Is Apple Guilty of Planned Obsolescence?

Is Apple Guilty of Planned Obsolescence?

To prevent users from opening their devices, Apple is switching to a new tamper-proof screw. It's planned obsolescence, says one critic.

Apple’s increasing use of tamper-resistant screws is a form of planned obsolescence, says one critic.

As previously reported, Apple is using proprietary five-point security screws in the iPhone 4 and new MacBooks Airs. The special screws were first used in the 2009 MacBook Pro to stop users from replacing the battery.

The screws are unique to Apple and serve one purpose only: to keep users out.

The plan, says iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens, is to force customers to upgrade their gadgets sooner than necessary. They also make them reliant on Apple for expensive repairs and upgrades.

“It’s a form of planned obsolescence,” says Wiens. “General Motors invented planned obsolescence in the 1920s. Apple is doing the same thing.”

Is Apple Guilty of Planned Obsolescence?

iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens

Planned obsolescence is an industrial design strategy that encourages customers to upgrade their products sooner than necessary.

According to Wiens, the special screws prevent owners from upgrading or repairing their machines themselves. They also encourage users to replace their devices sooner than they would if they were more easily serviceable.

Apple releases new iPods and iPhones every year, and new MacBooks every couple of years. The company wants customers on a similar upgrade cycle, says Wiens.

“They want you on a 1- to 2-year purchase cycle for iPods, and a 2- to 3-year purchase cycle for laptops,” he explained.

Wiens notes that even Apple itself may be tossing rather than repairing devices. The replacement battery for an iPod Shuffle is $49 – the same as a new device. “That says to me they’re not servicing it,” he says. “They’re throwing it away and giving you a new one.”

Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Apple’s new screws look like standard six-point Torx screws, but have only five points. They come in several sizes, and according to Wiens, are entirely unique to Apple. He can’t find suppliers of similar screws or the tools to work with them.

Apple’s service manuals refer to the screws as “Pentalobular.” They first appeared in the mid-2009 MacBook Pro to prevent users from replacing the battery. They are now used to secure the outer case of the current MacBook Air and the iPhone 4 (Apple is replacing the ordinary Philips-head screws that shipped with earlier iPhone 4 units).

Is Apple Guilty of Planned Obsolescence?

Apple’s Diabolical Plan to Screw your iPhone from iFixit on Vimeo.

Of course, Wiens could be accused of having an agenda. He’s in the business of selling replacement parts: iFixit is the second largest supplier of Apple parts after Apple itself. It’s in Wien’s interest to have users fixing their own machines and ordering his parts. Indeed, iFixit just started selling a $9.95 kit to replace the iPhone 4’s Pentalobular screws.

But Wiens is a passionate fixer. He strongly believes in fixing things and not tossing them away. Last year, he helped publish the iFixit manifesto promoting a “repair revolution.”

Most products should not be disposed of, he says; even recycling is a waste. “It may be obsolete for you, but for someone else it’s cutting edge,” he says. “It should be good for another 20 years.”

But is Apple really trying to force customers into expensive repairs and short upgrade cycles? I’m not 100% convinced.

The policy is inconsistent. Apple doesn’t use tamper-proof screws across all its devices — only the consumer-focused gadgets are sealed shut (iPhone, iPod, iPad and MacBook Airs). Most of Apple’s pro- and prosumer products (MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro) are user upgradeable or serviceable. In fact, the Mac Pro is exceptionally upgradeable, featuring world-class industrial design that makes it very easy for owners to tinker with machine’s guts.

There may be warranty issues. Most electronics manufacturers use tamper-proof seals for warranty purposes. Warranties won’t be honored if the device has been opened and tampered with. Apple may be using tamper-proof screws in lieu of tamper-proof stickers.

Or perhaps there are other unanticipated issues. The first Macs, for example, famously required extra long Torx drivers to open them up. They were sealed partly to prevent users from tampering with the hardware, but also to stop them electrocuting themselves on the CRT.

And lastly, a lot of Apple customers are likely to replace their devices long before the need upgrades or repairs — or the sealed-in battery runs out. One person’s planned obsolescence is another’s rapid innovation.

What do you guys think? Is Apple forcing us to buy new products rather than repair or upgrade our old machines?

  • infinityharry

     i have had my Macbook Pro for exactly a year now and literally on its 1st birthday i need to take it in for repair and the warranty wouldnt cover it! PRAM Battery was the problem! wouldnt cover it! PRAM Battery was the problem!

  • Cedricyu803

    “And lastly, a lot of Apple customers are likely to replace their devices
    long before the need upgrades or repairs — or the sealed-in battery
    runs out. One person’s planned obsolescence is another’s rapid
    innovation.”

    Is there any authoritative figures supporting this statement?
    No offense or challenge. I am just researching data about planned obsolescence for my essay
    thz

  • faken

    Apple products used to be far more durable and long lasting… That was the origional reason for their higher price tag. Now however, their products are very fragile and breakable. I think it’s a kind of planned obsolescence. I’ve bought two Macbook Pros in the last 5 years. Neither of them can now burn a CD, and are getting more sluggish daily. I’ve replaced the harddisks, keyboards, CD drives and fixed structural problems. It appears nowadays Apple wants people buying new computers every two years. This is terrible for the environment and a very unsustainable practice that will have bad effects on human civilization. 

  • Cal C

    Of course it’s planned obsolescence!
    A phone without a replaceable battery?
    A LAPTOP without a replaceable battery?
    Macs are now designed so that you can’t use anything but an ‘apple’ hard disk?  So you have to throw away the computer when the disk fills up, rather than buying a larger disk?
    Each new version of System X drops support for your perfectly good software and printers?  So you have to buy new software every two years and new peripherals as well?
    Proof that Apple are aware of this issue is that they banned the ‘phone story’ app from the App Store:
    http://phonestory.org/

    It’s freaking horrendous the waste that apple is deliberately causing.  It’s even worse that no one cares and their clean and green image is teflon slick.  Everyone says, but macs just work, so it’s OK!  The reason they just work is because we tolerate minimal backwards compatibility.  Oh my printer no longer works since 10.7 update, I’ll get a new one.

  • Shrewsbury_Allen

    I agree with Faken. It’s really quite a horrible system going on, but for some businesses, without it they wouldn’t make a profit (not that I’m condoning it) – Apple used to be awesome, and last forever, now we’re just seeing some strange activity. However, I don’t think Apple’s system will last, because when all their customers start complaining, they’ll have to go with it or risk losing money. I wrote about planned obsolescence at http://shrewsbury-allen.com/20

  • Greg Louis

    WHY ARE LOGIC BOARDS SO EXPENSIVE?
    As a seasoned Apple repair technician of 12 years with multiple certifications, I am 100% AGAINST Logic Boards. Logic boards are ultra expensive and cost between $500-$1000. Why so expensive? Because it’s 5 parts in one. Read on…  

    To save space for their ultra-thin notebooks, Apple claims they need to integrate the CPU, video card, sound card, motherboard & IO into one a single assembly. They call this part a “Logic Board”

    HISTORY LESSON:
    On a PC, if a component goes bad (such as a graphics card or a motherboard) you replace it with a new one and you’re back in business. What do you think happens when one of those components goes out on a new Mac? Well, because all of those the components are integrated into one piece, you have to replace the whole entire Logic Board. This is not acceptable… You should not have to replace 5 parts when 1 goes bad.

    So, are you going to pay Apple $800 to fix your Logic Board? Many people will spring for a new computer. It’s planned obsolescence. It’s unacceptable and outright devious.

  • Guest

    Dear China, do your thing.  Render these proprietary screw heads useless.

  • hpyhikn

    This is absolutely true. While such a strategy is acceptable for a toothbrush or razor, it’s aggravating to have spent $150 on an ipod nano, to have it die 12 months later. It no longer holds a charge. Only Apple could get away with such reckless disregard of its customers’ money. How long can they burn their customer base? This will be an interesting lesson. They should be remembering the hubris of the big three US automakers before Toyota.

  • Didier Godefroy

    And here is an other account of such issues: my macbook pro is now basically dead and it’s barely over 2 years old, it won’t even start any more. it’s been showing signs of problems many months ago with first the DVD drive that wouldn’t burn disks any longer, even though that drive is barely used. some time later, the drive no longer reads any disks at all, even if thorough tests do not find anything wrong with it. then I had noticed the trackpad would no longer allow clicking on its left side, which was caused by the battery that was bloating. I had to replace the battery a few weeks ago because it would no longer allow the machine to run more than a few seconds on battery when the wall power was removed. the machine was more and more difficult to start up, especially when it was cold, turning itself off a few seconds after starting up, for no apparent reason. I managed to prevent it from stopping by closing it and leaving it on standby on battery when needing to move around. the new battery would not allow it to run on it either, only while sleeping. and now it cut off and won’t start at all any longer. in the recent months, it was running too hot most of the time, and I had to use the smc utility to force the fans to run faster by default. last summer, one of the fans had failed and I replaced it myself (just like the battery). I was quoted an exhorbitant amount to replace just the battery at a store and I was to give up the machine for close to 2 weeks to have them do it. of course I didn’t give them the machine, nor any money, and I found a new one (sort of) in china on ebay a whole lot cheaper. I will not give any more money to apple to fix anything, it would cost me almost as much as a brand new machine. now I will replace the main logic board myself, replacing the cheap thermal paste on the radiators in the process, which should hopefully prevent the overheating.
    I hate what apple is becoming. this planned obsolescence it unacceptable and I’m certainly not going to by a new machine every 2-3 years as apple would like it. screw that!!!!!!!

  • John Watson

    My name is John and I’m an Apple addict.
    Nice read, but I found pentalobular screwdrivers everywhere.
    Just google “pentalobular screwdriver” and for less than $10 you’ll be tinkering with technology.
    I just replaced my Macbok Pro battery for $27 instead of $129 because I bought a knock-off from China; APPLE IS MADE IN CHINA. I love Apple and I think we all do, they have innovated our daily use of gizmo technology and made computers cool. But they failed to recognize the pitfalls of building in China. Everything you make there is stolen and copied. That’s why I found this screwdriver so easy. My neighbor installed Lion on a Dell. Soon if not now, there will be a beautiful plain-wrap laptop, phone etc that will be IDENTICAL to Apple without the name or icon.
    Let’s not forget how far Apple has come, how much we love them, and how many people want to steal their technology. Also, it is not a conspiracy of “obsolescence” for a manufacturer to want you to buy newer versions. Would you still be using your old Apple junk after 10 years because it cost you a lot of money? No. You would be swinging like a monkey from the bars of better.
    So I leave you with this; Apple didn’t put a gun to your head, they put a bomb in your mind and it exploded with possibilities. If you don’t want to play, go to your local box store and get a contender. I will buy what I want when I can afford it and I will continue to use my sweet unscratched 2006 Macbook Pro with Lion, with my brand new $27 battery. Wow, in four more years I will be using 10 year old junk…

  • cucho_cat

    This is a very interesting article!, great!

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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