iPhone 4 'Screwgate'

Gibbs ponders Apple’s sudden use of pentalobe screws.

One of the "big news" items of last week was, to use a completely predictable "lamestream media" way to name it, "Apple's Screwgate."

Probably to the disappointment of many, this had nothing to do with something like the amorous misadventures of politicians but rather about Apple making a small, irritating hardware change that appears to be more about weirdly flexing its marketing muscle than anything to do with engineering.

ANALYSIS: Is Apple expanding use of new tamper-resistant screw for its iPhone?

The story started when someone noticed the latest iPhone 4Gs no longer used regular Phillips screws to secure the case, but rather, a new-fangled "pentalobe" (also called "pentabular") screw. In fact, should you have recently taken your iThing ("iThing" being any Apple device with screws) in for service, you would find the original screws being replaced by these pentalobe screws.

So, what the heck, you might ask, is a pentalobe screw? It's a theoretically tamperproof screw with a head in which five hemispherical indentations intersect with a larger circular indentation providing the purchase for turning the screw as opposed to, say, the "X" shape on a Phillips head screw. (See a drawing of a pentalobe.)

The theory behind these fancy screw heads is twofold: First, they make it harder to strip the head and or thread when the screw is tight. This is good. But second, and far more importantly to Apple, these screws are sort of (but not really) tamperproof.

The theory is that, because these screws can only be manipulated using special screwdrivers, most people will be dissuaded from doing two things that manufacturers in general and Apple in particular hate: opening equipment to make unsanctioned modifications; and fixing gear instead of returning it for repair.

Not surprisingly, pentalobe screwdrivers were, for a few days last week, rarer than hen's teeth. Then along came iFixit with a $9.95 kit for the iPhone 4 and a $12.95 kit for the MacBook Air (it uses a larger version of the same screw design). Actually, iFixit has been out of stock on both of these tools for some days now, but give it a few weeks and there'll be a flood of this gear available from lots of companies.

So, what's Apple rationale: Simple, it's to prevent people from fixing their own equipment, something that's become much easier over the last few months with dozens of mostly Chinese firms manufacturing cheap replacement parts for all sorts of iThings.

For example, you can buy a replacement iPhone 3G LCD screen and touch screen digitizer for the ridiculously low price of $29.99, or an iPhone 4 white LCD and digitizer for $89.99, from a company called Emicron Solutions. (It also sells Zune replacement LCD screens, about which a friend commented, "I don't see much of a future for [those] parts.")

Rumor has it that the use of pentalobe screws is worth an average revenue increase to Apple of $100 per unit per year simply because they make it that much harder for users or unauthorized third parties to make repairs.

You've got to wonder how long it will be until Apple or some other company comes up with a way to lock down the casing of a product such that it can only be opened by authorized repairers using incredibly specialized tools that cannot be purchased or easily replicated.

So Apple is doing this to make yet more money. But at what point will we, the consumers of Apple products, finally find this behavior unacceptable? When will the ultra-closed nature of Apple products become so oppressive and stifling that we aren't willing to play their game any more?

Or will that never happen? Has Apple got us so tied up and so in love with the Apple zeitgeist that we'll all carry on buying, using and almost worshipping its products no matter how overbearing their attitude and policies become?

I'm giving Apple a rating of zero out of five for their use of pentalobe screws.

Gibbs is unscrewed in Ventura, Calif. Tell gearhead@gibbs.com if you're torqued off.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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