Apple is known for beautiful, expensive products … that get replaced often. That’s usually either for status — or because the battery starts dying. When longtime designer Jony Ive left Apple last month to form his own design company, a lot of people reflected on his time at the company. His influence led to products that were remarkable for their thinness and beauty, but they were notable for being hard to repair and for becoming less reliable over time. As Apple gears up to announce new iPhones this fall, those who watch the company closely are wondering how its priorities might change now that Ive is gone.
Host Molly Wood spoke with Kyle Wiens, the founder of the electronics repair site iFixit, who wrote a blog post about Ive’s mixed legacy at Apple. Especially when it comes to the environment, Wiens said sometimes simple isn’t better. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kyle Wiens: It’s this idea that [a product] should be so simple to use that you shouldn’t have to worry about how it works or what’s under the hood. [Apple] decided intentionally that they were going to hide the complexity of the battery from us. But as a side effect that limited the lifespan — it made these things last shorter. So when the sexy, new features come out next year, you’re like, “My old one doesn’t work as well. I’m going to get a new one.”
Molly Wood: How much did these design choices influence the rest of the tech world? Phones used to have swappable batteries until the iPhone came along. And Apple, you could argue, drove the rest of the industry into this throwaway tech.
Wiens: Absolutely, they drove the rest of the industry. This idea that it was acceptable that you could get away with integrating the hard drive onto the main motherboard, where if you want to separate the computer from the data there’s no way to do it. That’s the kind of thing that most other companies would have said, “No, that’s a red line we won’t cross.” Apple crosses that line, and then everyone else follows.
Wood: You’ve also written recently about how Jony Ives’ design is based on the style of German industrial designer Dieter Rams. And a principle — an important principle — of Dieter Rams’ design was sustainability, environmental sustainability. You talk about how Jony Ives is leaving Apple without having reconciled a big gap there. Why do you think that shift happened and hasn’t been addressed?
“The environmental impact of manufacturing these things is significant – it’s over 200 pounds of raw material to make an iPhone.”Kyle Wiens
Wiens: Added Dieter Rams’ design principles, there’s design as sustainable and design that’s long-lasting. I think those things get coupled together. When you do something like gluing in a battery that artificially limits the life of the entire device to the life of its shortest component, you’re getting us on this consumer treadmill where we must go out and buy more things. And the environmental impact of manufacturing these things is significant — it’s over 200 pounds of raw material to make an iPhone.
But the fundamental product architecture of staying as thin as possible and damn the consequences really is a challenge. What we’ve seen is Apple’s environmental team, who’s very good, have done everything they can to make the products as sustainable, except change the design. That has been driven by Jony Ive and his team. There have been several specific decisions that they have made that have limited the lifespan of these devices. I think probably to the chagrin of Apple’s environment team who then must put in the best possible light.
Wood: How much of it is on us the consumer? We have certainly bought them. All this time we’ve complained about them: “Oh, you got rid of the headphone jack.Oh, I can’t swap my battery out. This is so annoying.” And yet we do keep buying them.
Wiens: This is a challenge that we have as a culture: When you have something where there’s multiple variables that you have to choose from, you want the best audio player, but you also would like something that will last a long time. Because it doesn’t have stamped on the box, “Hey, this thing lasts 18 months.” I think we tend to forget it, and we put it out of our minds. We’re not very good psychologically at making long term decisions. Then later we tend to justify it and say, “Well, it’s not running as long as it used to, but there’s a new one that came out.”
I think they’ve been able to take advantage of a psychology that yes, we bear some responsibility, but I think the lack of disclosure — if they said, “Hey, if a single key on this computer breaks, it’s going to be over $1,000 to repair,” that might change people’s mind when they’re purchasing things up front. But people don’t have that information.
Wood: Do you think that mentality, that psychology, is starting to change as you get to the point where you’re feeling like: “Huh, I’m about to buy my fifth iPhone. This one seems fine except the battery.” And then of course, there was the scandal about it. Do you think that as these devices get longer in the tooth there’s more awareness that they don’t last as long as maybe they should or could?
Wiens: I think so. We’re starting to see people wanting to push their devices longer. Part of that is the improvement in smartphones is not as great every year as it used to be. So, as that’s plateauing, we don’t need to get new phones all that frequently, but the batteries don’t last any longer than they used to. So, suddenly if we’re going to keep our phones twice as long as we did three or four years ago, we’re going to have to be replacing the battery. And at that point, making those batteries available is going to be an important competitive differentiator. That’s where you have companies like Motorola that have come out and said: “We’re going to sell service parts for our phones. We’re going to make them available both to repair shops and the consumers.” There’s a crack that Apple has left in the market that perhaps Motorola will exploit.
Wood: So we could start circling back around to the beginning, where we have phones with swappable batteries and maybe SD card slots?
Wiens: This is something people always ask us, because we take these things apart. There is room inside the iPhone for an SD card slot. There’s room for a SIM card. There’s room for an SD card. They could absolutely put that in there. The only reason that you can’t upgrade the memory on the iPhone is because they want to charge you an extra $100 or $200 for the extra storage.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
Lots of words have been written about Apple and whether it still has its legendary mojo and what will happen now that Jony Ive is gone. But I thought Jonathan Trugman in the New York Post put it really well a week or so ago. He said Apple needs to figure out how to keep creating things that we didn’t even know we needed.
And it’s not only design that has made Apple products, especially the iPhone, more likely to be replaced than repaired. It’s also the fact that a new device gets introduced every year with some must-have set of features. That means the old one is now useless, or at best, unwanted. And new features in its operating system aren’t always available for older phones, like in iOS 13.
There’s a software fix to keep your battery from over-charging, which should prevent your battery from getting old and not holding a charge so quickly after you buy a new phone aren’t available for the older phones on the market. But it does seem like consumers increasingly want off the hamster wheel.
Research firm Gartner forecasted last week that smartphone shipments will have their “worst ever decline his year.” The tech innovations just aren’t doing it anymore. The costs keep going up, and maybe there is some residual guilt creeping in about all those gadgets heading for the landfill. Gartner said manufacturers might override your guilt around 2020 when they all start pushing 5G phones as a real reason to upgrade.
Listening makes you smarter…
donating makes it all possible.
Our mission is to raise the economic intelligence of the country, exploring the intersection of the economy, tech, and our daily lives. As a nonprofit news organization, we count on your support – now more than ever before.