It’s Called Progress, Folks  

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, wrote a gem of an editorial for Wired just after Apple released the new Retina MacBook Pro. Mr. Wiens’ business is in DIY repair and replacement parts, so he’s obviously affected whenever Apple releases a new machine containing harder-to-replace components. His editorial is so out of touch with the common consumer–Apple’s target market–that it’s laughable and, at times, completely inaccurate and misleading. Let’s take a look:

This week, Apple delivered the highly anticipated MacBook Pro with Retina Display — and the tech world is buzzing. I took one apart yesterday because I run iFixit, a team responsible for high-resolution teardowns of new products and DIY repair guides. We disassemble and analyze new electronic gizmos so you don’t have to — kind of like an internet version of Consumer Reports.

Likening yourself to Consumer Reports right off the bat seems like a bad idea considering CR’s recent history with regard to Apple products, but we can let this go.

The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart: Unlike the previous model, the display is fused to the glass, which means replacing the LCD requires buying an expensive display assembly.

Are a lot of MacBook Pro users ordering replacement LCD components and repairing their screens? I doubt it. Are third-party computer repair shops concerned about this? Undoubtedly.

The RAM is now soldered to the logic board — making future memory upgrades impossible.

How many people outside of the tech and computer industry regularly upgrade their RAM? Especially more than once? Most people I know who are not in the tech industry–all of whom are smart folks–haven’t upgraded their own RAM since around 2002. RAM is cheap these days, even from Apple. Sure, soldering it to the board means you have to make your RAM decision at point-of-sale, but anyone shelling out over $2,700 USD is probably going to be capable of deciding which amount of RAM they’d like. Do consumers care about this? No. Do companies who sell third-party RAM and installation services? Absolutely.

And the battery is glued to the case, requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple every so often for a $200 replacement.

“Every so often” is ridiculous hyperbole. The 15-inch MacBook Pro I’ve owned since 2010–a computer I plugged into a 27-inch Cinema Display all day, every day for the first 12 months I owned it and then which has been off and in a closet for 13 months–still gets almost the entire advertised battery life. It’s complete nonsense to state that most customers will have to mail their laptop to Apple “every so often”. And because the Retina MacBook Pro’s daily battery usage rating is so much higher than previous models, corporate types won’t even complain about needing to carry a second battery.

The design may well be comprised of “highly recyclable aluminum and glass” — but my friends in the electronics recycling industry tell me they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it like Apple did with both this machine and the recent iPad.

Since Mr. Wiens doesn’t back this up with any facts or figures, we’ll have to trust that Apple’s just lying about its environmental report for the Retina MacBook Pro. But there’s good news–Apple will recycle your machine for free. Make it their problem to solve.

The design pattern has serious consequences not only for consumers and the environment, but also for the tech industry as a whole.

Completely accurate. Consumers get a faster, slimmer, lighter piece of technology with a screen twice as dense as it was a year ago. They’re able to create large-scale graphics, work with huge photos at nearly full resolution and edit 1080p video in one quarter of the screen. All quickly, all nearly silently, all on the go. The tech industry has more bullshit edge-cases to complain about.

Four years ago, Apple performed a market experiment. They released the super thin, but non-upgradeable, MacBook Air in addition to their two existing, easily upgradeable notebooks: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Apple’s laptops had evolved over two decades of experience into impressively robust, rugged, and long-lasting computers. Apple learned a lot from the failings of the past: the exploding batteries of the PowerBook 5300, the flaky hinges of the PowerBook G4 Titanium, the difficult-to-access hard drive in the iBook.

The MacBook Air was not a market experiment. The MacBook Air was a revolution. Every single other company has been trying to replicate its success. Do you think Dell and Sony and Asus and Lenovo are all coincidentally performing the same “market experiment”? Apple designed and built the world’s thinnest, lightest computer and then year-after-year they made it better. The MacBook Air is the future–everyone knows it. People don’t want huge, heavy “robust and rugged” laptops. They want ultra-thin, ultra-light, insanely fast computers that are affordable. Apple delivered.

“The exploding batteries of the PowerBook 5300” is a cute touch. Nothing says you know what you’re talking about quite like referencing a computer Apple made 17 years ago which had a 100-unit recall for battery issues (of which no customer experienced an “explosion”).

The 2008 Air went in a new direction entirely: It sacrificed performance and upgradeability in exchange for a thinner design. Its RAM is soldered to the logic board (as in the Retina MacBook Pro), so upgrading it means replacing the entire expensive logic board. And like all laptops, the Air has a built-in consumable. The MacBook Air’s battery was rated to last just 300 charges when it was introduced. But unlike laptops before it, replacing the Air’s battery required specialized tools and removing some 19 screws.

It’s quite unfair (and a bit deceptive) for a computer repair specialist to say the MacBook Air’s battery was rated to last “just 300 charges” when Mr. Wiens knows it was actually rated for 300 cycles–significantly different meanings for a consumer. Most people don’t cycle their computer down to zero and back up every day, meaning 300 cycles will last much longer than implied by his statement. I have a 13-inch MacBook Pro here at home that has been in constant use for over two years and it currently has 126 cycles on the battery. Considering the number of times this has been used with and without being plugged in, I’d say it’s fair to think a 300-cycle battery could easily last four years before the battery was severely degraded.

When Apple dropped the MacBook Air to $999 in 2010 to match the price point of the MacBook, they gave users a clear choice: the thin, light, and un-upgradeable MacBook Air or the heavier, longer lasting, more rugged, and more powerful MacBook. Same price, two very different products. At the time, I wasn’t very happy with the non-upgradeable RAM on the MacBook Air, but I respected that Apple had given their users a choice. It was up to us: Did we want a machine that would be stuck with 2GB of RAM forever? Would we support laptops that required replacement every year or two as applications required more memory and batteries atrophied?
Consumers overwhelmingly voted yes, and the Air grew to take 40 percent of Apple’s notebook sales by the end of 2010.

What’s the argument of this editorial again again?

The success of the non-upgradeable Air empowered Apple to release the even-less-serviceable iPad two years later: The battery was glued into the case. And again, we voted with our wallets and purchased the device despite its built-in death clock. In the next iteration of the iPad, the glass was fused to the frame.

Seriously, what’s the argument? Consumers love these devices and are buying them in droves and are not complaining about any of the “issues” Kyle Wiens declares massive problems for the industry on a whole–what is the point here?

Once again, with another product announcement, Apple has presented the market with a choice. They have two professional laptops: one that is serviceable and upgradeable, and one that is not. They’re not exactly equivalent products — one is less expensive and supports expandable storage, and the other has a cutting-edge display, fixed storage capacity, and a premium price tag — but they don’t have the same name just to cause confusion. Rather, Apple is asking users to define the future of the MacBook Pro.

I’m willing to bet Apple knows exactly what the future of the MacBook Pro is. That’s why they called this new Retina version MacBook Pro and not something else. And I’m willing to bet users are going to buy it in record numbers.

Even the MacBook Pro was originally touted as an accessible, repairable machine — at Macworld in 2009, Steve Jobs said, “Our pro customers want accessibility: […] to add memory, to add cards, to add drives.”

This is just flat-out inaccurate. Steve Jobs said this in 1999, 10 years earlier than claimed. He’s standing in front of a PowerMac G3 and he says this just before showing off the easily-openable case. So 12 years ago Steve Jobs said Apple’s pro customers wanted to add hardware to their machines and Mr. Wiens feels Apple should be held to this claim regarding its present-day laptop line. Absurd. Keep watching that YouTube clip and you’ll see Steve Jobs wax poetic about Apple’s new CRT displays and how amazing they are. Talk about a time capsule.

We have consistently voted for hardware that’s thinner rather than upgradeable. But we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Our purchasing decisions are telling Apple that we’re happy to buy computers and watch them die on schedule. When we choose a short-lived laptop over a more robust model that’s a quarter of an inch thicker, what does that say about our values?

This is just horseshit. I was going to try to debunk it, but it’s pure garbage. We don’t need lines in the sand. If you don’t like Apple’s computers, don’t buy them. But don’t begrudge them making amazing devices consumers love just because you wish your business was going to make more money.

Today, we choose. If we choose the Retina display over the existing MacBook Pro, the next generation of Mac laptops will likely be less repairable still. When that happens, we won’t be able to blame Apple. We’ll have to blame ourselves.

Consumers don’t want to repair their own computers. People don’t want to install RAM or try to replace a broken video card. They want to buy amazing hardware and know the company they’re doing so from has equally amazing customer support and repair services to boot. Turns out Apple has it all. And people keep voting with their wallets–this is the right direction. When’s the last time you overheard an average person in an Apple Store asking about how many PCI cards you could install in a Mac?

The reality is, if we want thinner and faster and more amazing computers we have to sacrifice easy repairability and it’s a tradeoff most people are willing to make. This isn’t only true for computers. My Prius is probably far harder to repair than a 1995 Honda Civic, but I also get 53 miles per gallon in Los Angeles and it has 20 times more safety features.

I can’t wait for the next generation of Apple laptops. If the first-generation Retina MacBook Pro is this thin, imagine what they’ll be able to do in three years. If Kyle Wiens wants to blame himself, he should feel free. Me, I’ll be in line to get one.


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Follow-up to “It’s Called Progress, Folks”

A common theme among responses to yesterday’s piece is that I was wrong about the RAM bit. I wrote: How many people outside of the tech and computer industry regularly upgrade their RAM? Especially more than once? Most people I know who... Continue →