This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.
When Apple’s 5G iPhone 12, or whatever it’s called, gets announced on Tuesday, Oct. 13, during the company’s online-only launch event, industry watchers will be looking closely to see how Apple sells us on 5G wireless, its new chips and cameras, and whatever other new features it might pack in. (Here are all the final iPhone 12 rumors we’ve heard, and the latest major leak.)
But it’s the design that may end up being its most important feature. The new iPhone is expected to shave the device’s curved edges into squares, much like those on the current iPad Pro.
That’ll draw the attention of repair experts around the world, who will rush to YouTube and Twitter once they get hold of the device to start dissecting it down to each seam, screw and cable inside to learn what’s fixable and what isn’t.
“Apple’s the best at everything they do except serviceability,” said Kyle Wiens, head of repair instruction and parts site iFixit, which typically rushes to perform online tear-downs of new Apple devices when they launch.
People like Wiens highlight an increasingly public debate within the tech industry over form and function. As gadgets from computers to phones get smaller and lighter, people around the tech world are wondering how far this push for slim design will go, and whether it’ll take precedence over being easy to repair.
Repair advocates note, for example, that the batteries in Apple’s popular AirPods wireless headphones can’t be replaced without destroying them. “That’s the difference between a product that can last 18 months and what can last 10 years,” Wiens added. But at the same time, the AirPods’ popularity stems in part from how lightweight, small and slick they are — all aspects that would likely be altered by having compartments and connectors for replaceable batteries.
Over the years, Apple’s tipped further toward that consumable end of the spectrum. Its laptops, which once had easily replaceable batteries, are screwed shut with the batteries glued to the case. Pretty much all its computers other than its $5,999 Mac Pro desktop aren’t designed to be easily opened by non-technical people either.
Apple has investigated taking those designs a step further, too. In a patent application published in August called “unitary housing for electronic device,” the company described a way to build devices with their electronics encased in two pieces that are sealed with “one or more ultrasonic welds.” The fully enclosed housing can be hermetically sealed, the company said.
“Even in the more eloquently designed electronic devices, outer housings are still typically formed from multiple parts, which tends to result in at least seams or other discontinuities, if not exposed screws, tabs or other component fasteners,” Apple said in its application. “While many designs and techniques used to provide outer housings for electronic devices and components have generally worked well in the past, there is always a desire to provide alternative housing designs and techniques for new and aesthetically pleasing devices.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously micromanaged the look of the company’s products, in and out. He obsessed over the smallest dot on the screen and the angle of the curves on its devices. The night before the first iPod music player was introduced in 2001, Jobs demanded engineers tear apart and remake the device to make that satisfying click-feeling you get when you plug in a cord.
“The back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys,” Jobs quipped as he showed off the company’s first iMac computer in 1998.
While that obsession with design has won Apple praise and loyal fans, it’s also attracted criticism. As the company’s Mac computers have gotten sleeker, easily removable or replaceable parts like the battery, memory and storage drives became largely inaccessible to people without technical skill.
In 2010, when Apple introduced the iPhone 4, Jobs focused on the device’s stainless steel sides that doubled as cellular and Wi-Fi antennas. After its release, users quickly learned that holding the phone a certain way scrambled the device’s reception.
In 2015, the company introduced a new “butterfly” keyboard for its laptops, which was 40% thinner than previous technologies while potentially offering better accuracy. The design became hated among reviewers as user complaints poured in about failing and mistyped keys.
“Perhaps the kindest thing we can say about the Apple MacBook butterfly keyboard is, ‘Thank you for your service,'” CNET’s computer reviewer Dan Ackerman wrote after the company finally ditched the technology starting last year. “So long and good riddance.”
Whether Apple’s newest devices use its seam-removing process is yet to be seen. The company’s filed for similar patents in 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Each time, the it’s given more of a window into how it could use the technology. In 2015, it was for a process to house an “operational component” (think more compactly squeezing parts into a MacBook or iPhone). In 2016, it was for using these techniques in a laptop. Now, it’s for a broadly described “electronic device.”
Apple’s also filed patents for “ultrasonic welding” techniques, indicating they could be used to join metal and plastic parts inside an iPad or iPhone. They could also create a laptop with “no apparent seams or other artifacts of manufacture on its outer surface,” Apple’s said.
Most people expect to see seams, screws and hinges since they’ve been visible on products for decades. To designers, those “artifacts” aren’t so much a part of the design they created.
“When you look at a hinge you think, ‘I get how that opens and closes.’ But the more they make it just disappear, you get this magical mystery of ‘How’s it doing that?'” said Francois Nguyen, head of industrial design at consultancy Frog’s North American studio.
That kind of “ooh” and “ahh” doesn’t happen much in the tech industry, but Apple under Jobs made it happen several times. He showed off the first MacBook Air in 2008 by hiding it in an interoffice envelope to show how thin it was. He pulled the first iPod Nano music player out of the small fifth pocket in his jeans in 2005. He showed off that first iMac’s colorful translucent case in 1998 by turning down the stage lights while it sat on a bright pedestal.
“All those little moments and details that Apple focuses on really sets them apart from all these other tried and true processes that everyone else has at their disposal,” Nguyen said.
There’s only so much you can do to reinvent a sheet of glass on a metal body. Still, Nguyen — who led design for the original “Beats by Dre” headphones, whose namesake company Apple bought for about $3.2 billion in 2014 — said he expects new technologies, like additional and more advanced cameras, will continue to force design, ergonomic and other changes as Apple adjusts its devices to accommodate them.
“The technology could still be the size of a needle, you still have to hold this thing,” he said.
Steps forward and back
Apple appears to at least understand that form over function is something the world is increasingly paying attention to.
When a member of the New York Times editorial board asked Apple for comment last year on upcoming legislation from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushing for national right to repair laws, it set off a flurry of emails within Apple’s PR team.
“We’re still not clear on our seemingly evolving position,” Lori Lodes, a former director of corporate communications, said in one message.
“Right now we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth and no one is clear on where we’re headed,” added Kristin Huguet, head of corporate communications.
The messages, published by the House Judiciary’s subcommittee on antitrust as part of an investigation of Apple and other tech giants, were among the first times Apple’s internal struggles between form and function were made public.
So far, Apple has focused its efforts on expanding the servicing programs it has in place within its stores and through repair shops it certifies. Last year, the company began offering independent repair shops the same “genuine parts, tools, training, repair manuals and diagnostics” that its authorized service providers have access to. In July, the company said it’s working with more than 700 businesses across the US, including uBreakiFix.
“When a customer needs a repair, we want them to have a range of options that not only suits their needs but also guarantees safety and quality so their iPhone can be used for as long as possible,” Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, said in a July statement.
That’s why, come Apple’s event on Oct. 13, some people will be eyeing the bottom of the new iPhone to see whether the two screws typically used to start opening the phone are still there, as well as any other indications of how more tightly sealed the device is.
“Sadly, it’s part of the evolution of technology,” said Carolina Milanese, an analyst at market research firm Creative Strategies. The challenge, she said, is that whatever changes Apple makes will need to strike that right compromise between new design, features, and making sure the experience is worth it. Because after all, these phones will likely be used by hundreds of millions of people, all of whom will carry it around with them every day.
“Even if change is better, people just don’t like change — especially when it’s with something you’re dependent on,” she said. “I’m glad it’s not my job.”