Sealed Macbook Pros point to a service-based future

There’s been a bit of handwringing over Apple’s recent decision to make the Macbook Pro a sealed unit.

Khoi Vinh has the most interesting point of view that I’ve come across. He writes that the point of being able to open up a computer should be to make it last far longer than two or three years. He talks about iPods or iPhones that last decades. And he wants that tech gear to look better as it ages.

To a degree, I think that having tech gear that looks better as it ages is a matter of changing tastes as much as making things out of materials that degrade more beautifully. I don’t think there’s too many people who’d want a Lombard-series PowerBook with current-spec hardware inside it. Or even an IBM 701c-series butterfly. We aren’t going to see any ICON Derelict-style laptops soon.

One reason is that we can’t. Laptops are, more than ever, designed around a particular specification of hardware. The power and cooling needs a current chips are vastly different to the old PowerPC chips. Putting current spec gear into an old laptop is no more practical than putting, say, a current Mazda MX-5 engine into a 40 year old MG BGT. It can be done, of course, but to do so at scale is prohibitively expensive. That gorgeous, highly desirable, modernised BGT is more than twice as expensive as the MX-5 whose engine and gearbox it uses. Besides which, a BGT is still based on a design first sold in 1962. Before crumple-zones, dual-circuit brakes and collapsible steering columns. Before ubiquitous seatbelts. There are good reasons why they don’t make them like they used to.

But why should we base our expectations of repairability and long-life on 20th-century models?

What if, instead of needing to repair or upgrade a Macbook Pro that you buy once, you bought the service of a Macbook Pro for a yearly fee? Every 12-18 months you’d take your old unit in to the Apple Store in the morning and they’d migrate all your data to a new unit which you would walk out with in the afternoon. This would be a radical re-organisation of Apple’s business model, but no more so than creating devices that could last decades.

This model would also change the incentives for Apple. Instead of making gorgeous hardware which has a limited life, they’d make gorgeous long-lasting hardware which had a defined and multi-purpose life. There would probably be even more incentive for Apple to produce sealed units which only they could open. But every 18 months, when all the old Macbook Pros come in for changeover, there would be plenty of components in them which would be ideal for use in lower-end machines. The chassis’ could all be returned to China for refurbishing or recycling into new generation cases. Out-of-contract current-generation iPhones could come back for refurbishment and sold again as low-end iPhones. Apple would have control of the cradle-to-cradle life of their product.

This would be a massive change to the supply chain. Not only would Apple in the business of buying virgin materials and turning them into consumer products, they’d also be in the business of managing the return supply chain, selecting which components still have a useful life and which need recycling or can be sold on to a third party. This years’ Apple TV might have a graphics card from a last years’ iPad. RAM from an end-of-life Macbook could be re-sold and find its way into a Samsung TV.

But, this sort of model would totally necessitate sealed units. Apple would need to be completely sure that the customer units they were maintaining were within spec and that incoming units for refurbishment or recycling were as expected.

Sealed laptops do represent a change in how things have been done up until now. But rather than rolling back to old ideas of repair and the glory of patina, I think there are ways that a sealed unit could presage a very interesting future.

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