A Story of Un-Serviceability and the iMac
There is not much I own that I like better than our 24 inch iMac, but my sudden understanding of its basic un-serviceability has been a real disappointment. iMacs are not the only things getting less serviceable.
What You Learn When Your iMac Goes Down
We recently had the hard drive in our iMac go out.
See this link for a very interesting article on drive reliability
This article reinforces what we have experienced first hand — the MTBF numbers produced by drive manufacturers are false. Carnegie Mellon’s lack of differentiation among vendors in this study indicates their research was likely polluted by vendor pressure and or contributions.
What we learned is that iMacs are not designed to be serviced by users. The design of the iMac looks great, but has a very strange assembly that makes it even more difficult to work on than a laptop. The iMac has not screws or other fasteners on the case (except on the bottom for memory replacement). A hard drive is a major sub-component in a computer and tends to be one of the more problematic. It is something that not only should be designed to be easily replaced but should be designed to be swappable. As with media like CDs, there is no reason a door could not be added to any computer, and different hard drives could be added and removed to give the user maximum flexibility in booting to different drives. With a spare drive, this would mean that no computer could be brought down due to drive failure.
“Swappable” drives have been used in servers for some time, and are now available for home disk centers (which allow for RAID configurations) such as the Acer model above.
However, while no personal computer actually makes it as easy as we think it should be, Apple has designed a case with no entry through the back, so the user or service technician must actually pull off the glass cover with a suction cup and remove the display (delicately) to expose display. Next the display must be removed to reveal the hard drive. Several specialized tools are required for the task. Waiting for tools to arrive from eBay, as well as the Apple Store’s $420 quote for the work, is why our iMac is sitting unused at the time of the writing of this article.
Long Term Trend
This is part of a long-term trend in consumer items to hide the fasteners in order to increase the “coolness factor.” This trend extends to a number of different categories. If one looks back to the cars of the 1930s, one can see that they were more modular, and the rivets, pins, screws and other fasteners were more apparent. What this meant was that cars were more serviceable.
The Bentley Speed Six was a very serviceable car. The engine was easy to get to, the fenders were easily replaceable, and the exposed fasteners allowed the replacement of many parts by shade tree mechanics.
By the 1950s, almost all cars had moved to integrate the trunk and fenders into the body, and fasteners were no longer observable from the outside. This resulted in a smoother look, but also in a more complicated design and more expensive automobile to work on.
The 1950s Cadillac Series 62 was representative of cars from this era, in that it had an integrated body and hidden fasteners. Bodywork on this type of car is more time-consuming and expensive and must be done by professionals. However, since then, cars have become far more complex and as a result less serviceable still.
The long-term is to decrease the serviceability in items. While this may be good for company profits, it is actually bad for consumer and bad for the environment. The more difficult and expensive it is for items to be repaired, the more quickly they are simply replaced by new items. The problem is that companies do not seem to have an incentive to build long-lasting and easily serviced items. The finance area of the company seems to think it reduces sales of new items (which it does), and new product design and marketing seem to think it reduces the “coolness” factor of products. Marketing and finance have come to dominate US corporations, so it is no surprise that their values have become the values of American business. This is not going unnoticed. According to industrial designer Victor J. Papanek, the following holds.
That while American products once set industrial standards for quality, consumers of other nations now avoid them due to shoddy American workmanship, quick obsolescense and poor value.
There is this common impression which is reinforced by advertising that this year’s model is better than last year’s, and that in general we are on a continual upward slope. This is not actually the case. There are many business practices and products that were “better” – better for the consumer and better for the environment — in the past. In addition to serviceability, many products were simply designed to last longer half a century ago. As an example, there is a lively market for classic toasters from the 1950s on eBay. These 50+ year old toaster still work, because they were built to last. The concept of a 50+ year old item is unheard of today.
This 1950s SubBeam is still working, and adjusted for inflation, is probably selling for more on eBay than it did back when it was purchased in a store in the 1950s. Why can’t more items be built to last and be built to be serviceable?
I suppose the question to ask is what has changed? How did American business go from offering many durable and serviceable products to offering products designed to be thrown away? Secondly, how did both American and international consumers become habituated to this new consumption pattern? Thirdly, does anyone think that this trend can actually be reversed by “the market?” Actually, it would appear that on broader goals such as environmentalism (which the life-span of products are a contributing factor towards) that the market will drive product development in the opposite direction, towards planned obsolecense. People generally need to have a better understanding of the relationship between product service-ability and sustainability. It is difficult to see companies making a focus of product service-ability without more pressure from consumers. However, consumers have become so habituated to disposable products, that most don’t know where to begin to ask for this level of build quality.
One question I have is if purchasing specialized drives, such as surveillance drives — which are designed for high usage video applications are more reliable than normal consumer drives. Seagate makes a very price attractive model.
This is an interesting article on planned obsolecense in hard drives. We quote from it below.
For a long time, I was a big supporter of IBM drives and recommended them at every turn, but now not so. They too have had enormous numbers of drives returned to them recently, and I am sure that is what spawned the Hitachi buyout. I have noticed over the last couple of years that manufacturers have stopped putting little mini in-line fuses on the electronics of the drives. I often asked myself why they were doing this, as the fuses could not cost 1/2 cent each. I have since found out! This is a little known fact that is not limited to hard drives alone unfortunately, but also incorporated into cars, electronics of all sorts, and everyday things that we the consumer use. This little known fact is called “built-in obsolescence”! This is a very little discussed problem in today’s society, but we all face it at some point or another.
The is an excellent excerpt on this exact point in the book Waster Makers, published back in 1960. We have copied it below. This relates to deliberate changes that made items less serviceable.
Beyond all these factors of quality debasement and by repairmen there were several objective factors about modern appliances that helped make them expensive to maintain and that helped increase the business volume of servicing agencies or replacement-parts manufacturers, and, in some cases, the manufacturers hoping to sell new replacement units. There were more things to go wrong. Those added luxury accessories that so delight copy writers were adding to the problems of products to break down. The rush to add extras on washing-machines in the form of cycle control, additive injectors, increased the number of things that can develop ailments. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Parts and accessory dealers naturally are pleased with the added extras put on new cars.” They should be. I have two neighbors who bought station wagons in 1958. One bought a model with power steering, power brakes, automatic shifting, and power windows. The other—a curmudgeon type who doesn’t think that shifting gears and raising windows by hand are too much of a strain—bought a car without any of the extras. His years of ownership of the car have been relatively trouble-free. (And by spurring the extras he saved several hundred dollars at the outset.) The other neighbor who bought the car with all the extras moans that he got a “lemon.” His car, he states, has been laid up at the garage seven times, usually because of malfunctioning of the optional equipment. Replacement parts were costing more. The gizmoed motorcar was a good case in point. A creased fender that in earlier years could be straightened for a few dollars was now, with integral paneling” and high-styled sculpturing, likely to cost I $100 to correct. The wrap-around windshield was likely to last three to five times as much to replace as the unbent/ windshields that motorcars had before the fifties. Ailing parts were increasingly inaccessible. In their pre occupation with gadgetry and production short cuts, and perhaps obsolescence creation—manufacturers often gave little thought to the problem of repairing their products (or alternatively made them hard to repair.) Sales Management dominated and demanded that“products are not designed for service.”It was of steam iron that could be repaired only by breaking it apart and taking out the screws. Some toasters were riveted together such that a repairman had to spend nearly an hour just getting to the right part. This is to replace a fifteen-cent or a ten-cent spring. Product analysts at Consumers Union told me that air-conditioning units in automobiles were often cluttering up the engine compartment so badly that it took an hour or two to remove a rear spark plug. Built-in appliances—which were being hailed as the wave of the future had to be disengaged from the wall before repair work could begin. Many of these built-ins were simply standard.
Manufacturers often failed to provide in provide information that would facilitate repairs. Recently The Boston Globe protested that appliance manufacturers were getting so “cozy” with service manuals that customers seeking them got the impression they were “censored as if they contained obscene material.” The Electric Appliance Service News likewise expressed indignation on behalf of servicemen, or at least independent servicemen. It said, “Our mail is loaded with gripes daily from servicemen throughout the country lamenting their inability to obtain service manuals from certain manufacturers.” Often this coziness has sprung from the desire of the manufacturer to keep the repair business to itself and out f the hands of independents. The News charged that “some manufacturers do not make service manuals available to all independent repairmen and therefore it is almost impossible to make repairs easily and properly—and at a time-saving expense.
This exerpt is from the book The Break Through Illusion and is related ho how R&D was changed to be less integrated and more specialized, and how service-ability as well as manufacturability were reduced.
R&D was also separated from other corporate activities such as product development and manufacturing. In 1925 Bell Labs was organizationally separated from Western Electric “to permit more effective specialization in research and development. “R&D now became the first step in a specialized assembly-line process of innovation. According to the historian George Wise: “At subsequent workstations long that assembly line, operations labeled applied research, invention, development, engineering, and marketing transform that scientific idea into an innovation.”
As this process moved along, projects and products would simply passed over the transom from R&D to product development, from product development to pilot production, and from pilot production to manufacturing Once a project was handed on, the receiving group vas confronted with a fait accompli, their freedom of operation constrained by earlier decisions. For example, engineers working on the body of a car might design it in such a way as to make proper placement of the engine and steering difficult. The engineers assigned to steering and motor development would then change the design based on their needs. By the end of this process would be expensive and difficult to manufacture. Typically, this yielded results that were expensive and frequently of low quality, for example, the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega, cars that were designed as lemons.“
The consequences of all this were both profound and disastrous. The connections between R&D and production were irrevocably severed. New ideas and inventions were stranded in a “twilight zone” between R&D and production. American industry went from a system in which innovation and production were closely linked to one in which it became increasingly difficult to produce the research labs’ developments economically. Some companies, like DuPont, responded to the growing gulf between the R&D and manufacturing by creating internal “venture” divisions designed to turn promising R&D into new products or in cases into new businesses. But few of these new venture visions proved successful. For example, none of DuPont’s major new internal ventures or spin-off companies amounted to much. The reason for this was basic: new venture divisions simply added another intermediate level to an already overblown and unwieldy R&D bureaucracy. Here again; large corporations showed that they were oblivious to the need for more fundamental kinds of restructuring.
It’s interesting how little changes. The article below describes how Apple decided to use glass on the back of the iPhone 4 in a decision prioritizes style over durability. I don’t know how many people care about the back of their phones, but I would venture to guess not much. Glass has no other property that you would want to put in the palm in that it is not a good insulator (so the heat will come through the back of the phone), and it is a low friction surface, meaning the phone will be more prone to slip out of one’s hand.
Another case of Apple choosing style over durability.
On a second very popular Apple product, much was written about how much better the iPad 2 was than the iPad 1. People were amazed by how thin it was and how it now had tapered edges which felt great in the hand. However, little was written about how this would affect serviceability. It turns out quite negatively. ZDNet disassembled the iPad and essentially recommended that users never try to open the iPad 2. They gave the product a serviceability score of 4 out of 10. In addition to reduced serviceability, the durability of the iPad 2 was reduced over the iPad 1, with a much greater likelihood of the glass cracking than in the iPad 1. If publications continue to lightly cover aspects of durability and serviceability, companies like Apple will have the incentive to continue to not emphasize these aspects in their design.