When Apple’s 5G iPhone 12, or whatever it’s called, gets announced on Tuesday, Oct. 13, during the company’s online-only launch event, industry watchers will be looking closely to see how Apple sells us on 5G wireless, its new chips and cameras, and whatever other new features it might pack in. (Here are all the final iPhone 12 rumors we’ve heard, and the latest major leak.)
But it’s the design that may end up being its most important feature. The new iPhone is expected to shave the device’s curved edges into squares, much like those on the current iPad Pro .
That’ll draw the attention of repair experts around the world, who will rush to YouTube and Twitter once they get hold of the device to start dissecting it down to each seam, screw and cable inside to learn what’s fixable and what isn’t.
“Apple’s the best at everything they do except serviceability,” said Kyle Wiens, head of repair instruction and parts site iFixit, which typically rushes to perform online tear-downs of new Apple devices when they launch.
People like Wiens highlight an increasingly public debate within the tech industry over form and function. As gadgets from computers to phones get smaller and lighter, people around the tech world are wondering how far this push for slim design will go, and whether it’ll take precedence over being easy to repair.
Repair advocates note, for example, that the batteries in Apple’s popular AirPods wireless headphones can’t be replaced without destroying them. “That’s the difference between a product that can last 18 months and what can last 10 years,” Wiens added. But at the same time, the AirPods’ popularity stems in part from how lightweight, small and slick they are — all aspects that would likely be altered by having compartments and connectors for replaceable batteries.
Over the years, Apple’s tipped further toward that consumable end of the spectrum. Its laptops , which once had easily replaceable batteries, are screwed shut with the batteries glued to the case. Pretty much all its computers other than its $5,999 Mac Pro desktop aren’t designed to be easily opened by non-technical people either.
Apple has investigated taking those designs a step further, too. In a patent application published in August called “unitary housing for an electronic device,” the company described a way to build devices with their electronics encased in two pieces that are sealed with “one or more ultrasonic welds.” The fully enclosed housing can be hermetically sealed, the company said.
“Even in the more eloquently designed electronic devices, outer housings are still typically formed from multiple parts, which tends to result in at least seams or other discontinuities, if not exposed screws, tabs or other component fasteners,” Apple said in its application. “While many designs and techniques used to provide outer housings for electronic devices and components have generally worked well in the past, there is always a desire to provide alternative housing designs and techniques for new and aesthetically pleasing devices.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously micromanaged the look of the company’s products, in and out. He obsessed over the smallest dot on the screen and the angle of the curves on its devices. The night before the first iPod music player was introduced in 2001, Jobs demanded engineers tear apart and remake the device to make that satisfying click-feeling you get when you plug in a cord.
“The back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys,” Jobs quipped as he showed off the company’s first iMac computer in 1998.
While that obsession with design has won Apple praise and loyal fans, it’s also attracted criticism. As the company’s Mac computers have gotten sleeker, easily removable or replaceable parts like the battery, memory, and storage drives became largely inaccessible to people without technical skill.
In 2010, when Apple introduced the iPhone 4, Jobs focused on the device’s stainless steel sides that doubled as cellular and Wi-Fi antennas. After its release, users quickly learned that holding the phone a certain way scrambled the device’s reception.
In 2015, the company introduced a new “butterfly” keyboard for its laptops, which was 40% thinner than previous technologies while potentially offering better accuracy. The design became hated among reviewers as user complaints poured in about failing and mistyped keys.