistic disassembly of hi-tech objects. With the iPhone 3GS launch, Wiens was in a race to be the first to pare down the product and gain access to what is clearly commercially valuable information. In this case, his competition came in the form of Rapid Repair, a Michigan-based repair company which sells Apple components (it also uploaded pictures to its website). A Japan-based enthusiast called "Kodawarisan" is also known to be something of a lover of Apple components, though in his case he "chose" not to play the game with the Apple 3G. He received a pay-off from Wiens last year.
Wiens hopes that by telling people how to repair things themselves, he will break the endless cycle that motivates consumers to buy newer and newer gadgets even when their broken old ones might be easily fixable. "The battery in a conventional iPod lasts for 200 to 300 cycles normally," he explains. "That might be less than a year, so of course Apple just want you to buy a new iPod rather than replace the battery yourself. We are selling batteries for $15 each. Of course Apple has its own manuals of how to replace components, but they are not publicly available. We don't think that's right. We want everyone to have that information. It's funny, when we go into their stores, they all know who we are."
iFixit has 25 employees and is "profitable", says its owner, though it is unclear to what degree. Their website has hundreds of pare downs, in the form of a dozen or so images accompanied by explanations of what each component does what as various products are disassembled. A click away on the website, users have access to a number of repair manuals, which give them the instructions they need to fix things. Users can upload images of their own pare downs (furthering Wiens' ambition to mindshare, or share information). When conducted in-house, pare downs are done by two to five of iFixit's staff; their stance on the products is often critical of the company selling it, posing questions like: "Does the manufacturer's claim that their phone is 50 per cent faster, say, add up with what they have put in it?" Popular pare downs on the site are of a Sky television remote control, a Blackberry Storm, and the toy dinosaur Pleo, which has 14 tiny motors and four eight-bit microprocessors to coordinate them.
The idea for the enterprise came to Wiens when he was studying at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and he tripped over his iBook's power cable. As he was a computer science major he was in a position to solder the broken wire back on; but he reached a stumbling block when he had to take his piece of kit apart. "It wasn't pretty," he says. The company was founded with his business partner, Luke Soulef, another former Cal Poly student, months later. His first public pare down was "probably an Apple notebook or an iPod".
Intriguingly, the share price of the component companies can soar when iFixit reveals they are contained in a particularly sexy new Apple product. Wiens denies that his company has dabbled much in the stockmarket. "We don't play that game too much," he says. "Though we do get calls from investors. We have never really successfully played it. Usually we are the news that confirms the rumours; and by that point people have already made the money."
As in the case of the iPhone 3GS, does he ever think it is odd that he is taking what could be a treasured Christmas gift to pieces? "When the Kindle came out [November 2007 in the US] I wanted it for myself," he laughs. "So we were very careful when we took that one apart. Now it's my Kindle. But at the end of day we are sacrificing one device for the world's greater interest."
Constructive deconstruction: Tear downs from iFixit
Sony PSP Go
"The design of the PSP Go is different from previous PSP models. It's not intended to replace its much-loved older brother, the PSP 3000 [which Sony will continue to manufacture]. It has such an elegant backside ... but where is the UMD [universal media disc, the miniature disc drive developed by Sony for the original PSP] drive? Let's have a moment of silence. RIP UMD drive, we hardly knew ye. The PSP Go measures at 128 x 16.5 x 69mm and weighs in at 5.6oz, including the internal battery. Unlike the PSP models that came before, the PSP Go makes do with 16GB of internal flash memory. Ooh – it slides up to reveal the gamepad."
"A couple of screws must be removed to separate the display assembly from the lower case. With the lower case and logic board gone, you can see the details of a metal slider mechanism. That display ribbon cable must be designed for wear from millions of opening/closing cycles."
First generation iPhone
"Here is us separating the front and back case. There's a headphone jack cable to disconnect before you can completely remove the back panel. The headphone jack is recessed into the case, so most headphone jacks won't fit without an adapter (even if they're the right kind of plug). Apple did this to reduce the strain on the metal jack when you yank the headphones ... the hard plastic cable jacket absorbs most of the impact."
"At last! The moment you've all been waiting for. The battery is huge and soldered to the logic board. You can see the SIM card bracket and headphone jack on the rear panel. It is a 3.7 volt Li-Ion Polymer battery. At least two antenna cables connect to the logic board."
Amazon Kindle 2
"The complete disassembly of the Kindle 2. It seems to be the type of device that people will not bother modifying ... Or will they? Only time will tell. The Kindle 2 weighs only 10.2oz. Per pound, that makes the Kindle 2 even more expensive than the $2,799 MacBook Pro 17 Unibody we took apart last week."
Starbucks Barista Espresso Maker
"The Starbucks Barista Espresso Maker is marketed for home use and is generally regarded as a good beginner's espresso machine. It will allow you to: brew espresso, steam milk, and possibly lose your masculinity. We started the tear down by removing the accessory drawer, drip tray, and water tank. All three parts simply slide out of the frame."