The Pentalobe Screw, and Apple's War Against Self-Repair

Pentalobe tool shape


Consumerist tells us that Apple is switching to a special new screw called by some a Pentalobe; or by iFixit, an "Evil Proprietary Tamper Proof Five Point Screw" (or the EPTP5PS). It is designed to make it impossible for anyone but Apple to service your iPhone or computer. Consumerist also notes that if you take your iPhone in for repairs, they will replace all the screws with the EPTP5PS.

Now I love my mac and my ancient iPod, but I also love Matt Bremner and all the aftermarket repair people who provide fast and convenient service. So I will tell herein a cautionary tale about what happens when you get all proprietary about screws.

peter robinson image
Library and Archives Canada 

In 1906 a traveling salesman, Peter Robertson of Milton, Ontario, Canada cut his hand when a slot screwdriver he was demonstrating slipped. He went off to the shop and came up with a screw with a square socket in it, that almost never slipped. He was modest about it, saying "This is considered by many as the biggest little invention of the twentieth century so far."

Bruce Ricketts wrote about it in Mysteries of Canada:

The Robertson socket head screw soared in popularity. Craftsmen favoured it because it was self-centring and could be driven with one hand. Industry came to rely on it for the way it reduced product damage and sped up production. The Fisher Body Company, which made wooden bodies in Canada for Ford cars, used four to six gross of Robertson screws in the bodywork of the Model T and eventually Robertson produced socket screws for metal for the metal bodied Model A.
But wait. If the square screw was superior, why do you not find them outside of Canada? Why, if Ford thought it was good enough for his Model A, was it not good enough for the rest of the world?
screw history image

Henry Ford found that he could save two hours of assembly time per car, and wanted to protect this advantage by licensing the screw. Probably, like Apple, he wanted to control service as well. But Robertson thought the market was bigger and was not willing to give up control. The world was his oyster. So Ford licensed the less effective Phillips screw and the rest is history.

Almost every Canadian has a collection of Robertsons; the red number 8s and the green 6s most ubiquitous, the tiny yellow 4s and the big honking black 10s a little more obscure. It is sometimes a pain because there is no knife or ad hoc substitute that works; you have to own the driver to turn the screw.

liberation kit screws photo

But ultimately, a screw is the ultimate open-source product. Apple is sending a message like Henry Ford wanted to: This is mine and you cannot get into it, you cannot tamper with it. It alienates your customers and puts the independent service providers out of business. And it doesn't even work; with 3D printing, people can mold and cast driver heads in minutes. IFixit is already offering them for ten bucks. All Apple is doing is slowing people down and aggravating them.

The EPTP5PS is just another sign of the closed ecosystem attitude that Apple has that at some point is going to drive away its best customers. The Robertson failed because Ford and Robertson both wanted to own it; open source won.

It is so hypocritical; I write on Treehugger about the virtues of the seven Rs, which include Repair, and about the need for a rebirth of a culture of reuse rather than replace. And I do it on a Mac, where they go out of their way to make it difficult.