Where’s the first place you go when you break a gadget? Hopefully it’s iFixit.
Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules are lifesavers. Their site has become an indispensable resource since its launch in 2003 , helping tech lovers around the world fix their phones or computers, without having to trudge down to the local Geek Squad kiosk or Genius Bar for help. iFixit is also well known for its device teardowns, which have become an essential part of every major device launch.
The site has grown exponentially for the last year or so, with new guides that have nothing to do with smartphones and tablets, and the founders are hoping its community will help take the site to the next level. I talked with Wiens and Soules about the beginnings of iFixit, where it’s headed, and why Android smartphones can be some of the most challenging mobile devices to take apart.
Greenbot: I know you guys started out at Cal Poly. Can you tell me a bit about the day you and Luke decided to start iFixit? Did you have the same objectives back then that you do now? How have things evolved?
Wiens: We started our first year in college, and we were trying to find a way to earn enough money to buy a projector. We were originally just selling parts for Apple PowerBooks, but gradually expanded until we had parts and manuals for tons of gizmos. What we learned along the way is that Apple isn’t the only manufacturer that makes things hard to fix—it’s a plague in the mobile devices industry. Some companies, like Dell and Lenovo are making great hardware. But others are following Apple’s lead and making things hard to fix.
Greenbot: The site has grown exponentially through the years. Any ideas for where the site might go from here? Any hints you can drop about what you might be considering for the future of iFixit?
Wiens: The future is up to our community! Just like Wikipedia, people around here decide what to put on iFixit next. But we’re putting a big emphasis on Android. We just passed 500 phone repair manuals! That’s tens of thousands of photos, a huge resource aimed at making phone repair so easy that anyone can do it.
We’re expanding iFixit internationally, too. We recently added German, French, Italian, and Spanish support. We’re well underway with support for Chinese, Dutch, and Russian. And more all the time!
The biggest change for iFixit from the Android community’s perspective is our new Android app (other apps exist, too). You can take photos and make a repair guide entirely from inside the app. So if you’re working on your car, take some photos as you go to remind yourself how to reassemble things. You can even use voice dictation to add descriptions to the process. It’s made it so much faster and easier to write repair guides.
Greenbot: How can Android users, who are “fixers” themselves, help contribute to the iFixit community?
Wiens: iFixit is generated by the community! So if you have something you know how to fix, pitch in and help make our guides better. There’s an edit button on every step and you can add your own photos. You can even add guides for things (Android or not) that we don’t have yet.
We’d love to get some more general purpose household repair guides to cover everything from drywall to plumbing to adding a stereo to your car. We’re also adding some general purpose skill tutorials so you can upgrade yourself and learn how to sew or solder.
Greenbot: What’s one thing you haven’t torn apart that you really want to? It can be a device, or whatever you’d love to just take a part and study.
Luke Soules: Space shuttle. I hear there’s one in LA now. Maybe the museum will let me borrow it! We’re looking forward to Amazon’s Fire phone. It’s not very often that we get to see the first phone from a company, and it usually reveals a lot about their design perspective. We like to see fresh ideas rather than just the same old stuff.
Wiens: I’d love to get inside the Model S. The engineering on that is just phenomenal, and I’m interested in how they make the batteries safe. I think Tesla has a huge lead on the rest of the automotive industry because they were able to start with a clean slate.
I’m interested in products from other industries, from Rolex watches to kitchen appliances. Design for repair is a philosophy that applies to every product, and the repairability design practices in many industries are much more sophisticated than we see in the electronics industry.
I think it’s easy to give product designers a pass and say “It’s ok that you glued your smartwatch together because it had to be thin.” Well, watches have always had to be thin! I’d argue that it’s much harder to make a completely mechanical, accurate mechanical watch that fits on your wrist and repels water than it is to make a solid state LCD, battery, and circuit board fit. If Rolex has figured out how to make elegant, repairable watches then why can’t Motorola or Apple? We have a couple centuries of evidence proving that it’s possible to make repairable wearables.
Greenbot: Are any of you using Android phones? If so, which one?
Wiens: We actually both still have iPhone 4S’s that just won’t die. Luke swapped out the headphone jack on his the other day. But my next phone will be an Android. I really want a Fairphone, but the current version doesn’t work in the US. We’ve got a lot of Androids around the office: lots of Nexus 4s and 5s, a Galaxy S3, a Moto X, and a Note II. We don’t have any HTC Ones in the office because I banned them.
Devices with repairability scores of one aren’t allowed at iFixit. HTC’s integrated battery is planned obsolescence, pure and simple. Consumers should be aware of what they’re getting up front. I’m not sure how compatible closed together hardware is with an open ecosystem.
Greenbot: What was the first Android phone you took apart?
Wiens: We have a community manual for the G1, but the first Android that we took apart was the Nexus One.
Greenbot: What was the hardest Android device to ever take apart?
Wiens: The HTC One and its newer sibling, the M8, are two of the most challenging phones we’ve been faced with. It’s somewhere between very, very difficult and impossible to open the device without damaging the rear case. This makes accessing any component inside extremely difficult to replace. Plus, once you get inside the battery is buried beneath the motherboard and adhered to the midframe, and there’s copper shielding on many components that’s difficult to remove and replace. The One earned a ignominious score of one (out of ten) for repairability, and the M8 was scarcely better with a two.
Greenbot: Do you think that Android devices (and the many OEMs that make them) are easier or harder to fix than iOS devices?
Wiens: There’s a good spectrum. On the phone side, there are Androids that are a lot worse (I’m looking at you, HTC and Motorola), and there are phones that are better (Samsung and Blackberry). On the tablet side, Androids are universally better than iPads. The only tablet we’ve seen that’s more difficult to take apart than an iPad Air is the Surface Pro.
The biggest challenge with Android repair is the number of products out there. There are over a thousand Android phone models! And we need a repair guide for every model. No one out there can do that on their own—but together, it’s certainly something that we could make a big dent in.