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Apple tightens screws on hardware hackers

Going mental over pentalobe

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Apple has a long history of playing cat and mouse with software coders who seek to make its iOS operating system more accessible to their fellow geeks. Now the game is being played with hardware hackers.

The Mac maker isn't terribly keen on letting ordinary folk tinker with the insides of its products, most notably with the latest MacBook Airs. It leapt on one company that dared to offer a solid-state drive upgrade for the machines - though other firms have since been left unthreatened - and the computer's memory is soldered to the motherboard, blocking expansion.

Worse, says Kyle Wiens, owner of a website, iFixit.com, dedicated to tinkering with Apple - and other - hardware, the Airs are held together with an entirely new type of screw, dubbed the pentalobe thanks to its five, rounded points.

Pentalobes

News of the screws: Apple's pentalobes
Source: iFixit.com

And now, says Wiens, iPhones are getting them too - a "diabolical" move, he says, because pentalobe screwdrivers are few and far between, though he has managed to source some and will sell you one, and a pair of replacement philips screws, for $10.

The iPhone 4 started out with a pair of tiny philips screws, but these were soon replaced with 'torx' headed screws, notable for their hexafoil head. Apple has been using torx screws for many, many years, making early Macs tricky for anyone but an authorised repair engineer to open.

The access the internet brought to Asian markets eventually made torx screwdrivers available to anyone keen enough to seek them out, and they're now readily available from many hardware shops.

Not so pentalobe tools, which have been creeping into the Apple product line since 2009, Wiens says, but didn't become widely used until the new Air debuted in 2010. Now the iPhone 4 has them, it seems highly likely that so will the upcoming iPad 2, and probably future Macs as well.

Wiens beef with this is that the use of obscure screws makes Apple's machines less easy to repair. That, in turn, reduces the hardware's longevity, ensuring that more machines will end up in landfill.

In fact, Apple machines - Macs particularly - are notoriously long-lived, with owners passing them on to friends and relatives after new models have been bought. But eventually they will be binned and recycling will be harder.

What's in this for Apple? Relatively few consumers, the audience it is targeting, open up their machines - a fact shown by the large number of netbooks that make memory easy to upgrade but every other component much less so. Some don't even go that far.

Botched upgrades can lead to costly technical support, but other firms seem less concerned with this risk. Most of Apple's rivals don't feel the need to block tinkering to such an extent - Wiens maintains Apple has adopted pentalobe specifically to stop its gadgets being opened.

Apple clearly thinks its kit shouldn't be opened or changed in any way that doesn't involve its mediation. While it continues to think that way, there will be plenty of people, like Wiens and like the coders dedicated to 'jailbreaking' iOS, to opening its products - physically as well as metaphorically. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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