How to repair the untouchable.
Tech no barrier for today's Mr. Fix-Its
Jake Devincenzi was thrilled to get his hands on Google's new Nexus 4 smartphone. He admired its sleek black case and large touch screen - and couldn't wait to tear it apart.
Devincenzi picked up a blue plastic stylus and eased the tool into a seam on the side of the phone as three coworkers watched. Minutes later, a pop.
"We're in," he said, and grinned.
Each time he plucked a part, he took a high-resolution photo and posted it online. By the end of the week, more than 60,000 people had scrutinized the teardown.
Devincenzi, 20, a student at California Polytechnic State University, works part-time for IFixit, a company that has less of a business mission than a manifesto: "Repair is independence. We have the right to remove 'Do Not Remove' stickers."
IFixit is tapping into growing frustration with cellphones, tablets and computers that, once broken, are almost impossible to fix. The company says it wants to teach people how to repair electronic devices again - and will sell them the tools to do it.
Its logo: a fist thrusting a wrench in the air.
"It's not like it was 10 years ago, when you could open things up and kind of half-recognize what was in there," said Sean Campbell, a technology-industry analyst with Cascade Insights. "I think most people have given up."
To IFixit staff, every high-resolution photograph of naked phone bits splayed across a table is a small act of rebellion against big technology companies. Teardowns, they say, are a rallying cry to grab a screwdriver.
"We're not necessarily actively anti-Apple or anti-'the Man,' " said Scott Dingle, 25, a customer-service rep. "It's more like we train other people to do it themselves."
What is now a staff of 35 began as two people. In 2003, Cal Poly freshmen Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules started selling laptop parts out of a dorm room. When they couldn't find manufacturer-issued repair guides, they wrote their own. The first manual they posted online got 10,000 page views in the first weekend.
The pair, now 28, moved their business to a three-car garage, then a house, then a loftlike two-story office in downtown San Luis Obispo. Most IFixit employees are under 35. Many grew up taking apart toasters.
Last year, IFixit earned $5.9 million in revenue by selling parts, kits and tools. Some of its more popular items include a "spudger" to adjust small wires, a five-sided screwdriver that fits Apple's proprietary screws, and a magnetic mat to keep track of tiny pieces.
Some tools resemble teeth-cleaning gear - IFixit's first tools were discarded by a dentist.
After Christmas, the company usually sees a spike in sales of parts, Wiens said. He attributed that to people who decide to repair their old gadgets if they don't get new ones as gifts.
IFixit is not the only website that offers repair manuals, but its teardowns are special because they expose a company's proprietary technology, said Scott Swigart, an analyst at Cascade Insights.
The Nexus 4 teardown revealed a new chip for high-speed data connection. The discovery became news because Google had not previously disclosed that the phone would have the chip.
Teardowns are so important to IFixit's DNA that the staff will do almost anything to be the first to open a device - even fly halfway around the world to buy devices not yet on sale in the United States.
IFixit rates each device for ease of repair. In the end, the Nexus 4 got a seven (out of 10), with points knocked off for glue. Adhesive makes devices thinner, but it makes opening them very difficult.
That's especially true for Apple products, notoriously hard to open and fix.
Newer iPhones are protected by custom-designed screws. The iPad is held together almost exclusively with glue. To open it, IFixit has traditionally used a heat gun, suction cups, and guitar picks.
Removing the screen became slightly easier when IFixit's Brittany McCrigler suggested a technique adapted from massage-therapy training: Fill a bag with rice, stick it in the microwave, and lay it across the screen's edge to melt the glue. They call it the iOpener.
Persuading non-techies to tinker is a big hurdle.
"But once people have their first fix, they're hooked," IFixit sales manager Eric Essen said. "When I fixed my iPhone and it turned on, I was like, 'I am a god! I am Frankenstein!' "