Does Apple build in obsolescence?

Apple's new laptop can't be repaired by users. But does anyone care?

Apple's new MacBook Pro has been criticised by the do-it-yourself repair company iFixit for being the least repairable laptop in the company's history. They gave it a 1/10 for repairability, highlighting the fact that the RAM is soldered into the motherboard, the battery is glued to the frame, and the screen is bonded to the glass, so that the entire upper lid needs to be replaced if it gets scratched.

Felix Salmon declared that this was part of Apple's "strategy of built-in obsolescence", writing:

Apple’s post-purchase revenue from every one of these new laptops that it sells will be significantly higher than what it’s seeing right now on the MacBook Pro line. . .

Apple Computer became Apple Inc back in 2007, and the overwhelming majority of its half-trillion-dollar market cap has absolutely nothing to do with revenues from selling laptops or desktops. The real money, it turns out, is in flows rather than stocks: the income stream from selling songs and apps, or from a cellphone contract, is much more valuable than a one-off computer purchase.

And it seems to me that with this latest model, Apple is trying to turn its computers into a flow product, too. It’s a beautiful shiny object — but it has much more built-in obsolescence than anything the Pro line has ever had in the past. And the more frequently Apple can persuade its customers to upgrade or replace their computers, the more its Mac operation will be worth. You might adore that Retina display now. But I suspect you’ll be replacing it sooner than you might think.

Some of what Salmon writes is just wrong. The "real money" for Apple has never been in selling songs and apps. The app store paid out $700m to developers in the fourth quarter of 2011, which, with the company's 70:30 split, means they grossed just $300m in that quarter. The company's overall revenue for that quarter was $28.3bn, and it's profit was $6.62bn; well over 20 times what it grossed from the app store. And that $300m doesn't take into account the cost of running the damn thing. Add it all together, and the situation is unlikely to have changed from February 2011, when Apple's then-CFO Peter Oppenheimer confirmed that "we run the App Store just a little over breakeven".

The fact is that Apple sells apps, and music, movies, TV shows and magazine subscriptions, in order to sell hardware. According to Horace Deidu, they make the vast majority of their income and profits from the iPhone, but the Mac and iPad divisions also both comfortably beat software and music sales. Apple has always made its money from selling big-ticket items at a healthy margin every other year or so. The real change for the company hasn't been that it's gone from hardware to software, but from computers to mp3 players and then smartphones.

With that in mind, it is of course still the case – and always has been – that Apple is interested in selling you computers more frequently. That's why they work so hard to cultivate a "gotta have it" air around all their new releases, and why they work hard at customer retention, to ensure that buying a new one is an experience you look back on fondly. But to make the leap from that to "Apple designs its computers to be un-upgradeable so that you buy new ones" misunderstands the company's aims and strengths.

A similar objection to the one Salmon is voicing now was made when the first iPhone came out, in 2007, with a battery sealed in the phone. And the response now is the same as it was then: how could they make what they made without those tradeoffs?

A sealed battery was the price for making a phone which competitors believed was literally impossible, and a bonded screen is the price for shipping a laptop with a resolution of 2880x1800 in a body smaller and lighter than the one which was being replaced.

The real question to be asked of Apple isn't whether they are going from a nice company which sells you infinitely upgradeable computers to a nasty one which deliberately kills yours after two years so you have to buy a new one. The question is whether Apple still views the sort of people who upgrade their computers as a viable market at all.

Salmon cites TUAW's Richard Gaywood, who wrote:

My last MacBook Pro saw a little over 2.5 years as my primary computer, and I would expect no less of any computer I was paying in excess of $2200/£1800 for. In that time, I upgraded the memory once, the hard drive three times, and replaced the battery once. None of these options would be available to me with a new MBPwRD.

Undoubtedly, Gaywood will find the switch in focus from repairability to thinness and lightness painful. But he is simply not the sort of customer Apple can afford to care about. I am hardly a technophobe, but my current MacBook pro has spent the last four and a half years as my primary computer, and in that time I have replaced the battery twice (once under warranty, and once not). That's it.

The cost to Apple of making its laptops black boxes is that the vanishingly small proportion of its customers who are "power users" get annoyed, and maybe some even switch to bulkier, more user-serviceable Windows or Linux machines; the advantage is that it can continue to justifiably claim to make the best computers in the business.

The inside of a MacBook Pro with retina display. Complicated. Photograph: iFixit.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser