SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The iPad will not hit stores until Saturday, but the race to unlock its mysteries started several weeks ago in San Luis Obispo, a picturesque college town roughly 200 miles south of Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
On March 12, Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules woke up before dawn. Their plan demanded that they be among the first to get their hands on the device.
So at 5:30 a.m., the minute Apple began taking iPad orders on its website, Wiens and Soules — do-it-yourself repair evangelists and co-founders of a company called iFixit — placed theirs. As delivery addresses, they entered several U.S. locations where their research determined the iPad is likely to arrive soonest. They could tell you which ones, but they would have to kill you.
Armed with heat guns, suction cups and other tools of the trade, the duo will set out on Saturday to reveal some of the tablet’s most closely guarded secrets: the design and components that make it tick. If all goes according to plan, by the time the lines outside Apple Stores start to thin, iFixit will have provided a blow-by-blow account of its “teardown” to the world, complete with a photo montage.
Such details are manna for the Apple faithful, and iFixit has made a name for itself in technology circles by providing them fast. To do so, Wiens and Soules must above all make sure they are among the very first people to be in actual possession of these hotly anticipated gadgets. And this being Apple, one of the world’s most secretive companies, each launch presents a different set of challenges.
Apple’s mostly unsung suppliers, which are barred from talking about their most famous customer, will admit in private that they love these teardowns by iFixit and others. The spectacles trumpet to the world that a manufacturer is good enough to make it into an Apple product. In late 2006, the mere rumor that a component by Skyworks Solutions would be in the original iPhone was enough to boost its share price.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple, which declined to comment for this story, does not like anybody monkeying around with its devices. This after all is a company that won’t even let users change their iPod and iPhone batteries. It has fired executives over leaks and sued bloggers to halt their revelations.
But there is nothing Apple can do about teardowns. “What we do is completely legal, but if they could stop us they would,” Wiens, 26, said with a touch of pride. He said that iFixit has had no formal contact with Apple.
What Apple can and does do is make its devices tougher for him and others to decrypt. Teardown firms say the electronics giant forces some suppliers to stamp their microprocessors with the Apple logo, making it harder to determine their provenance.
“Apple is usually trying to cloak who its suppliers are,” said David Carey of UBM TechInsights, a prominent teardown firm. “But it can only keep the door closed for so long.”
One reason Apple frowns upon teardowns, say experts, is that it is reluctant to broadcast that it doesn’t manufacture the widgets itself. “Apple really wants end users to think that Apple makes this thing, that Apple makes the iPad, not Foxconn, Samsung, Toshiba,” Soules said.
For iFixit, these techno-stripteases are more than just publicity stunts designed to promote its business (though they are that for sure.) They are also, to hear Wiens and Soules tell it, a cause.
The two businessmen say one of their goals is to cut down on electronic waste that ends up in landfills by demonstrating the old-fashioned virtue of repair, extending the lifespan of devices.
Wiens said it was his mission to make repair “sexy.” He refers to Apple as a “closed company,” because it doesn’t want its users repairing its products. “We used to fix things in this country, back in the 1950s it was cool to tinker with your car, but that changed as it became more of a consumer culture,” he said.
Wiens and Soules launched iFixit, which sells Apple parts and provides free online repair manuals, as teenagers in 2003 out of their college dorm at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. It is now a thriving small business that employs around two dozen people and generates more than $2 million in annual sales.
With so much riding on getting hold of the iPad first or close to it, iFixit is playing the odds, flying representatives to multiple cities that Wiens and Soules are keeping to themselves for the moment.
If past is prologue, there is little they won’t do to be among the first. In 2008, the year Apple debuted the second-generation iPhone in a global launch, Soules chased it 6,000 miles to the first time zone where he could find the device. He flew to Auckland, New Zealand, and headed to a Vodafone store. There, he waited on line for more than a full day. By his count, he was the fourth person in the world to get the iPhone.
There was just one problem. Soules, a soft-spoken, baby-faced 25-year-old who could easily pass for 16, didn’t know a soul in Auckland. So iFixit combed its client list and found one helpful fellow who offered up his print shop to host the teardown. It began shortly after midnight and lasted all night, with Soules streaming nearly live photos onto the Internet to waiting Apple fans half a world away.
Last year was even tougher. Wiens traveled to Britain to get ahead of the third-generation iPhone launch. But his scheme was foiled, he said, when a carrier store in France began selling the device at midnight. He was not among the first to get it — a failure that still rankles. “There’s no magic formula to this, we make up a new plan with each launch, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
The iPad is Apple’s most high-profile product launch since the iPhone three years ago. Starting at $499, the 9.7-inch iPad represents a new category of device, an always-on, all-purpose tool for media consumption.
Stores are sure to be packed on launch day, but Wall Street is still debating its long-term impact on Apple’s bottom line. Many analysts expect the company to sell 4 million to 5 million iPads this year.
Whether the iPad flops or becomes the next big thing, the competition to accurately divulge who made which microprocessor and sundry other parts will be fierce.
“There are a lot of people doing this now,” said Carey of UBM TechInsights. But he said all teardowns are not created equal. “There are different levels of audience and sophistication, and we have tools and lab capabilities that let us drill down to the transistor level.”
Indeed, TechInsights’ report on the iPhone 3G provides a level of detail only engineers could love, describing the pin counts on diode arrays that measure a millimeter in length and cost 3 cents.
In contrast to iFixit, which makes public its teardown information, TechInsights provides its data to paying clients. Its reports can run 200 pages. While speed is important, Carey said, it is not the main concern.
Teardown firms like his are hired by an array of clients throughout the technology foodchain. The data is used for competitive intelligence, in patent disputes, or by those simply looking to stay current on industry benchmarks.
Stripping down a device can last a week or more, requiring a variety of tools. Just opening an Apple gizmo can be tricky; the first generation iPhone, in particular, was sealed up tight enough to frustrate Harry Houdini.
“Apple thinks of the iPhone as a magical black box,” said Wiens. “They hate screws.”
Besides heat guns for melting seals, suction cups for maneuvering screens, and a small hooked stick called a spudger, some less conventional instruments sometimes come into play. “It turned out the best tool to take apart the original iPhone was a dental pick,” Wiens said.
Identifying certain computer chips takes some digital sleuthing. The Web is awash in lists of component serial numbers, so parts often can be tied to the manufacturer simply by plugging them into a search engine such as Google.
But divining the origin of other parts requires more expensive hardware such as X-ray machines or a scanning electron microscope, a desk-sized device that provides pictures at the nanometer level.
Chips are carefully sliced open, and then examined from the inside, a process that can take days.
Francis Sideco, an analyst with research group iSuppli, calls the process of identifying parts “doing triangulation.” He said iSuppli expects to put out an iPad teardown analysis a few days after the launch.
“We like to get it right, we don’t want to wait two weeks, but we do want to get it right,” Sideco said.
There is only one iPad component that is known for certain: Apple has already announced that its very own A4 processor is the primary brains of the device. The chip is reportedly manufactured for Apple by Samsung.
ISuppli predicts that other chip suppliers will include Broadcom Corp and Texas Instruments Inc. Flash memory could come from Samsung and Toshiba Corp.
The iPad display and touchscreen are the most expensive part of the device, likely to be around $80. They are also the biggest engineering mystery, Sideco said. The iPad’s screen measures 9.7-inches.
“Capacitive touchscreens are typically 3-to-4 inches, and increasing sizes is one of the biggest challenges. The display is key, and what it costs,” he said.
In the past, iFixit’s teardowns have turned up parts from companies like Wolfson Microelectronics Plc, Skyworks Solutions Inc, TriQuint Semiconductor Inc and Marvell Technology Group Ltd.
The team also discovered a small space in the iPod touch meant for a camera, although the device doesn’t yet include one. They don’t know what they’ll find when they crack open the iPad, but they certainly plan to be among the first.
Wiens and Soules own homes next door to each other in Atascadero, a 15-minute drive north from San Luis Obispo. Soules’ house doubles as an office for around 10 employees, as well as an Apple parts depot.
The house is an Apple geek wonderland, with a cat named Midnight prowling the halls. The decor is dominated by a life-sized suit of armor, and racks filled with parts for iPods, iPhones and Mac computers. A jaccuzzi-style tub in the bathroom doesn’t appear to have been used in some time, as it is piled high with boxes.
Soules just shrugs when asked about the clutter, but he seems right at home. He got his first Mac when he was in first grade, and worked as a computer tech through high school. His grandfather fixed typewriters, so repair is in his blood.
Wiens’ father ran a Harley-Davidson dealership, and he said Apple’s cult appeal has a lot in common with that of the motorcycle maker.
“Mystery attracts attention, and Apple is a master at getting attention,” he said. (Reporting by Gabriel Madway; editing by Jim Impoco, Tiffany Wu and Claudia Parsons)