By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Last week’s announcement of the departure of Apple chief design officer Jony Ive marks the end of an era: the last connection to the Apple of Steve Jobs.
Now, no one would deny that Ive created beautiful objects.
As iFixit notes:
The iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, the physical Apple Store, even the iconic packaging of Apple products—these products changed how we view and use their categories, or created new categories, and will be with us a long time.
But the title of that iFixit post, Jony Ive’s Fragmented Legacy: Unreliable, Unrepairable, Beautiful Gadgets, makes clear that those beautiful products carried with them considerable costs- above and beyond their high prices. They’re unreliable, and difficult to repair.
Ironically. both Jobs and Ive were inspired by Dieter Rams – whom iFixit calls “the legendary industrial designer renowned for functional and simple consumer products.” And unlike Apple. Rams believed that good design didn’t have to come at the expense of either durability or the environment:
Rams loves durable products that are environmentally friendly. That’s one of his 10 principles for good design: “Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment.” But Ive has never publicly discussed the dissonance between his inspiration and Apple’s disposable, glued-together products. For years, Apple has openly combated green standards that would make products easier to repair and recycle, stating that they need “complete design flexibility” no matter the impact on the environment.
Complete Design Flexibility Spells Environmental Disaster
In fact, that complete design flexibility – at least as practiced by Ive – has resulted in crapified products that are an environmental disaster. Their lack of durability means they must be repaired to be functional, and the lack of repairability means many of these products end up being tossed prematurely – no doubt not a bug, but a feature. As Vice recounts:
But history will not be kind to Ive, to Apple, or to their design choices. While the company popularized the smartphone and minimalistic, sleek, gadget design, it also did things like create brand new screws designed to keep consumers from repairing their iPhones.
Under Ive, Apple began gluing down batteries inside laptops and smartphones (rather than screwing them down) to shave off a fraction of a millimeter at the expense of repairability and sustainability.
It redesigned MacBook Pro keyboards with mechanisms that are, again, a fraction of a millimeter thinner, but that are easily defeated by dust and crumbs (the computer I am typing on right now—which is six months old—has a busted spacebar and ‘r’ key). These keyboards are not easily repairable, even by Apple, and many MacBook Pros have to be completely replaced due to a single key breaking. The iPhone 6 Plus had a design flaw that led to its touch screen spontaneously breaking—it then told consumers there was no problem for months before ultimately creating a repair program. Meanwhile, Apple’s own internal tests showed those flaws. He designed AirPods, which feature an unreplaceable battery that must be physically destroyed in order to open.
Vice also notes that in addition to Apple’s products becoming “less modular, less consumer friendly, less upgradable, less repairable, and, at times, less functional than earlier models”, Apple’s design decisions have not been confined to Apple. Instead, “Ive’s influence is obvious in products released by Samsung, HTC, Huawei, and others, which have similarly traded modularity for sleekness.”
Right to Repair
As I’ve written before, Apple is a leading opponent of giving consumers a right to repair. Nonetheless, there’s been some global progress on this issue (see Global Gains on Right to Repair). And we’ve also seen a widening of support in the US for such a right. The issue has arisen in the current presidential campaign, with Elizabeth Warren throwing down the gauntlet by endorsing a right to repair for farm tractors. The New York Times has also taken up the cause more generally (see Right to Repair Initiatives Gain Support in US). More than twenty states are considering enacting right to repair statutes.
This stirring of support has led Apple to increase its lobbying efforts, deploying increasingly specious arguments – such as these recently offered to California legislators: consumers will hurt themselves if provided a right to repair, and such a change would empower hackers (see Apple to California Legislators: Consumers Will Hurt Themselves if Provided a Right to Repair). Rather than seeing these arguments derided and rejected, the lobbying succeeded, leading in April to cancellation of a hearing on then-pending California legislation, which now cannot move forward until 2020 at the earliest. Other state initiatives remain pending.
Apple Shift on Serviceability? Too Little, Too Late – At Least for This Jaded MacBook User
Now, iFixit suggests that Apple has improved the serviceability of its iPhones, and that the company could build on this record and improve serviceability on other products as well, if it chose to focus on this priority:
Part of what is so frustrating when taking apart the current MacBook and accessories like the AirPods is that we know how good Apple can be when they focus on serviceability. The iPhone is the highest scoring flagship phone on our chart right now, and it’s well deserved. The fundamental repairability challenge with smartphones is making the display and the battery, the parts most likely to break and wear out, easily removable. It took Apple many generations, but they nailed it with the iPhone 6 and haven’t looked back since. No Android phone design has managed to replicate the iPhone’s ease of service for these critical components.
I don’t own an iPhone (or a smartphone, for that matter), so I don’t know whether iFixit’s assessment of this issue for the iPhone is accurate.
But I do own a MacBook, and its becoming increasingly cantankerous. I’m loath to replace this machine, as it uses the MagSafe connector – and I once destroyed the motherboard on a Sony Vaio that, not being an Apple, lacked a MagSafe connector. I’m a bit of a klutz, and many, many times, the MagSafe has prevented a computer crash. When I trip over the power cord, the MagSafe functions as designed, and simply disconnects.
In addition to abandoning the MagSafe, the newer generations of MacBooks have been well and truly crapified. I won’t here even begin to try and count the ways, but will only mention the notorious butterfly keyboard. I point out that keyboard/touchpad issues are not new: I’ve had problems with MacBook keyboards on earlier machines I’ve owned, well before the butterfly keyboard was introduced.
I’m currently writing this on my circa 2015 MacBook Pro with a pre-butterfly keyboard. It plays its own particular party trick – the keyboard and touchpad occasionally stop working. No rhyme or reason to when this occurs. Except the machine seems to know when I’m travelling – as I am now – and in particular, when I’m in a place where I cannot get my computer serviced – or even secure easy access to a keyboard and mouse. So I typically travel with an external keyboard, and a mouse, unless I know my itinerary only includes places where I can easily buy a keyboard if my keyboard/touchpad stop responding. Having to schlep these items is a considerable pain.
If iFixit is right and Apple has indeed made it easier to replace the display and battery on an iPhone- that is, of course, if you let Apple do it, as the company hasn’t ceded anything on allowing a more general right to repair – that is itself a welcome, albeit limited, development.
But MacBooks remain in their current crapified state, despite their premium price. If- as I fear – it’ll soon necessary to replace my workhorse machine, I can’t see myself ponying up for another Apple product.
Shipping Last Production Offshore
The other Apple news I’d like to mention is that the company has announced the shift of manufacturing its last product still made in the US, its Mac Pro, to China, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The major prod for this shift? Trade tensions. As Ars Technica reports:
Apple made the previous Mac Pro in Austin, Texas, beginning in 2013. But with the new Mac Pro unveiled this month being made in China, Apple is “shifting abroad production of what had been its only major device assembled in the US as trade tensions escalate between the Trump administration and Beijing,” The Wall Street Journal reported today.
“The tech giant has tapped contractor Quanta Computer Inc. to manufacture the $6,000 desktop computer and is ramping up production at a factory near Shanghai,” according to the Journal’s sources. “Quanta’s facility is close to other Apple suppliers across Asia, making it possible for Apple to achieve lower shipping costs than if it shipped components to the US.”
But trade concerns are only one driver of the decision. Apple’s efforts to manufacture these machines in the US ran into obstacles. Ars Technica reports:
In May 2013, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed plans to make a new Mac computer in Texas and said the company would spend $100 million to bring manufacturing stateside. But Apple ran into problems with the US-based Mac production.
Apple “struggled to find enough screws” when it began making the 2013 Mac Pro, a New York Times article explained. “Tests of new versions of the computer were hamstrung because a 20-employee machine shop that Apple’s manufacturing contractor was relying on could produce at most 1,000 screws a day.” The screw shortage and other problems caused a months-long delay in Mac Pro sales.
According to a December 2017 Inc article:
Addressing the designed-in-California, made-in-low-cost-China impression that many people have–an impression reinforced by the tagline that is printed on every box containing a new iPhone– [Apple CEO Tim Cook] had this to say:
“There’s a confusion about China. The popular conception is that companies come to China because of low labor cost. I’m not sure what part of China they go to but the truth is China stopped being the low labor cost country many years ago. And that is not the reason to come to China from a supply point of view. The reason is because of the skill, and the quantity of skill in one location and the type of skill it is.”
And China has an abundance of skilled labor unseen elsewhere, says Cook:
“The products we do require really advanced tooling, and the precision that you have to have, the tooling and working with the materials that we do are state of the art. And the tooling skill is very deep here. In the US you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room. In China you could fill multiple football fields.”
Cook credits China’s vast supply of highly skilled vocational talent:
“The vocational expertise is very very deep here, and I give the education system a lot of credit for continuing to push on that even when others were de-emphasizing vocational. Now I think many countries in the world have woke up and said this is a key thing and we’ve got to correct that. China called that right from the beginning.”
Seems China did indeed. Whereas US political and business elites allowed US manufacturing to get to its current parlous state.