The Retina MacBook Pro: Apple's Latest Display of Corporate Hubris


Apple’s talk at WWDC last Monday was a very expected event, without a doubt. As it turns out, the iPhone 5 wasn’t announced, and besides iOS 6, I felt like it was mostly the new Retina display-equipped Macbook Pro that stole the show. After all, it is quite a big deal…  despite not being on par with pixel pitch on the new iPad (aka v3, I hate that stupid name) or the iPhone, the new display brings laptop display pixel pitch to a new all-time high. That’s all fine and dandy… right up until you figure out that that they’ve compromised pretty much everything other than the screen to be able to use the Retina moniker on this new product.

The problem with the new Retina MacBooks is that it’s Apple’s cockiest products yet. As iFixit has reported, it’s probably the least repair and upgrade-friendly notebook every produced, with NOTHING being easily user-upgradeable, and damn-near every component soldered right onto the motherboard. For the consumer, this means that buying AppleCare is almost mandatory, seeing as nobody wants to be the proud owner of a 2000+$ brick if anything happens after the 1 year base warranty. That in itself isn’t what bothers me: Apple answered a demand for ever thinner, better laptops and in the end only the consumer can be blamed for creating a demand for such a ridiculous product. What’s potentially problematic is that Apple’s cocky move might just put them into a very dire situation.

Allow me to contextualize with a little anecdote. Having been an in-store technician for a big-box retailer for most of the last 5 years, I’ve seen the Nvidia laptop chipset scandal unfurl firsthand. I f I have learned anything from it, it’s that mass-marketing a product nowadays is a infinitely delicate balance between building a desirable product, and keeping cost to a minimum. Build something too solid and you’ll be outgunned by other more aggressive OEMs with lower prices, build it too cheap and chances are that you’ll fork over tons of money for repairs while killing brand loyalty within your customer base. The whole experience showed me just how much stuff goes into release a product and  backing a it with a warranty: it’s a big business that involves lots of people, an impressive amount of red tape, and most importantly lots of money.

With the Nvidia chipset fiasco, OEMs like HP (without a doubt one of the hardest hit) stacked all the odds against themselves. Ultimately the problem with these chipset is Nvidia’s design error, noteably the use of high-lead bump on their entire lineup as a cost-cutting measure. I won’t shed a tear for HP though: their insistence in flooding the market with these cheap Nvidia-based products in both low and mid-end notebook market segments  effectively put a large percentage of their eggs in the same broken basket. This cavalier attitude with matters of risk management cost them  a lot; for a total of just about 3 years, including the 12 additional months of warranty offered by HP after Nvidia admitted their fault, my store’s techroom has put 25$ in it’s pockets every time it has shipped a unit for repair, countless amounts of motherboards have been replaced, and copious amounts of customers were scared off of HP products despite our best efforts to convince them that newer models were unaffected. With repairs probably costing the OEM  around 100-150$ each (25$ facilitation, ~75-100$ part, ~25-40$ labour & handling) and numerous repairs being a regular occurrence, it’s hard to see how an 600$ laptop can remain profitable for very long. And that’s just for motherboard repairs; one must consider that  motherboards aren’t the only things that break. In many occurrences, the GPU / chipset overheating issues also caused the Wifi card to crap out… being an integrated card, this again warranted a costly replacement of the motherboard. To put it shortly, for a year or two, most of the laptops that HP put on the market were ticking time bombs.

Back to Apple. With the company now enjoying a cult status in the world of mainstream computing, Apple is now aggressively expanding. Because of this popularity, their procedures with regards to dealing with customer service issues is somewhat unusual: Apple stores are known to exchange products directly under standard warranty OR AppleCare if the defect is covered. They even go as far as to replaced physically damaged units for new / refurb units for a nominal fee which is more or less equivalent to the average cost that an authorized repair depot gets paid in parts and labour for a warranty repair. One thing that permits this is obviously aggressive demand for Apple products, old or new; people just don’t care if the product they’re buying is a refurb or not, they just want their laptop / tablet to have an apple on it. Another is the relatively good durability of Apple products, if you ignore certain specific issues that were for the most part corrected.

With the advent of the MacBook Air a few years ago and the introduction of the Retina MBP, Apple is putting this customer service model at risk by putting too much confidence in their products’ reliability. The problem is that they can only control their products’ quality to a certain extent, and that good design doesn’t inherently imply reliability. Event though their quick recall of defective products and pompous announcements of new products are conducive to forgetting them, let’s remember that the company has had to deal many times with defective products coming from 3rd party parts integrated in their products. Apple too has been faced with the Nvidia chipset / video problems, and the Seagate 7200.10 recall is also one to remember.

Now that almost everything is integrated to the motherboard, risk of facing severe problems that command complicated and expensive motherboard callbacks or repairs are multiplied many times over. Add to that the ever-increasing push for transistor density and performance, and it could very well equate to issues to which Apple possibly couldn’t answer with it’s usual method of directly exchanging products up front. Nvidia has had problems with yield on the 28nm, which opens up a door for potentially defective products. Intel is now on 22nm fab process, which required them to rethink transistor design: another potentially risky venture. I have no idea how Hynix manufactures their products, but they are clearly not safe from defective products either, seeing that Hynix based RAM sticks are replaced in my store on a daily basis in all brands of laptops and desktops.

What happens if any of theses components are discovered to be a common point of failure 6 months after the release date? Could Apple maintain their habit of exchanging products up front even if it means writing off expensive motherboards? In the event of a mass recall, could Apple turn around quickly enough to produced a revised revision of a product in order to keep it’s customers happy? And if they can, what happens to all those defective unit which would usually end up being sold as refurbs? Can Apple’s customer service model survive without this steady stream of replacement products which are essentially built from write-off “scrap”? These are all questions to which, being a simple end-link in the repair chain, I have no answers to. Quite frankly, this has me worried about Apple’s future if the “all-in on the motherboard” trend continues.

With all this being said, I don’t mean to disrespect to the highly trained engineers and other experts would probably understand the inner workings of marketing electronics much better than I do. However, I believe that OEMs in general need to keep their esteem of their products realistic, and realize that another Nvidia-gate is just around the bend for all of them. The smallest of cost-cuts or reckless business decisions by parts suppliers can quickly snowball into quick loss of customer base and corporate prestige. Much more so when you are selling all these risky parts in an integrated package.

Apple abandoning modular design for the sake of producing cutting edge products is what just might rob them of their ability to turn themselves around in the event of a mass recall, and while they might have the financial means to sail through the storm, losing customers in the long term is ALWAYS bad for business, no matter how prestigious a brand is now.