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IFixit team tears things apart to help you fix things at home

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By The Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 6:34 p.m.
 

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — 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 he couldn't wait to tear it apart.

In a small room cluttered with discarded computer parts, Devincenzi picked up a blue plastic stylus and eased the tool into a seam on the side of the phone as three co-workers watched.

Minutes later, a pop. The tear-down had begun.

“We're in,” he said, and grinned.

Each time Devincenzi plucked a part from the Nexus 4, he took a high-resolution photo and posted it online. By the end of the week, more than 60,000 people had scrutinized the tear-down, curious to know what was inside.

Devincenzi, a 20-year-old student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, 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.”

With the helping hands of technicians such as Devincenzi and repair guides written by volunteer tech experts, 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 once again — and will sell them the tools to do it.

The company's logo is a clenched 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 the Oregon research firm 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 like Apple, Google and Samsung. Tear-downs, they say, are a rallying cry for the common man to grab a screwdriver and take back the right to do it yourself.

“We're not necessarily actively anti-Apple or anti-'the Man,' “ said Scott Dingle, 25, a customer service representative. “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.

They moved their business to a three-car garage, then a house, then a loft-like two-story office in downtown San Luis Obispo. Most IFixit employees are younger than 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 that come loose.

Some of its tools resemble teeth-cleaning instruments. That's because the first tools IFixit used had been discarded by a dentist.

After Christmas, the company usually has a spike in sales of parts, Wiens said. He attributes that to people who decide to repair their old gadgets if they don't get a new one as a gift.

Soules, 28, is the business mind. He runs the in-house shipping center and handles the money. The revenue he oversees covers operating costs, including salaries, tear-downs and expensive trips to buy gadgets the moment they come out.

Wiens, 28, is the chief executive and the ideas guy. In college, he dreamed of building a robot that would pick strawberries. Today he dreams of a world where computers don't wind up in landfills but are fixed instead.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, workers gathered at IFixit headquarters. Bikes, homemade robots and vintage pinball machines crowded the entryway. Upstairs, an employee's dog sniffed past an 8-foot-tall potato launcher and into the office break room, where Wiens' wife had prepared dinner for more than 50 people.

Spouses and significant others settled on couches to eat. The ping-pong table became a dining room table. A baby cried.

The tear-down team was oblivious to the turkey and pie. Devincenzi had just pried the Nexus 4's battery out of a dollop of glue and placed the device under lights the size of dinner plates. A camera clicked. As the image appeared on a computer screen, tech writer Andrew Goldberg began to airbrush metallic blemishes.

IFixit is not the only website that offers repair manuals, but its tear-downs are special because they expose a company's proprietary technology, said Scott Swigart, an analyst at Cascade Insights.

The Nexus 4 tear-down 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.

Seeing a logic board lying exposed on a table goes a long way toward shattering any aura of mysticism surrounding a new device, said David Aghassi, a freshman at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who uses IFixit guides and repair kits to fix laptops at the campus repair shop. He checks tear-downs multiple times a day to see how they progress.

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