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IFixit's 'teardowns' of Apple gadgets draw customers to its parts business

The company, which sells electronic parts on its website to do-it-yourselfers, has achieved a cult-like following by ripping apart the latest technology wonders and documenting the details online.

June 23, 2010|By Mark Milian, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Luis Obispo —

Nearly a dozen men crowded around the table gawking at a box containing one of the first 3G-enabled iPads to go on sale, but no one dared make a move to touch it.

Finally, Miroslav Djuric, a veteran who had broken into other Apple devices, stepped forward.

"Scalpel," one of the men quipped.

Djuric is the technical communications director for IFixit, whose claim to fame is cracking open the latest Apple gizmo to see what makes it work.

Founded by graduates of Cal Poly, across from its headquarters here, the company makes money by selling electronic parts on its website to do-it-yourselfers.

But IFixit has taken on a cult-like status among gadget bloggers and the technology-obsessed for what it calls teardowns. The company buys the latest technology wonders the day they hit stores and then rips them apart, documenting all the gory details in photos that then are posted online.

The next big teardown is expected Thursday, when Apple Inc.'s iPhone 4 goes on sale.

Co-founder Kyle Wiens calls the practice "a PR stunt" that incidentally manages to attract 1.5 million visitors to the site per month. The visitors are potential customers for the parts it sells online.

Some of the first-day analyses have shaken up Wall Street. When IFixit discovered that TriQuint Semiconductor Inc. was supplying the power amplifiers for the iPad, the Oregon company's stock immediately began climbing.

"It definitely moves stocks," Wiens said. "Apple products are symbolically significant. They tend to influence the rest of the industry."

In April, on the Friday-afternoon launch of Apple's tablet computer equipped with an AT&T 3G Internet chip, Wiens and co-founder Luke Soules arrived at the Apple Store a mile and a half away from their office just before the 5 p.m. sale. They were surprised to find a line there even though it was just an upgrade.

Not even a month earlier, Wiens and Soules were scrambling to be the first to put an iPad under the microscope — both figuratively and literally; they use a $1,000 scientific instrument for analyzing miniature parts.

To do so, IFixit ordered 10 separate iPads to be shipped to several locations around the country. The one that arrived first, which turned out to be at a friend's house in Virginia, got the surgical treatment.

Despite the hustle, "there isn't necessarily competition in what we do," Wiens said.

The closest competitor is a group called ISuppli. The researchers there estimate the prices of parts in high-profile gadgets. The iPad, they say, costs about $260 to make.

Wiens is skeptical of ISuppli's estimates and refuses to guess at prices.

"We have a general idea," he said, of how much the parts inside a gadget cost. "But how can you really know for sure?"

How, he wonders, can one quantify the cost of the brand-new A4 processor, a bit of silicon developed in secrecy at Apple? ISuppli generally releases its analyses days or even weeks after a product has been available. The company didn't return requests for comment.

Despite the lack of rivals, IFixit wants to have its breakdown posted online

as early as possible. Fans and hardware-industry insiders alike look for IFixit

to start posting information on a new product's innards on the first day it goes on sale.

Unlike competing resellers of electronic parts, IFixit hosts its library of repair guides free online. A new, Wikipedia-style platform for repairs launched recently, thanks to the work of Wiens and his hired developers. Many of them are students or graduates of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Wiens and Soules, who hail from different towns in Oregon, are both barely 26 years old. They met as freshmen at Cal Poly. Wiens was a computer science major, looking for a Web project to undertake. Soules, an engineering major, was selling parts on EBay for spare cash.

Seven years later, IFixit, with 25 employees, has become a profitable business. "It wasn't anything I expected to make a living from," Soules said.

Last month, IFixit hit another gold mine with the upgraded iPad even though it had already dug through and chronicled the original one.

Exploring the guts of the iPad, Djuric discovered that Apple was cleverly using the frame of the tightly packaged device as an antenna to communicate with AT&T's cellular towers, a discovery that would become a sensation within the blogging world.

"So it's a little different internally," Djuric said as he got his first peek inside.

"Good. This wasn't for nothing," said Soules, who handles the sales side of the business, which funds Wiens' eye-catching teardowns.

"Well, we are going to need new guides."

mark.milian@latimes.com

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