XDA Interviews Scotty Allen: The Guy Who Built his Own iPhone [Part 1]
A little over 2 weeks ago, a YouTube video of a man who traveled to China to build his own iPhone went viral. The aim of his project was to assemble a fully-functioning iPhone 6s from locally sourced parts purchased from the Chinese components market. Would it be possible to put together everything required to build your own mobile device?
The answer is yes.
Although Scotty’s build-your-own-smartphone feat was accomplished with the iPhone, the real story behind his journey is just how similar building a smartphone is to building your own PC – if you have the right parts and some gumption. The huge Chinese electronics components market makes all of this possible, but it was Scotty who put in hundreds of his own dollars and multiple days worth of work to pull off this feat.
Scotty’s adventure and the accompanying video provided great insight on what happens when you set out to source components to try and build your own device. Sitting at about 3.8 Million views and with 69,000+ subscribers with just one video, the world certainly loved following his journey.
XDA-Developers Editor-in-Chief, Mario Serrafero, sat down with Scotty Allen for an interview with the intent being to learn more about these fascinating markets of China and his whole experience with them:
Mario: Yours is a new YouTube channel. There is not much context other than this awesome video that went viral. There is no introduction, there is “just you” who suddenly pops up, with your enthusiastic personality, and we just jump right into the video. So there is a lot of context that we are missing. How did you get started? Why did you make this video? What is your background? Where do you work? What were doing in China?
Scotty: Some viewers have even believed that I am not telling the truth about what I did, because they have never heard of me before… like who is this guy and how is this possible? So my background: I am a professional software engineer. I went to school for computer science. Got a job out of school at Google as a software engineer. Bounced around Silicon Valley for a while, so I worked at Google for a couple of years, worked at a couple other startups for a couple of years. Then I left to do my thing, been running my own company for the past 6 years or so.
About three years ago, I became a full time nomad, so I gave up my apartment in San Francisco. So I have been travelling full time, for a while I was spending 50% of my time in San Francisco, but now it’s become less. The two main “center of my orbits” are now Shenzhen and San Francisco, but I spend a lot of time in Asia in general.
So about two years ago, I fired myself from my job so I work about half day a week now and the rest of my time I do whatever I want. I have been spending a lot of time here in Shenzhen and learning about electronics manufacturing, the electronics ecosystem, supply chains and cellphones.
Mario: Interesting. So I assume, we’ll take this up later on as well, you’re planning on doing more with Stranger Parts?
Scotty: Absolutely! Yeah. I definitely plan on making more videos, and I definitely want to make more cool stuff. I really see it as a place for me to sort of explore the world and discover the undiscovered, and I guess I have been describing it to people like two parts Anthony Bourdain two parts MythBusters and one part Vice. So it is sort of the intersection of adventure, travel blog and technology, with this sort of edgy angle to it, of really really diving in beneath the surface and finding things that aren’t really being talked about and that I don’t know about yet and bringing people along with me on the journey.
Mario: Yeah that’s great. And I totally agree with you, with the two parts Anthony, two parts MythBusters and one part Vice, with that blogging style. That’s great, you’re meeting your target.
Scotty: Yeah, I kind of had an idea that this was a catchy story, but I was more like, maybe a hundred thousand views would be an amazing result. it’s more than anything than I thought.
Mario: Yeah so, the market. The real protagonist of your video would be the market, right? How would you describe the overall buying experience? How different is it from a traditional western tech shopping centre?. Was the market all dedicated to tech? What were people there actually buying? Were they buying parts too? What were they doing?
Scotty: The markets are a bunch of different buildings in a whole portion of the city. So the portion of the city is Huaqiangbei, the Futian district which is kind of downtown, it’s like the downtown skyscrapers now. I don’t think this was always that way, there are tons of offices and buildings around it. It is not in the outskirts and in the factories. The factories have been pushed out to the city borders, like 45 minutes or an hour away by car. These markets originally came about to service the factories, and this is changing. The area is changing dramatically, they started as wholesale components market for factories to advertise what they make to supply to other manufacturers further up the food chain. And also, it was a place for contract manufacturers and final assembly manufacturers to advertise their services So it was kind of like a meeting place for all manufacturing, like a clearinghouse, for sourcing parts, for finding services, for finding contract manufacturers. Over time, it has shifted much more towards higher level manufacturing, it’s gone from just straight up components supply to like, there are lots and lots of contract manufacturers there now.
Now, as the western world and the western geek world is really discovering it, it is becoming more and more sort of consumer and hobbyist place. Different buildings have different specialties, and it is all kind of chaotic — you’ll find a little bit of everything everywhere to some extent. There is not a whole lot of strict organization. Booths move around all the time — there are booths that are in the video that no longer exist, and the video has been all shot in the past five months. So there’s people there that aren’t there anymore and someone else is in their place, and that is pretty normal. Like I would even say maybe even half of the vendors, I didn’t see the same person at the booth in the couple of times I have been there. The tool vendor that opens the video, like I can’t find him anymore. I walked up and down several times and I know exactly where he used to be, like I don’t know which exact stall it is but I know where he was, but I can’t find him.
I didn’t see the same person at the booth in the couple of times I have been there.
There is a very bright division, like there is Shennan boulevard, which is a main thoroughfare for Shenzhen that runs east-west, and above Shennan is like mostly general components market, general electronics assembly, and like more and more consumer goods, it’s where like you buy drones, you can buy retail cellphones, smartwatches, like all of that stuff. There is an LED building that has floors of LED assemblers, and like retail lighting. Below Shannon, is mostly cellphones and mostly cellphone repair. So its components markets, phone repair, repair tools — so everything you would need to like delaminate and relaminate screens, all your soldering work. And then there are a ton of repair booths there as well, that are like sort of —- a consumer walks in who needs their phone repaired, and there will also be booths where there will be like 8 to 12 guys who will be doing more sort of assembly line repairs, where they are taking bulk phones through and repairing them — bulk broken phones and turning them into working phones again.
Mario: As the video proves, you can at least buy everything that you need to make an iPhone there.
Scotty: The other thing I can tell you is what is the magnitude of the markets, I don’t know exactly, but my guess is that some are between 10 and 20 buildings that are like shopping mall-sized and are between 3 to 9 floors each depending on the building. It is pretty massive. There are buildings that I have not really explored at all.
Mario: Moving on to another important part of the market: the people there. You seem to actually get quite a bit of help from the people there in the market. It almost seems like they knew everything about the iPhone, like they actually knew the internals of the iPhone and how everything is put together. Do you think people there have experience? What do you think draws people to that line of work? Is it just because it is a readily available job, or do the people there actually have an interest in it? It’s a big scope, so I am assuming there’s all kinds of things there.
Scotty: It’s a mixture. A lot of people do it because its a job, and it can be pretty lucrative. I would say that this is probably one of the centers of the supply chain for repair parts for cellphones in the world. I see people from all over the world coming and buying wholesale repair parts for their repair booths in their home country. So there’s all sorts of people from the middle east, there’s all sorts of westerners coming here. So I would say that the majority of the market is just business people — businessman or business woman that are running a business. They are traders essentially, and they know their space really well so whatever they sell, if its cables or batteries or logic boards or whatever, they know that really well and they kinda know about the stuff that’s around that in the cellphone, they’ve learned a lot about that. There’ll be people that just do iPhone parts, so they’ll know iPhones really well and they don’t know anything about Android. There are some people who are really passionate, and the most passionate people I have found are the repair guys who really like what they do.
But I have met some people who are real Apple fans and definitely qualify as Apple fanboys and are just super into it, they think it’s super cool and are geeks all the way. A good example is Wymen who is in the video, the guy who I sit down to interview in the cellphone repair school. He, in my opinion, is probably one of the top repair technicians in the world for cellphones and for micro level repairs.
Wymen is a true geek. I asked Wymen why do you do this when he showed it to me when we were doing the interview, is it profitable? And he just said “No, I am passionate about it, the money will follow. I am just following what I think is interesting”. His student David, who did the translation in the video, is young and bright eyed and super passionate. He is a total Apple fanboy, he knows all the things. He comes down periodically for shopping, so I went shopping with him in the market one day, and he just wanted to buy everything he saw, so yeah he’s totally into it.
Mario: I think there’s something really interesting, the first third of the video is dedicated to the casing, the screen. I thought it was really cool how they assembled the screen, that was mind blowing. Of course, you need a tool like that, but I never actually thought about it and how it worked and it’s really cool to see the fact that you can do that in a workshop.
That first third is the screen, the casing. Then there is the logic board and the chipset and all that stuff. It’s like a difficulty spike, right. So, how hard was it exactly to get all the tiny little components and figure out how they go together. Which resources did you use? Obviously you spent a lot of time thinking, pondering and planning it. And even then, speeding up the video does not give us a glimpse into just how frustrating, difficult and complicated it could be.
Scotty: Totally, I spent a lot time looking at previous online resources. iFixit was one of the big ones that I looked at.
Mario: I knew it!
Scotty: They are producing great content, and it’s very accessible from an English speaking perspective.
Mario: Do you use their tools too?
Scotty: No, I can buy all of that stuff from the market. I just buy what the cell phone repair technicians here use. The guy that talked to me at the very beginning of the video, like the cold opening of the video, his is the tool booth where I bought most of my parts. And the day I went there to buy a hot air reflow station to try and solder my own logic board, And I thought I was just gonna buy the hot air reflow station and he spent like 15 minutes being like “You need this?”,” What about this, you need this?”, “You need this?”, and I was all like “No, no no no nononono, no… oh yeah I do need that”. All of the things that I said no to, I eventually went back and bought it — it turns out he knew exactly what I needed. Cause he was like “Oh you’re buying that, you’re gonna need these things too”. So yeah, the tools were very accessible here and way, way cheaper than the western world. Just by going and looking at the repair booths, you learn what the local guys use and don’t use. And they don’t use everything that the western world would use, so it’s kind of interesting.
All of the things that I said no to, I eventually went back and bought it — it turns out he knew exactly what I needed.
Mario: Yeah, I imagine they find their own clever ways around assembling disassembling certain things too.
Scotty: I’ll give you a funny example. You’ll never see a spudger in a Chinese cell phone repair booth. Instead, everybody has got one long coke nail on their pinkie that they grow out, and they use that to pry up all the connectors and things. It’s pretty awesome.
Everybody has got one long coke nail on their pinkie that they grow out, and they use that to pry up all the connectors and things.
Mario: That’s a natural solution!
Scotty: You can buy a spudger but never see it in the repair booths.
Mario: Darn, that’s clever. Clever, a little nasty, but it’s clever, I’ll give them that. Moving on, how big of a barrier was language, and who helped you?
Scotty: Language is a huge barrier, right. That’s probably the number one barrier to this project, it’s the fact that I don’t speak Chinese very well. I know enough to sort of get by in the markets, but my Chinese is at the level where it’s not conversational. If someone approaches me on the street and asks a question, I’m screwed. The best that I can respond is…there’s a Chinese expression, there are two ways to say I don’t understand. The first is like “I don’t understand” and it has the implication like “Can you repeat it, and then maybe I’ll be able to understand?”. The second is, “I don’t understand, and I never will, so you should stop trying”.
Mario: Yeah, that makes things simpler.
Scotty: It used to happen a lot! “Well, I am at my own here and there is no way I am going to get what you are trying to tell me”. My Chinese level is like, I can ask: “How much is something?”, “I wanna look at that”, “I want that”, “I don’t want that”. I got some colors now, only a couple, like black, red, white, silver, grey…things like that. And I can get around in taxis and order food. The rest of the time, if things get more complicated, then one of us will whip out some translation app. It’s mostly just typing translations, I am starting to do voice translations and people don’t go pretty into that. The Chinese apps have it, but a lot of people just don’t know about it because they do not need that on a day to day basis. Sometimes, I’ll use the visual translate, like the camera translate, both the live one and the one where you take a picture and it writes over things. I don’t tend to use that as much in the market, because there is not much which is written. Most things are out, so as long as I know what the thing I am looking for looks like, then I can just kind of walk around the booths and look for what I want and then talk to whoever’s displaying it and that’s pretty normal.
In terms of help from friends, you can see in the video that I got help from Frank and Helen with the more complex parts of the screen and logic board. Those were the two things that I was really worried about that had a lot of complications. It was sort of more than just like “Oh I want that thing, how much is it?”, it was more than that, like there were warranties involved, and with the screen, we had to go to the repair booth and sort of explain what we wanted to do. Like what I wanted to do is totally not a normal thing for people in the markets, right. So most of the time, I was on my own except for what you see on camera.
I got help from people at a couple of key times in the markets. The big one is the one that appears in the video, where I couldn’t get the volume buttons to work, like I was missing like a tiny little metal film and I spent four hours on it. I was just like, “Something is wrong here” and I can not figure it out by looking on photos online on iFixit. Like nothing is explained to me on what I am missing, it looks correct. But it’s just not clicking, like it’s not making a clicking sound and it’s not fully contacting the button.
My understanding is that when you design one of those buttons, the travel distance between those makes a ton of difference in terms of how the buttons feel and very microscopic changes in that distance matter in terms of button feel. I think when Apple designed that, they didn’t know until they went to manufacturing on what that distance should be, and they wanted to be able to tweak it. So they put a like a metal shim in there that they could easily swap out and it was easy to manufacture. And maybe they can swap out like depending on the manufacturing quality of buttons that are coming through and can get the exact click feel that they want. I bet you, that somewhere at Apple, there is a collection of like 25 different shims that give all different clicks. You know, that Johnny Ive or somebody has sat there and clicked buttons and went “Not that one, not that one”.
Mario: You know what, if there is a pet peeve I have, it’s buttons. Like I mention this in all of my reviews and editorials and podcasts. And I always, just like the first thing you know when I get a new review unit or whatever, my boss always asks me, “So, how you like it”. And the first things I review, are the buttons. I tell him, “Buttons suck”, and if the buttons suck, it is going to be really painful for me to daily drive that phone.
Scotty: There’s whole bunch of more stuff on there. There’s like a rubber gasket that goes around the outside that I think adds in friction as well as waterproofing. And then also like this fork down bar contraption on the backside that I think sort of ensures that the button does not wiggle, like twist this way. And there’s much stuff that I probably do not understand. They have clearly spent a lot of design time on exactly what you’re talking about. There’s definitely an entire team that deals with nothing but components.
Mario: Blows your mind, doesn’t it. You specifically, I would say you have gained a special kind of knowledge that I don’t think even the geniuses at iFixit have specifically gained, which is not disassembling and not putting it back together but building it from sourcing parts from different places. I don’t know if it’s ever been done before to be honest, at least not that I know of.
Scotty: I have not really found anybody who has kinda started from scratch the way I have. What’s interesting though is that what I have done is not particularly novel when you think about it, right. There are plenty of people who have torn down iPhones to replace the shell, where they’ve gotten a new shell and they’ve torn down their iPhone. To do that, you have to take everything out, right. And this is something that repair technicians do all the time, right. So it’s not like I have done this monumental human feat that nobody has ever done before. But I think, the way I am sort of presenting it, as I didn’t start with a fully formed phone, I got all the parts from different vendors. This is something you could do on eBay probably, but it would be harder. Being able to touch things and talk to people certainly helps, right. The idea of sort of sourcing this all from component parts is really compelling. Going to a booth that sells nothing but buttons is kind of more compelling than sort of like buying some phones that are broken.
What I have done is not particularly novel when you think about it.
Mario: You could make an eBay shopping list. Find all the parts to make an iPhone and then just post a guide up there, or sell a “Build your own iPhone” kit.
Scotty: Yeah, I am not super interested in doing that. I am sure somebody will at some point, but I am not super interested in doing that. I think like one of the reactions that I got, that I didn’t expect, like the number one question that people ask me is “How much did this cost?”
Mario: Yeah, I was coming to that!
This is the end of Part 1 of our interview. Part 2 of the interview explores the cost of his project, the software on his product, the unwritten rules of the Chinese markets, China’s fascination for Apple, and more! Stay tuned!
What are your thoughts on Scotty Allen’s journey assembling his own iPhone? What part of the journey was the most fascinating to you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!