January 22, 2019
Joel Hruska

Some Apple Laptops Require $600 Repair to Fix $6 ‘Flexgate’ Problem

There are new reports of a display problem affecting Apple laptops equipped with the Touch Bar, and reason to believe the company’s relentless focus on thinness-at-any-cost is directly responsible for these new issues. The issue now is being called a ‘stage light effect’, based on the way the backlight looks as the laptop is opened. The display fails completely once the machine is open to a certain angle, approximately 40 degrees.

Here’s a video of the problem in-motion, from iFixit user Alex. You can read more about his problem here:

This issue affects the MacBook Pro 2016 and later models under normal operating conditions. Listed affected models include:

MacBook Pro (13­-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2017, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2017, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2018, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
MacBook Pro (15-­inch, 2016)
MacBook Pro (15-­inch, 2017)
MacBook Pro (15-­inch, 2018)

iFixit has dug into the problem and found the cause. Apple used ribbon cables to attach the display to the display controller board underneath the Touch Bar. These flexible ribbon cables are stressed every time the system is opened or closed, and they’re failing under the strain. First, this produces the stage light symptoms seen in the video above, and then the cable fails altogether. What makes this a next-level problem is the design. Here’s iFixit:

When it first debuted, the design seemed fine. But as always, the devil is in the details. Apple opted for thin, fragile flex cables as opposed to the beefier wire cables used in previous designs that could be routed through the hinge instead of wrapped around it, helping mitigate the stress of repeated openings and closings. But the bigger problem is that, in an apparent effort to make the display as thin as possible, Apple designed the cables as part of the display, so they cannot be replaced. This means that when (not if) those cables start to fail, the entire display unit needs to be replaced, as opposed to one or two little cables—effectively turning a $6 problem into a $600 disaster. (Emphasis original)

Is This How Apple Intends to Boost Its Services Revenue?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to start connecting the dots on these issues. Over the past few years, we’ve seen AppleCare prices rising. We’ve seen Apple move towards products with extremely high replacement costs, from the glass back on the iPhone X to the high price of repairing the Apple MacBook Pro keyboard — keyboards that can jam from something as small as a single grain of sand. Apple has had to revise the keyboard twice and apparently even the third revision isn’t foolproof.

Apple’s Services revenue by quarter. Image by Statista.

Then there are the battery issues. First, Apple chose to start slowing down iPhones over time, despite the fact that its general user community was suspicious that the company had always done this. It hadn’t, but the intelligence of embracing an approach that consumers’ suspected and loathed is highly debatable. Apple was forced to back down over the blowback on this issue, but it clearly left a bad taste in the company’s mouth. Tim Cook named users who took advantage of battery replacements as being one component of its lower-than-expected profit guidance this past year.

Meanwhile, analysts have said that AppleCare revenue makes up a much larger percentage of Apple’s total Services revenue than people realize. Morgan Stanley expects Apple’s Services revenue to top $100B per year by 2023, up from $37.2B today. AppleCare revenue is expected to be critical to this growth trend. And one way to ensure that people buy into AppleCare is to make certain that you build products that need AppleCare, all while simultaneously justifying these changes with appeals to the thinness that consumers supposedly demand.

It’s not just whether any given Apple product is more or less repairable than previous generations. It’s a question of whether the company has taken any effort to remove these massive pain points in its own designs. Far from removing them, Apple seems to be adding them, or at the least, has done little to fix these problems. It’s hard not to suspect that the company is building its Services revenue on the backs of bad laptop design. Alex has started a petition for the company to address the issue, available here.

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