Meet the guy who built an iPhone from scratch

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Scotty Allen
Scotty Allen takes his viewers to Strange Parts for unvarnished stories about technology.
Photo: Scotty Allen

Millions have watched Scotty Allen build an iPhone from parts mined from the electronics markets of Shenzhen, China.

DIYers and hackers write Allen, eager to repeat his geeky feat. So do people from third-world countries looking for an affordable way to get their hands on a pricey device that imparts status.

Allen, 39, loves the wild enthusiasm his YouTube videos have sparked, but the scratch iPhone isn’t the point.

Scotty Allen’s ‘travel show for geeks’

Strange Parts, his YouTube show, uses technology to tell a bigger story of adventure, travel and culture, much the way the late Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations used food as a vehicle to reach more profound topics.

“It’s a travel show for geeks at the intersection of adventure, technology and travel,” Allen told Cult of Mac in a Skype interview. “Part of what I see doing is using technology as an excuse to talk about the world. There’s the story about making the iPhone and then there’s the story behind the story, how the cellphone markets in China work. That’s the real story. If I had bought all the parts on eBay, the video would be me unboxing them as they arrive in the mail.

“That’s not an interesting story.”

Thankfully for Apple fans, Allen continues to use the iPhone to tell the story of a complex ecosystem of parts suppliers and repair shops — and the hard-working, self-made people of Shenzhen’s electronics district. It is as much a story about the drive and hustle of self-made vendors as it is Allen’s search for logic boards, CPUs and back plates.

iPhone hacks: Headphone jacks and wireless charging

Scotty Allen drilled a headphone jack into an iPhone 7, but cautions against trying this iPhone mod at home
Scotty Allen drilled a headphone jack into an iPhone 7, but cautions against trying this at home.
Photo: Scotty Allen

In addition to the iPhone build video, Allen filmed himself adding a headphone jack to an iPhone 7 (the model Apple infamously used to switch us to wireless earbuds) and modifying an older iPhone for wireless charging.

Recently, Allen revisited his iPhone build project for a video that provides more of a how-to guide for viewers who want to build their own.

Scotty Allen, iPhone hacker

Allen laughs when people marvel at his tenacity to push past build challenges and failures. Sticking to this is not a natural part of his personality. If it weren’t for the videos, and viewers’ expectations of a conclusion, he doubts he’d complete the projects.

He was the kid who took apart everything in the house to study how it worked.

“I wasn’t very good at it,” he said. “I had poor hand-eye coordination and didn’t have good follow-through. I didn’t finish a lot of what I started. Once I learn how it works, the temptation for me is to stop.”

Allen studied engineering and computer science in college. And he kicked around Silicon Valley as a software engineer, including two years at Google. He worked for startups, founded AppMonsta and, in the process, discovered he didn’t like working for other people.

He became, in his words, a digital nomad, traveling around the globe while keeping an apartment in China. Here, he thought maybe he could do hardware design when not traveling, and develop prototypes in a place he could easily find components.

Strange Parts: A journey into iPhone hacking

So began the strange journey that led to Strange Parts.

At dinner one night, a friend wondered aloud if she could build an iPhone from parts being sold by smartphone vendors. About a year passed and Allen, already posting his travel adventures on YouTube, decided to see if he could build an iPhone.

He knew very little Chinese but somehow communicated with vendors about some of the parts he sought.

“The (electronics) market is a complex ecosystem,” he said. “It’s mixed with broken phones, tiny parts in bins, people trying to pioneer new techniques in building logic boards…. It’s mind-blowing.”

The vendors’ warmth and willingness to help surprised him.

“Everybody is an entrepreneur here,” Allen said. “A lot of people I interact with do not come from money. These cellphone repair brothers, both have junior high school educations and went from waiting tables to owning a booth in the market. They have a staff and it is supporting multiple families. This all happened in the course of six years. There was a level of hustle, the money saved from waiting tables, they work 12-hour days, seven days a week…. What they’ve done is really humbling.”

Because of his spotty record for finishing projects, Allen found incentive in the end result required by video storytelling. The growing expectation from fans kept him producing.

iPhone hacker’s learning process

When he set out, Allen had never looked inside an iPhone and could “count on one hand” the number of circuit boards he had designed.

Yet with a general engineering knowledge, stubbornness and a binocular microscope for soldering and other tiny details, Allen surprised himself by completing a project. He also found a new career path that, for now, pays for his travels.

Allen’s videos are edited down from hours of footage. He is careful not to remove scenes that show his frustration, stumbles and outright failures.

“This is not your average technology documentary,” Allen writes in the About section of his Strange Parts website. “Just a real engineer and hacker telling real stories with as many real details as I can share. Shaky camera, bad audio and all.”