The iPhone 5's Impossible Design Comes At A Very Real Price

When you hold the iPhone 5 it feels, frankly, unreal. It's lighter than it has any business being, it's thinner, it's smoother. Regardless of how you feel about Apple, its latest phone seems too good to be true.

Turns out, that's because it is. And the thousands of workers charged with fulfilling that impossible vision are breaking down under strain.

There's a massive strike at Foxconn today, but for once it's not over living conditions or pay. As China labour Watch reports, it's because Apple has finally asked them to tilt at too large a windmill.

The production process was one of Apple's most prominent marketing bullets on the day it announced the iPhone 5; the video above fetishises precision machine work and assembly in a few people would outside a mechanical engineering seminar. In Jony Ive's own words:

"The materials [iPhone 5] is being made with, the remarkable precision with which it's been built. Never before have we built a product with this extraordinary level of fit and finish. We've developed manufacturing processes that are our most complex and ambitious."

Emphasis added, although the whole video is quite emphatic. The iPhone 5 is unprecedented, Apple says. It pushes manufacturing to places it's never been. It just so happens we maybe shouldn't have tried to go there in the first place.

Take the CLW's official report on the strike, which reads like a Bizarro World version of Apple's iPhone 5 accolades:

It was reported that factory management and Apple, despite design defects, raised strict quality demands on workers, including indentations standards of 0.02mm and demands related to scratches on frames and back covers. With such demands, employees could not even turn out iPhones that met the standard.

Comparing the two statements side by side is like reading Upton Sinclair after watching a Jimmy Dean ad. You think your iPhone 5 scratches easily? Try keeping it unscuffed on an assembly line. You think it's crazy thin? Try cramming dozens of components in that body undamaged. There's no excuse for Foxconn workers beating up on demanding quality control inspectors; they were just following unattainable orders.

You can't fault Apple for dreaming the impossible dream. But it's worth remembering that it can -- and has -- turned into other peoples' nightmare.



    if there is so much precision and emphasis on quality, then why are many iphone 5 customers complaining of scuffs and chips on their iphone 5 straight out of the box?!?!

      You don't read so good do you son...


          Typical Gizmodo bias about Apple.

          Example: ".. its latest phone seems too good to be true."
          mhmm, Except there is nothing good about it, its the same thing!

          AND YES, ive been an iPhone user until the start, but the HTC one X is a beauty compared to this outdated lump of metal.

          Theres nothing impossible about the iPhone 5, its the same as iPhone 4s, apple had a year to prepare for it and I'm sure they were able to revolutionarily make it a couple of percent lighter....

      am i the only one that finds the delivery of apple advertising absolutely nauseating.. The white backgrounds and soft voices., It feels like an attempt at brainwashing by a religious cult.

    That's what this story is about

    *This criticism of Apple has been appropriately counter balanced by Apple propaganda.

    It's not well written because the author doesn't understand the subject.
    1. Workers were told to reach certain standards when constructing the phone without being trained on how to actually achieve those standards.
    2. Quality control inspectors beat and harangued workers who failed to achieve these standards.
    3. Workers snapped and attacked those inspectors.
    4. Workers cannot meet their targets and are being punished for it. All time off was cancelled...

    Perhaps the real fault is using 18th century human production line techniques and not automating the process more, sort of like we did in the 1950s?

      If they automated the process, they wouldn't reel in the ridiculous profits that they do.

      Cost saving wherever they can is one of their many keys to successful business.

      Last edited 08/10/12 12:46 am

    Sight. I stupidly clicked the video not realising this article was yet another commercial for iPhone.

      How is this a commercial for iPhone?

        I just don't see the need for the gushing 6 minute 45 second advertising video that we have repeatedly seen, given the article takes about a minute to read and the video is quoted within the text.

          I ran the video while reading the article. I think it's been placed ironically. See, you're reading about the price and injustice that comes with demands for perfection - demands that they're gushing about in the video.

        pretty damn obvious johnny boy. but you wouldn't notice since you sound like a fanboy.

    I've been watching the "MegaFactories" series on NatGeo lately, and it still astounds me that these devices are assembled by hand... surely there's a way for them to assemble them by bot?

    Granted, then they might have to cut their gigantic profit margin to pay for something practical... but y'know...

      Actually, to get the sort of precision required, believe it or not, for soldering, a human being is not only cheaper but also more accurate because of our inherent ability to judge distance and movement.

      It might be POSSIBLE to build a robot to do it....but probably not feasible to do so at the moment. Even for Apple

        No, bots can be as accurate as humans however the rate of changing product lines is simply uneconomical for the level of precision demanded

        Basically products are refreshed yearly because they are made by hand. It's what consumers demand, it's what business like you to think and it's how things have ended up the way they are in these factories.

      That's exactly what I thought. I always assumed that these things were built completely by machines. I was quite surprised when I found out that wasn't true.

      It's economics. Chinese workers are still much cheaper than robots.

        Actually, Foxconn themselves have been considering replacing their workers with robots in the near future.

          [citation needed]

    How does an iPhone feel "unreal" in your hand? Was the old one really heavy or something? Because when I picked one up the other day it just felt like a phone. It is a only 7 grams lighter than my Samsung Focus was, and it is actually heavier than a 4.3" Focus S.

      iPhone's Reality Distortion Field™ means it weighs much less than other phones ... even when it actually doesn't.

      Hype. Thats all it is. Look at the Droid RAZR. 7.1mm thin with an aluminium body, splash guard nano coating. Not just that, it has an internet shell that surrounds the components, making it a very sturdy phone and boosting shock resistance. You dont see Motorola having problems with it or "scuffs" or worker riots. The iPhone 5 is only 7.6mm and they say its "unreal". What about devices like the ZTE Athena, then? 6.1mm all round, what would that be? If Apple does something, its "unreal" and an "engineering breakthrough" even though other companies have broken through long before, and had no problems with their final products. Nothing but hype. Thats Apple for you.

    I'm pretty sure any physicist or engineer would tell you how very possible the iPhone 5 is.

    Anyone else notice the music in that ad sounds very much like Home by Edward Sharp And The Magnetic Zeroes? I wonder if there's a royalty there.

    Yes, a precision piece of work? Sure, If you forget that the coating comes off easily, the camera flares lights sources blue, light peeks out from the edges of some screens, some screens flicker when touched, the batteries are simply glued in (and some are not), maps aint too good. What will turn up next on this great product?

      Ain't no tellin' Greg... how you enjoying your plastic phone? ; )

        All ok Brad...

        Tell me do you object to plastic on your cars keyring? Do you object to the plastic used in many parts of your car and home. Plastic can take many forms and is used for many things that are best engineered using plastic. Mobile phones are not something to be treasured for the rest of your life Brad. There will be newer and better out next month. But keeping treasuring yours Brad.

          Greg, its the feeling that you get holding a quality product in your hand.
          i have Galaxy S2 and iPhone 5, they are just total different built.

          Plastic is not bad but it feels cheap.

          A good example is GTR and Ferrari, GTR is faster and has a lot more features but Ferrari is a little bit different in Class, it offers Luxury, Sports, Style and feel that a 3x cheaper GTR cannot.

          Mind you i would definitely pick GTR over Ferrari but if i was a millionaire Ferrari would be the choice because it just looks more classy than a Sports Jap car.

            Samsung isnt the only Android device OEM out there. Others like Motorola and HTC put more emphasis on build quality and some of them far better than that of the iPhone. The same people said the 4S is a very premium device until the media found out that they actually make it with cheap materials, where the production of the outer shell comes to roughly around $100. And the glass they use is a cheaper version of Gorilla Glass they've named "Aluminosilicate". iPhones are good, but there are devices out there that are perform 10 times better or have a much better build quality. Its just Apple's marketing that grab the "follower" type of consumer of which Brad up there appears to be.

            Don't drive that new expensive Ferrari more than 5km from home without a tow truck behind you.
            Same problem with Apple, it's overpriced bling.
            The original iPhone amazed everyone. Since then it's the same old tired engine under the bonnet.
            Apple need to spend some money on R&D instead of marketing BS.

    They should be employing kids to do this work. Tiny fingers for tiny components....just makes sense! ;)

    iPhone 5 feels lighter and like a cheap $5 watch. That metal band on the iphone 4/4s costs a bit of money but added a level of perceived eliteness to the device's industrial design. To me the iPhone 5 is a major industrial design fail.

    Call me crazy but a phone that costs ~$1000 should have some weight to it. If i pick up a high quality watch like a Rolex, Omega, Breitling etc -- they are heavy and feel great compared that $10 digital watch or the $50 casio digital watch.

    the only thing the iPhone 5 reveals to me, is that Apple is saving on manufacturing costs from removing expensive items like the metal band.

      Dude weight has nothing to do with it.
      Titanium is better material and weighs less but cost more, how do you explain that?

    Everything after the semicolon has gone wrong :( "The production process was one of Apple’s most prominent marketing bullets on the day it announced the iPhone 5; the video above fetishises precision machine work and assembly in a few people would outside a mechanical engineering seminar."

    3:20 "Our all new maps application is fantastic"


    Best laugh all day. Did someone say propaganda?

    Last edited 06/10/12 11:37 pm

      From all reports, the maps application IS fantastic. Fast, pretty, responsive etc.

      The maps themselves though...

    Unreal indeed. Feels just like a physical object to me. Nothing unreal about it.

    This isn't the end of the world, but this is what happens when our economic system relies entirely on growth to support it. Apple (and everyone else, let's not forget) *MUST* grow to survive, which forces it to drive up profitability wherever possible - but there are limits. You can only reduce your material costs so much; there are engineering limits to what you can fit in your enclosure; and you can only squeeze so much productivity out of your workers.

    In the end, something's gotta give and in this case, it was the workers. Ask the impossible and you won't get it - by the sound of things even the most earnest and loyal worker couldn't meet those standards despite the threat of physical violence or sacking. Once this slips, Apple's profitability and growth slips.

    Apple isn't the only company under threat from the very economy that nurtured it, it's merely the most visible. Exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely - the laws of physics won't allow it. This is a symptom of the approaching end of the economy of growth. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

    As far as I'm concerned, good design is primarily one that performs it's function well first, then incorporates nice aesthetics. If Apple actually gave a toss about good design, they'd be focusing their efforts on dealing with design issues inherent with portable devices - such as improving wear and tear and screen durability, not on a frackin' "diamond cut beveled edge".

    These devices are meant to be able to handle being banged around in your pocket or bag, dropped, scratched and scuffed, it comes with the territory. If Apple design their products with materials that get damaged even before they're off the production line, then they've well and truly failed.

    But of course, Apple products have always been gift horses dressed as show ponies.

    '...remarkable precision...' that's unless they forgot to glue the battery in. Then you can hear just how precise the fit is.

    Strange Gizmodo hasn't updated the article to reflect Foxconn's comments about it not being a strike....quality journalism as usual.

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