Kyle Wiens is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, whose Web site you might have visited to read its funny and geekily-detailed teardowns of new gadgets, to download instructions for self-repairing that iPhone you dropped into the toilet, I mean, bathtub, or to buy screens and screwdrivers for the aforementioned repairs.
Since its founding eight years ago, the San Luis Obispo, Calif. company has grown to a $4-million-a-year firm on the strength of its mission: “to save the world, one gizmo at a time.” Unlike Gazelle or SellYourMac.com, which want to buy your used PCs and devices to resell, iFixit wants users to hold onto their gadgets as long as possible by giving them the tools and know-how to upgrade and repair them.
This might be novel to many consumers, but it probably resonates with anyone working in corporate IT, where boosting ROI and slashing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) have long been key goals.
Indeed, as enterprises enter the post-PC era, they are turning to iFixit to extend the lifespan of their iPads and Android smartphones along with their PCs. Half of the iFixit’s sales are to IT departments, said Wiens.
“We love IT guys, all of the guys we hang out with are IT guys,” he said.
I interviewed Wiens at Macworld iWorld last week, where he shared his recommendations on how companies can keep mobile gadgets going for as long as possible.
(Another way to extend your company’s mobile devices as long as possible: actively encourage your employees to install games like Angry Birds on them.)
1) Train your IT department to be as good at repairing and upgrading mobile devices as they are at PCs.
Sure, your company may have a service agreement with Apple on top of the regular device warranties, but it will always makes sense to build up in-house expertise to do routine things like replace batteries and more advanced tasks like upgrade components or replace damaged LCD screens and keyboards.
This is key since Lithium-Ion batteries start degrading after a year of recharges (I’m convinced one of the unspoken reasons why BlackBerries remain so popular among IT departments is the fact that their batteries are so easy to replace). And RAM requirements keep increasing, with bigger apps and more sophisticated Web sites.
But what if you don’t have any budget to send your support staff on expensive training courses? Not a problem, says Wiens, who argues that the best way to learn is by doing. At iFixit, newly-hired technicians don’t take any formal training courses. Rather, for two weeks, they sit in front of a PC logged into iFixit’s online repair manuals while taking apart and putting together gadgets. “They have to teach themselves,” Wiens said.
2) Make sure the devices you buy CAN be upgraded or repaired. This is an example of the tech industry’s attempt to impose “planned obsolescence” and force customers to buy new devices sooner than later, says Wiens, and Apple has long been the industry’s worst offender: putting batteries inside iPhones sealed with proprietary ‘Pentalobular’ screws for which no screwdriver existed (at the time), or soldering the RAM onto the motherboard of MacBook Airs.
Of course, iFixit wouldn’t have a business if Apple devices were easy-peasy to fix and upgrade. And Wiens acknowledges that some of the things that vendors do are in an attempt to comply with legal rules, or to enhance the durability of their gadgets. But he laments them, nevertheless. And he says making devices less repairable is a growing rather than shrinking trend, noting the Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX shown at CES. Its 21-hour battery is non-removable.
Hardware upgradeability is only one part of the equation. The other is software and operating system upgrades. Here, Apple is the winner, Wiens says, noting that 2.5 year old iPhone 3GS phones can run the latest iOS 5.
The same cannot be said of Android, he said, noting that many tablet vendors are foregoing the latest Ice Cream Sandwich update even on tablets less than a year old. Samsung is “terrible” in this regard, Wiens said. “What Samsung is telling you is that you can’t trust them.”
In an ideal world, smartphones would be designed “to last as long as the network they are designed for,” Wiens said. That means a device should be designed to last 10 years, and its battery replaced 4-5 times.
That’s the ideal. In the real world, no company will be keeping devices anywhere close to that long, lest they create disgruntled employees. Despite the faster advances in mobile versus PC hardware, he thinks a 3-year lifecycle for smartphones and tablets is do-able. For now, only Apple, not Android vendors, seem able to support that, he said.
3) Demand that your vendors supply high-quality repair documentation. Apple is notoriously shy about releasing detailed manuals for its gadgets. Vendors like Dell, HP and Lenovo have traditionally been diligent about releasing documentation, though, Wiens says, “it’s not very good.” Android vendors, on the other hand, have been poor at delivering documentation.
iFixit has stepped in by creating a web site called Dozuki that lets vendors create photo-heavy documentation in the style of iFixit’s own repair manuals.