Should Apple Make The iPad User-Serviceable? Nope, That’s Anti-Consumer

For better or worse, we live in a society that discards broken items. The day of replacing a burned-out motor in a blender is past. Very few household items are designed to be fixed by the owner or even repair shop. HDTVs, microwaves, even benchtop woodworking tools purchased at big box warehouse stores are designed to be replaced, not serviced. Desktop computers are the main exception to this rule. This shift to disposable appliances has allowed manufacturers to more quickly innovate rather than supporting older products. They really don’t make them like the used to, but, in a way, that’s sort of good thing.

iFixit caused a bit of ruckus late last week when the service company awarded the new iPad with a 2 out of 10 on their user repairability score. iMore took it one step farther. They both noted that since the front glass is essentially glued onto the bezel, it greatly increases the chances of cracking the screen. That’s not good for the old school repair shop, but it’s awesome for the consumer. Making gadgets non-user serviceable is one of the best things Apple has done.

My woodshop is filled with large tools handed down to my from my great-grandfather. My Delta lathe is approaching 35 years old and the table saw is nearly 60. My massive Troy-Bilt rototiller is 40 years old. Thanks to a several hours of TLC a year, they all still run like champs although I did spend a considerable amount of time one summer rebuilding the tiller’s motor. But an iPad is not a table saw. Apple wisely chose to start producing gadgets with a life expectancy closer to today’s innovation cycle. In short, iPads do not need to last for future generations.

As an owner of many old woodworking tools I agree it’s a bit sad to think this way. This year’s iPad should be, at least in theory, still a fine device several years from now. Its hardware should not degrade. There is not a spinning hard drive to wear out or crash. The LCD should not lose its brightness for decades. Going back to the tool analogy, it doesn’t require a new belt every five years.

Right now the consumer electronics scene is shifting away from traditional personal computers where the term PC refers to a modular computer. The iPad, and its Android counterparts, are leading the charge into this brave new world of digital appliances rather than personal computers. The very nature of this new world demands products are replaced rather than put on life support. Without the quick purchase turnaround time, the innovation cycle will slow and perhaps cause the fast growing movement to collapse altogether.

Yes, I just suggested that if Apple made the iPad user-serviceable, tablets could fail.

Innovation is fueled by profits. Without profits, companies cannot invest into research and development. If you do not buy a new tablet every several years, these profits will dwindle and cause innovation to slow. Companies like Apple do not make money on servicing products. Money is only made when they sell you a new product. For better or worse, this is the way of the consumer electronics world.

Critics are right. The iPad is a large iPhone (or if you want, iPod touch). Apple doesn’t expect owners to replace their iPad or iPhone every year. Unlike Samsung and Motorola, Apple has a very slow but methodical release cycle that allows owners to thoroughly enjoy but still grow tired of their devices. A completely new model is not released every year. Apple lets its products properly age before replacing them with something relatively new. But where Apple doesn’t count on selling everyone on a new device every year, they do hope to sell them on something every two or three years — that’s why their products are not meant to be serviced.

Apple started this strategy with the iPhone. Prior to its release, Apple employed a quicker release pace with the iPods where there was seemingly a new model within the family every 9-12 months for several years. The iPod was never exactly user serviceable in that Apple never included disassembly instructions in the manual. But users could take them apart. Quick money was made by many people who knew how to replace a dead iPod hard drive or click wheel. The same thing held true with the first few iPhones in that while it wasn’t a sanctioned activity, most people could replace a dead battery if they really wanted to. But Apple itself eventually just started replacing borked iPhones in Apple Stores rather than spending even 30 minutes trying to fix one. It’s better for the consumer and company this way.

Many iPhones, iPads and even MacBook Pros are simply replaced at Apple Stores. This floors unsuspecting customers, who made the genius bar appointment thinking they were going to spend half the day waiting for their phone to be fixed. That’s what used to happen at wireless carriers. But no, instead, just 10 minutes later they’re walking out with a brand new iPhone. Time is money. Apple likes money.

Imagine an Apple Store 30 years ago. The place would have been a nerd paradise. Techs bent over tables filled with smoldering soldering irons with bins overflowing with PCBs and random chips. Apple, and most other hardware companies of that era, dedicated nearly as much time and money to service as they did development. Some companies still do. Consumer electronics is a hard business if products are made to be supported. That’s one of the reasons HP’s now ousted CEO Leo Apotheker wanted to get HP out of the fray. It was, at least in his eyes, going to save the 70-year-old company.

The next iPhone will be more iPad than iPod; it will be much harder to service. It will be tougher to replace a cracked screen or dead battery. This predictable move will mean the company will likely hand out more replacement iPhones at Genius Bars and winning fans along the way. But it will still not be impossible to disassemble. iFixit and other serious tinkerers will manage to crack the case only to slam Apple for making it tough to fix. You don’t have to like it but that’s sort of the point. Apple produces and sells more products to a wider audience than any other consumer electronic company because the company is moving forward and not living in the past.