Let me get this off my chest right now. I hate Apple. I hate iOS. I hate macOS. I hate the software, the hardware, and the ethos of Apple. To my mind, Apple represents the very worst of the technology industry: devices which are hard to use, easy to break, and difficult to fix. Therefore, I’m never surprised when I see news stories like this one.
The long and short of this story is that Apple have implemented a new chip (the T2 chip) which can detect whether or not repairs to a broken machine have been carried out by a verified technician using a pre-configured pin code. If a user tries to get their machine fixed by somebody outside of Apple (or a verified reseller, I hope), their machine will be essentially bricked. Until they pony up the repair money, of course.
As I say, this move is entirely unsurprising. I first started using macs back in 2009 when I completely fell for their marketing and, desperate to be rid of Windows and “different” from those around me, I plonked down £899 for a MacBook Pro with pitiful specs. The machine had the following:
For £899. Jesus. What an idiot I am.
Now, I was assured (as are all iDiots) that the hardware was unimportant as macOS (OSX at the time) was so superbly optimised that it could run circles around a Windows machine with twice the on-paper specs. When it came to using the machine, however, I can report that this is an absolute falsehood. The machine ran okay for some tasks. But whenever I deigned to do any more than open a web browser and a couple of other basic programs, it sounded as though I was sat on the runway at Heathrow during a particularly busy holiday period.
I have bought the machine primarily for film editing and music production, as these were my two key hobbies as a youngster (heck, I even studied film at university). And sure, the editing programs for both media were straightforward and loaded with presets, but render times were abysmal and - quite frankly - Apple’s handling of Audio is far worse than that of FreeBSD or GNU/Linux using JACK. But, like most people who had been duped out of close to £1,000, I stuck to my guns and defended the little MacBook. I upgraded its RAM (the only component I could afford to upgrade) and hoped for the best.
But then something happened: the machine started to fall apart. I don’t mean “it started to perform poorly” I mean it literally started to fall apart. The first thing to go was the screen, which started to peel off from the bottom. This was in the days before the screens had an aluminium bezel, kids, and the frontispiece was almost entirely cheap black plastic. Alarmed by this, I booked it in with Apple to repair, which they did under my AppleCare.
It took about 2 weeks.
When I got it back I quickly got back to using the machine regularly, annoyed that I’d had to go back to that accursed Windows for the time in-between. Happy as Larry, I kept plugging away using the machine like… a laptop.
Then the hard drive failed.
I got it repaired after a week.
Then the disk tray failed.
At this point, it was apparent even to my then 16-year-old mind that I’d bought into a scam. This machine, sold to me as a luxury item worthy of a near £1,000 charge, was more flimsy than the atrocious Acer Aspire it had replaced. It was slow, expensive, frustrating, loud, and completely unfit for purpose. After 3 years of use, I cut my losses and returned to the world of Windows1.
So what does this little story have to do with the recent news? Quite simply, one of the best things about general purpose computers is that they are infinitely repairable. The best models (usually old IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads) are very modular and allow for the replacement of the majority of components by anybody with a toolkit and a bit of knowledge. At the very worst, you can usually call out a trained mechanic and have them repair the machine at a much lower cost than the OEM.
But Macs have always been different2. With Apple, it always feels like they’re trying to pass off their slow and frankly shoddy repair service as exclusive by making it necessary to always use technicians they verify. Hard drive busted? Get Apple to fix it. Yes I know you can literally just hotswap it in other computers but this isn’t like other computers2. This computer was crafted by ye gods for only the most unique of humans.
Mac hardware is flimsy and easy-to-break by design. The machine upon which I am currently typing (a MacBook Air my job requires me to use) feels like it could fall apart at any moment. The trackpad and keyboard are flaky, the hinge feels loose to the point of being concerning, and the USB ports are temperamental at best. Why would you design a machine to work well over long periods of time? That would lead to people A) not paying you for warranties and B) keeping their old machines longer. It makes no business sense.
But this latest move is a real kick in the teeth for the industry as a whole. Before, you could take your machine to Apple or a reseller for major repairs, but small things like replacement keys and screens could be easily and cheaply repaired by yourself or an independent repair worker. This new move makes that an impossibility and is utterly anti-consumer. Watching people defend it is hilarious and heartbreaking (I was there once, too, don’t forget).
Apple is not the only offender here, even though they are the most egregious. PC manufacturers and Android phone makers are similarly locking down devices and making repairs difficult and risky. If you own a modern Lenovo ThinkPad (particularly models such as the X1 Carbon), you are going to have a much harder time getting in to repair things when they break. This means purchasing additional warranties is usually necessary because it feels - at least to me - that machines these days are much more likely to break.
I was at FOSDEM in February and was - well, not exactly surprised, more pleasantly surprised - at the number of hackers walking around carrying old X and T series ThinkPads from 2008 and beyond. The people making a lot of the software that powers the world often don’t see the need to go further in terms of processor modernity3, opting instead for superior repairability and more efficient software. I have found that in my interactions with older machines running less graphically intensive software can perform the majority of day-to-day operations with as much ease as any modern laptop.
But hey, you know. MacBooks are shiny.