The iPad will not hit U.S. stores until Saturday, but the race to unlock its mysteries started several weeks ago in San Luis Obispo, a picturesque college town roughly 200 miles (320 km) south of Apple's Silicon Valley headquarters.
On March 12, Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules woke up before dawn. Their plan demanded that they be among the first to get their hands on the device.
So at 5:30 a.m., the minute Apple began taking iPad orders on its website, Wiens and Soules -- do-it-yourself repair evangelists and co-founders of a company called iFixit -- placed theirs. As delivery addresses, they entered several U.S. locations where their research determined the iPad is likely to arrive soonest. They could tell you which ones, but they would have to kill you.
Armed with heat guns, suction cups and other tools of the trade, the duo will set out on Saturday to reveal some of the tablet's most closely guarded secrets: the design and components that make it tick. If all goes according to plan, by the time the lines outside Apple Stores start to thin, iFixit will have provided a blow-by-blow account of its "teardown" to the world, complete with a photo montage.
Such details are manna for the Apple faithful, and iFixit has made a name for itself in technology circles by providing them fast. To do so, Wiens and Soules must above all make sure they are among the very first people to be in actual possession of these hotly anticipated gadgets. And this being Apple, one of the world's most secretive companies, each launch presents a different set of challenges.
Apple's mostly unsung suppliers, which are barred from talking about their most famous customer, will admit in private that they love these teardowns by iFixit and others. The spectacles trumpet to the world that a manufacturer is good enough to make it into an Apple product. In late 2006, the mere rumour that a component by Skyworks Solutions would be in the original iPhone was enough to boost its share price.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple, which declined to comment for this story, does not like anybody monkeying around with its devices. This after all is a company that won't even let users change their iPod and iPhone batteries. It has fired executives over leaks and sued bloggers to halt their revelations.
But there is nothing Apple can do about teardowns. "What we do is completely legal, but if they could stop us they would," Wiens, 26, said with a touch of pride. He said that iFixit has had no formal contact with Apple.
What Apple can and does do is make its devices tougher for him and others to decrypt. Teardown firms say the electronics giant forces some suppliers to stamp their microprocessors with the Apple logo, making it harder to determine their provenance.
"Apple is usually trying to cloak who its suppliers are," said David Carey of UBM TechInsights, a prominent teardown firm. "But it can only keep the door closed for so long."
One reason Apple frowns upon teardowns, say experts, is that it is reluctant to broadcast that it doesn't manufacture the widgets itself. "Apple really wants end users to think that Apple makes this thing, that Apple makes the iPad, not Foxconn, Samsung, Toshiba," Soules said.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
For iFixit, these techno-stripteases are more than just publicity stunts designed to promote its business (though they are that for sure.) They are also, to hear Wiens and Soules tell it, a cause.
The two businessmen say one of their goals is to cut down on electronic waste that ends up in landfills by demonstrating the old-fashioned virtue of repair, extending the lifespan of devices.
Wiens said it was his mission to make repair "sexy." He refers to Apple as a "closed company," because it doesn't want its users repairing its products. "We used to fix things in this country, back in the 1950s it was cool to tinker with your car, but that changed as it became more of a consumer culture," he said.
Wiens and Soules launched iFixit, which sells Apple parts and provides free online repair manuals, as teenagers in 2003 out of their college dorm at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. It is now a thriving small business that employs around two dozen people and generates more than $2 million in annual sales.
With so much riding on getting hold of the iPad first or close to it, iFixit is playing the odds, flying representatives to multiple cities that Wiens and Soules are keeping to themselves for the moment.
If past is prologue, there is little they won't do to be among the first. In 2008, the year Apple debuted the second-generation iPhone in a global launch, Soules chased it 6,000 miles (9,600 km) to the first time zone where he could find the device. He flew to Auckland, New Zealand, and headed to a Vodafone store. There, he waited on line for more than a full day. By his count, he was the fourth person in the world to get the iPhone.
There was just one problem. Soules, a soft-spoken, baby-faced 25-year-old who could easily pass for 16, didn't know a soul in Auckland. So iFixit combed its client list and found one helpful fellow who offered up his print shop to host the teardown. It began shortly after midnight and lasted all night, with Soules streaming nearly live photos onto the Internet to waiting Apple fans half a world away.
Last year was even tougher. Wiens traveled to Britain to get ahead of the third-generation iPhone launch. But his scheme was foiled, he said, when a carrier store in France began selling the device at midnight. He was not among the first to get it -- a failure that still rankles. "There's no magic formula to this, we make up a new plan with each launch, and sometimes it doesn't work out."