The Grave Insult of Turning a Basic Task into a Complicated Nightmare
First, a cautionary tale.
In 1976, a secret memo was sent from Swedish National Police Commissioner Carl Persson to Prime Minister Olof Palme. The memo documented the Minister of Justice Lennart Geijer's alleged regular contacts with prostitutes and the blackmail it could make him and others susceptible to.
In 1977, after Geijer's resignation the year before, journalist Peter Bratt wrote a flawed exposé of the memo's existence in Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish paper of record. This kicked up a lot of dust, mostly about the allegations but also about the slipshod coverage. Later the same day, the story was confirmed in the news program Ekot on state radio, separately sourced and with the egregrious mistakes corrected.
Within days, Prime Minister Palme stood in parliament, vehemently denying the "lies" of Dagens Nyheter, comparing the unnamed author to a sewer rat with yellowed teeth. He did not mention the corrected and factual reporting of the same events and the same memo by Ekot.
Over the next few months, Dagens Nyheter would come to issue an apology, Swedish journalists and publicists would come to focus on outing the source of the original report and the popular understanding was left as: this did not happen. Even though it did happen, even though it had already been reported on correctly, even though that report had remained unassaulted. Holding either politician accountable turned into open season on the author and the source of the original report. Because the thing everyone read was flawed.
Last weekend The Verge ran a piece by Sean Hollister under the headline “Apple Shipped Me a 79-Pound iPhone Repair Kit to Fix a 1.1-Ounce Battery”. Sometimes I read an article that’s so absurdly and deliberately wrongheaded, I worry that I’m reading it wrong.
It's just so missing the point, and the fact that this is getting reported by so many others, not just The Verge, is part of the problem with tech journalism in general. You don't have your eye on the ball. You're focusing on the things that are easy, rather than focusing on the things that matter.
That sounds great, of course, but that’s not how modern mobile devices work. Apple isn’t an outlier in this regard — there are no popular modern mobile devices that are easily serviceable with simple tools. If it were possible for iPhones to be more easily repairable, without sacrificing their appearance, dimensions, performance, water-and-dust resistance, and cost, Apple would make them more easily repairable. That iPhones are not easily repairable is of no benefit to Apple whatsoever. What’s the theory otherwise? That $69 in-store battery replacements are highly profitable?
The Verge can write a flawed article and miss the point, but that doesn't mean there isn't a point. There are several.
Before the iPhone, there were phones you could swap the battery in. Even the weird, crazy-ass, design experiment Nokia models, you could swap the battery in. The iPhone changed a lot of things, this being one of them.
But this wasn't a change for Apple. Every single model of iPod had a non-user-replaceable battery. This was adhering to their design philosophy, in place since the early 80's, which can be succinctly summarized as: don't touch it, you'll only make it worse.
The iPhone being the first of the stereotypical modern smartphone having a non-user-replaceable battery does not mean a modern smartphone has to not have a non-user-replaceable battery. It means that when a company with Apple's design philosophy does one, they will pay more attention to pretty much everything else than to practical maintainability concerns for the user.
Apple's design philosophy is focused on the story that only Apple can do this. Only Apple can secure the software, only Apple can repair the hardware, only Apple can replace the battery. From the lens of that story, it makes sense to, rather than allow the user to twist a knob, remove a plate or undo a screw and swap the battery, tell you to go to the store that Apple runs and have someone else do that for you.
The instictual, visceral rebellion from so many people has several constituent components.
From a user's point of view, from a customer's point of view, this is ridiculous. We all own products where the battery eventually goes bad where we can replace the battery. We know that there are alternative solutions.
The roundabout nature of the repair speaks to the degree to which practicality was not a priority during the design process, with wasteful shipping of enormous machines being one of many side effects. (Note: putting aside the wisdom of choosing this design, shipping enormous machines to service centers is a different set of concerns since presumably those machines are acquired and will service hundreds to thousands of devices over years. But renting them and sending them across time zones, continuously charging an environmental cost that would otherwise be amortized over time, is a completely different sustainability calculus.)
It is so easy to transpose the arguments slightly and re-examine them. What would people say about a new Porsche with a sealed tire design, where you required an 18-wheeler-sized vehicle to be called out from the nearest dealer to, carefully and gingerly, plasma cutting, loosening and desoldering the tire, followed by friction-stir welding a replacement tire on and getting on the horn with a service representative over the telematics system to bond it to the vehicle electronics? If you fell into a coma, woke up ten years later and this was the standard, would it become any less wasteful? If you learned that this had been controversial, but that recently Porsche had started sending out these vehicles to people without a support contract and for a lower fee, would the construction become any better?
What would people say if, in late 2006, you wanted a phone with a big touch screen, with apps, with high-speed internet access, with fluid animations and a capable software stack? It's possible they would say "silly rabbit, that's just not how phones work, they run cheap-ass software written to a real-time OS, and if you sit nice, be very quiet and hand-type this URL on this T9 keypad, you can have a J2ME midlet application that's so maddeningly generic, the developer couldn't even tell on which side the softkey buttons are going to show up from platform to platform". But would that mean the current status quo was the only way things would ever go, or that you were objectively an idiot unmoored from reality for wanting them to be different?
From a user's point of view, it is true that having a user-replaceable battery does add to the size and weight of the device, especially the easier the mechanism is to undo. It also adds to the lifetime and the resale value, because now you could do it with your hands in under a minute, or with a screwdriver and maybe some minor tools in under 15 minutes, so now you might actually do it, since you don't have to give your primary technical support device up for hours or days in a store that may not even be in the same city, without risking your warranty.
I can see why Apple or why publicly listed companies who live and die by quarterly earnings don't want to incentivize that. I can see why they would rather want people to get a new device, or failing that, inflate one of two notions that the device should only be handled by its maker or that its maker is a good and green company for disassembling and recycling a device that could still have done five more years of service out in the real world.
Just because servicing is not a "profit center" for a company, doesn't mean that the company doesn't benefit from designing its devices to not be user-serviceable. And it doesn't mean that the company, at the end of the day, doesn't view your convenience as a customer somewhere on a dynamic scale from indifference to contempt. At least when it means that you might actually use the damn device for an inconveniently long time, when you should have ran out to get an upgraded model, whose upgraded features you do not really want enough to justify the price of a new device.
I can also see why some people make the mistake of looking at the before and after and think, well, the iPhone won. But the alternative isn't an iPhone 13 Pro Max vs a Nokia 3310. This is a false comparison. The alternative is an iPhone 14 Pro Max that spends a fraction of its area on making battery removal possible without industrial tooling. And maybe that seems alien given the device landscape of today; maybe it seems alien given Apple's history in particular.
But what seems alien is a bad predictor of what's possible. It used to seem really fucking nuts to make a phone out of aluminium and glass. And the idea that made people think you were a propeller-head who installed NetBSD on your toaster wasn't that you wanted to swap your battery without involving suction cups, but that you wanted your phone, the thing you made calls with, sent SMS text messages or the odd email with and played Snake on, to be as capable as a computer.
So, I don't know where to start and I don't know quite where to end either. But the idea that Apple isn't a grown-up company that can do whatever they want is stupid. They could focus a tenth of the effort that they put into designing a new iPhone into making it just a hair more repairable without industrial tooling.
Swapping a battery after 18-30 months, 1-3 times during the device's total lifetime, when it is significantly degraded, could be possible with a screwdriver and screwdriver-esque type of tools. Note that batteries are now so good that no one is asking for the ability to flip open a hatch and swap between one battery and another battery you have on hand, just for a way of opening the thing up, getting to the battery and sealing the thing back down that would be less of a science project. This would be a significantly less intrusive change than a "user-swappable" battery as the old Nokias had (a mechanism the likes of which the iPhone already supports on a smaller scale for the SIM tray).
Apple has enormous assets and enormous expertise. They could do it. But they choose not to do it, and they should be held accountable for what they are doing. They should be held accountable for what they have chosen to do and not to do.
Yes, it is some flavor of nice that they are not hoarding the industrial tooling. Yes, it is on its face ridiculous that they have willingly painted themselves into a situation where such tooling is necessary to open a god damn high-volume mobile phone. And no, the reason Apple is where they are is not because they have somehow reached the practical limits of applicable technology, and nothing will ever be more easily repairable. The reason is because Steve Jobs wanted a perfect object that people didn't screw around inside of, and company culture is a hell of a thing.