XDA Interviews Scotty Allen: The Guy Who Built his Own iPhone [Part 2]
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.
This is Part 2 of our interview with Scotty Allen. You can read Part 1 of this interview here. We’ll now continue where we left off:
Mario: Yeah, I was coming to that! How much did it cost?
Scotty: The first answer really should be like over a thousand dollars, right. I have spent well over a thousand dollars on this project, I have like a box full of parts, right. I have like a bowl full of screws, cables and assemblies at this point, and then I have a whole bunch of tools, right. If I set out to save money, this was a terrible way to do it. But then people ask, how much did the parts cost that actually went into the phone, right? And the answer to that is a little bit over 300 dollars by my best guess, right. It’s a little bit hard to track because you know, like I have multiple screens, so it’s a little bit hard to track what actually ended up in the phone and how much did it cost. I think it’s like a little over 300 bucks.
If I set out to save money, this was a terrible way to do it.
And then people are like, “Oh, you can build an iPhone for 300 bucks. That’s great, I wanna know how to do that so that I can save money over buying one in the Apple store.” And well that’s…that’s totally not why I did this, right. I am not doing this to save money, it’s not interesting [in that context]. Maybe that’s arrogant for me to say, but it’s just not an interesting angle on this.
Also, if you want a $300 iPhone, go buy a used one. Right, that’s exactly how much a used one will cost, it’s about like half of retail. I think that’s right, I don’t know, you can go research it on Craigslist or eBay. I can bet that you can get a pretty solid iPhone 6S for 300 bucks, and it will be made by Apple! It will be made by Apple and like, properly put together. There’s a huge risk of breaking stuff. I did not break a ton while I was actually building it, but afterwards, I blew up a logic board by accident, and that was expensive. That’s like more than 50% of the cost.
Also, if you want a $300 iPhone, go buy a used one.
Just to finish this off, like I am not super interested in telling people how to undercut Apple, right, so they don’t have to pay Apple money. Do I think people should be able to do this? Yeah. I’ll be interested in helping people do this from a curiosity and knowledge perspective
Mario: Yeah like I said, you can make a “Build your own iPhone” kit, an educational thing. Kind of like those kits for kids to build those models with motors and engines and stuff, you know, that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the future, you know. Maybe our kids will be doing that kind of stuff.
Scotty: It’s definitely something that I have thought about, and I think people will be into that, right. The idea of putting together your own cellphone is very similar to like putting together your own desktop computer. And my question to the community is, why aren’t we doing that? Why do we not have a cell phone modding culture the way we have the PC modding culture? It doesn’t make any sense to me that that hasn’t already become a thing.
Mario: Yeah, and speaking of that, there seems to be at least an underground cell phone modding culture in China. Part of it you know, you showed in your video with the cases right, the custom cases, the “Pimp my iPhone” kind of thing. And we also see posts in our forums of people upgrading the RAM of their Android phone or the storage, unofficially of course. And it works, you expect it to work of course. And that’s just crazy, right. How much of that did you encounter? May not be Apple specifically, but have you seen like phone modding, phone upgrade services there, something like that?
Scotty: Yeah, it’s a thing. I have heard about it here, but I have not seen it myself yet. Swapping out cases, swapping out the shell, it’s a thing. It’s not super super common but yeah, I have seen some pretty cool phones that are being used by the vendors in the market. But honestly, like phones that look stock are the most common and the most popular, right. There is like sort of a brand panache around. Like it looks original and new.
Mario: You brought up the status symbol. You know, it trickles down into Android manufacturers from China that try to be like Apple in both software and hardware. How would you describe China’s fascination with Apple? Or like, that it’s a status symbol, how do you describe that?
Scotty: I don’t know if I can speak well to that. I guess I have two anecdotes or two pieces, like one is that China is going through a massive transition in terms of its economy — the statistics that I know, in the year 2000, just 4% of the Chinese urban population was considered middle class. In 2012, 68% were considered middle class, a mix of upper middle and mass middle. And this figure is expected to reach 76% by 2022 with 54% moving into upper middle class.
So there is the velocity of people moving out of poverty into wealth in China, it is really hard to wrap your head around coming from the West. So there’s a lot of new money, there’s a lot of people who are making more money than anybody in their family ever has. And people want to show that off, right? And people want to sort of, just say that they’ve made it. We get that as Americans, we do that too. We want to feel wealthy, we want to feel successful, we want to show that off, right? One of the things that is popular is Western goods, are seen as sort of fashionable. Western brands like watches are huge here, you see Rolex’s, you see women’s fancy handbags are huge here, and iPhones right? They’re a symbol of wealth, they are a symbol of status, they are a symbol of the future, and they are useful. Smartphones are great I don’t need to tell you guys that!
And then I guess the other thing is, the iPhones are made here, right. They are a Western company that manufactures here, so there is a lot of sort of ecosystem around that. What I will say that, like when you go to a factory and I have gone to a bunch of factories that are like completely unrelated to cellphones, it is not uncommon to see like a factory line worker whip out an iPhone, sort of working on the factory line, and these people probably making I don’t know, maybe $5 an hour, maybe a little bit more, $5-10 an hour kind of thing. Not huge wages right? Buying an iPhone represents a fairly large chunk of their salary, but it’s that important to them. It’s that important sort of like a status symbol, that important like a tool in your life, like your phone is like one of the most important things to you. Here and I would argue, in the West too.
Mario: Yeah, I would argue that, and actually that is a perfect way into transitioning into this question I found. It’s really curious how in China and even markets like India too, you actually use phones to buy things and in that case with WeChat and there’s other services, that’s crazy. Speaking of which, did people try to kind of haggle with you, did they try to fleece you?
Scotty: That’s something, I want to set the record straight on that, because people keep saying that you got totally taken advantage of, you didn’t haggle — you don’t haggle in these markets. It is not appropriate, say you bargain over prices in the markets that I showed in the video. It’s really rude. The markets that I am buying in are wholesale markets, they are not retail markets. I am not their target customer, they are not making money off of me, or hardly any. They want to sell a hundred pieces of something, or a thousand pieces of something. The fact that they are talking to me at all is a waste of their time — I don’t know what I am doing and I don’t know what I am talking about and I don’t speak the language well. So they are being incredibly courteous in spending any time with me at all. And I have talked to enough people that I generally know what the price of something is, and it fluctuates in a very narrow range, and often that range is entirely dictated by the quality.
You don’t haggle in these markets. It is not appropriate. It’s really rude.
Scotty: If I wanna pay less, I can get a low quality part. If I wanna pay more, I can get a higher quality part. And I almost always just get the right price. In fact, I often get better prices than Chinese people who professionally source in the markets and so a part of and where that’s coming from is the fact that I look kinda like this.
Mario: You stand out.
Scotty: So there is somewhat of an expectation that because I am white and Western that I am an important businessman who is going to drive lots of business and even if I am buying one as a sample right now, in the future I will place very large orders. And I am try not to take advantage of that stereotype but nevertheless people are generally really straightforward with me and really quite honest and sort of honorable in their interactions.
Mario: I got that interaction with warranty, that was actually — it was pretty surprising.
Scotty: See! Exactly. The other thing I will say is that doing business in China is all about relationships, it’s not about contracts. So in the West we sort of have this idea of like, you sign a contract with someone or you, you like buy something and you get an invoice or receipt or whatever and there are terms and conditions and like that’s what dictates how the transaction works and how future transactions work. Here it’s not about that. It is a fluid relationship that you build over time.
And so, you establish a relationship with suppliers that you know personally right so I have suppliers on WeChat, I see pictures of their kids we talk about their families, drink tea together… it is building up our relationship. Walking into a relationship, starting your relationship by immediately pressuring someone to give you a rock bottom price is a crappy way to build a long standing businesses relationship and it’s seen that way here in China. So me pushing up price particularly when nobody does it would be a great way to unwelcome myself from doing business in the future.
Scotty: This is not just my attitude. This is the attitude of everybody that I know. Those Western hackers that come here to buy in China and as well as like Chinese professional sourcing agencies. We have these changes…some people say like, “Oh you have to haggle in China.” Yes, like if I go to the mall and want to buy like a pair of jeans, like if I go to the copy mall in particular, like at the corner where there are some knockoff jeans and knockoff handbags, yes, I absolutely need to bargain. And in fact, I have a friend who has been living here a while, who is known as a ‘hundred kuai’ brother in the market because he refuses to pay more than a 100 kuai for a pair of jeans and all of the sellers now get this point when he walks around here, “Oh a hundred kuai brother is here”, and they don’t even try and haggle with him anymore because they know he won’t pay anything more. So definitely you need to haggle there.
And then, if you are buying a lot, if you are placing a really large order like thousands, tens or hundreds of thousands, then there is a little bit of room to negotiate like “Oh I hear this is your price but I was hoping to pay this”, like “Can we work something out as part of our pre-existing relationship such that this is like mutually beneficial for both parties.
Mario: Yeah, I can see that, I can see that happening.
Scotty: But it needs to be a win-win and you need to keep it a win-win because if there are any problems down the line, because there is no like hard contract, you need to work through any problems that come up as part of your relationship and that’s gonna be a give and take, right.
So pushing somebody really, really, really hard on the price up front and then expecting to have a great end result is probably not a winning strategy.
Mario: That’s really interesting. It’s kind of self regulating without a need of arbitrators, third parties or the State or contracts and that’s, it’s really different here in America. We are quick to sue and you know just get mad at our warranty and exchanges and go back to the store and want to speak to the manager.
Scotty: Yeah then people just say that because it’s written on this piece of paper that we have all signed it means that you have to do this and that’s not how my understanding of the approach to the Chinese business or approach to business in China is. It’s a much more fluid relationship that is entirely based on what will you do together in future. It is entirely forward looking. We are going to work this out because we both want to continue to do business together and that would be mutually beneficial to everybody at both ends.
Mario: So kind of moving back, to the product of your journey, the phone itself. How satisfying was it just to see it boot and were you for example scared that it would be bootlooping and that it wouldn’t actually finish booting. How was the feeling?
Scotty: Yeah so I mean, it was a huge sort of wave of….Well I don’t know! It was very satisfying to finish the phone and I mean, actually boot up. When I first started out, one of my big fear was buying the logic board. I was very worried that I would buy a logic board that was faulty and then end up with like no recourse. Because I didn’t really know how to test a logic board, and there was not an order of operations, like what parts do I need to buy in order to test the other parts?
And there’s kind of like this interoperability I thought, I didn’t really know what the minimum viable set of parts was. It turns out it’s screen, logic board, and battery. If you have those three parts and a pair of tweezers, you can turn on the logic board and test up to 75% of the functions. But I didn’t know that walking in, so I ended up talking, I got someone who buys and sells in the markets regularly, to show me all of the tasks that he does on one of his testing phones. There’s actually a piece of content that I haven’t released yet but I want to. And so I was like all prepared to do this, and but I still didn’t have like a tester phone. Helen and I went to the markets and we kept asking around, can we test the logic boards? Do they have a phone that they can test with, and everyone goes “No no no, go away, we don’t have time.” And then we figured out, “Oh there is a 3 day warranty” and the reason there is the 3 day warranty is that they didn’t want you standing, clogging up their booths. So you can take it home, and like the first “Oh my god, this is actually going to work” moment was getting this logic board out of my work bench with the screen and the battery, and a pair of tweezers and booting up this naked phone essentially, having that actually turn on.
I texted David because I saw David do it at the cellphone repair school. I didn’t know what pins I had to short to get it to turn on, so David was sending me diagrams via WeChat and then I had a bad battery, and I had to get a new battery, the one I bought was a dud, so I had to get a new one. Finally, I was seeing it turn on like “Oh my god, it actually boots up”, like this might work! And then the last sort of final moment is me getting the thing fully together, and it looks like an iPhone and you are sort of being able to hold it up and be like, “This actually looks and feels like an iPhone” and as far as I can tell, it works exactly the same as well and so that was pretty satisfying.
It was 2 months of work at that point so that was pretty rewarding to be like, I have actually done this.
Mario: Right and so, the Read Only Memory, what was loaded in there? Did you just get it with the logic board and then you just you know, you waited for the setup or was there something already there, someone else had stuff in there or what?
Scotty: Good question. So the logic board comes with iOS already installed. So the best way to think about it is this: Well I believe very strongly that this board came out of legitimate Apple manufactured iPhone and the phone was probably broken, sent in to repair, return or recycle or whatever. It got taken apart, all of the parts got tested. This, the logic board definitely had repair done it had some rework. And the fact that we looked at some other logic boards that had way more obvious reworks that this one didn’t. And it’s why I ended up going with the rose colored back you know, like pink is not my color!
Mario: Okay, that explains it!
Scotty: The other ones that we saw had like scary levels of rework on them, and this one looked very normal. So, being taken out of a phone even though after extensive repair, iOS is still already installed on it from sort of the Apple tool chain of installing it. So really all you need is the other parts to get it to boot up. Like everybody said, “How did you get software on it?” I didn’t, it already had software on it, I just worked with that.
Mario: I mean you wouldn’t be able to like wipe iOS outta there and store its own read only memory and you can’t, you know. You can factory reset, you can go into a recovery tool but I was just wondering because when you booted it up, it seemed like there was stuff already on it. I am not an iPhone guy, so I don’t even know!
Scotty: I wanted to get to that part. There were a few apps already installed on it, but they were really only installed by like a repair technician. I forgot what they were, I’ll find it and see what they were. They weren’t particularly interesting, they were like the GPS app or something.
Mario: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering because when I saw all the stuff in there, again I’m not an iPhone guy, but even then, it seemed like there was something else instead of booting up for the first time setup.
Scotty: It was a pretty stock experience. It was a pretty stock phone in terms of software.
Mario: Good, good. I am just glad nobody’s data was just in there. So, the people that sell the logic boards, they make sure of course that it’s wiped, or when they test it they wipe it.
Scotty: As far as I can tell. I’ve never seen one with anybody’s data on it.
Mario: Does the end result have any kind of bugs, or software or anything, something perhaps – any nook and cranny maybe that wasn’t finished? Or would you say that you got it a 100%, everything works as it should…like, you could swap my mom’s iPhone with it and she wouldn’t tell — does it work that well?
Scotty: There is one critical problem, which is that my lock switch does not work quite right. I thought I had it, and then it’s not working out. I think I know what’s wrong, actually David looked at it and he immediately picked up on that. I think I have just got a button cover insert slightly wrong and I haven’t popped it open. You have to remove a fair amount of screws to get to that part so I just haven’t bothered really.
Well, there’s two more things. David found a missing speaker grille that I either didn’t install or installed incorrectly, it’s just a little bit of mesh. It’s like a teeny tiny detail and I’m surprised he spotted it. The third one is that I haven’t put the glue gasket around the screen, just because I like being able to open it and fiddle with it and stuff, for testing it. There are clips that hold it in and then two screws in the bottom and I just use those. It means it’s not as water resistant, and there’s a little bit of light leakage on the screen, but it’s fine. Nobody who is not a repair technician has found anything.
With an hour or two of work, it would be indistinguishable to David.
Mario: That’s a high standard!
Scotty: Yes, absolutely. An Apple fanboy repair technician level standards.
Mario: So, what’s next for Stranger Parts? What do you plan on doing next? Do you plan on revisiting smartphones, maybe try your hand on an Android one perhaps? I don’t know, what do you think?
Scotty: I would definitely like to do something in the Android space. Definitely want to do more cellphone stuff, but this isn’t just about cellphones. This is really about adventure and travel and technology — it’s much much broader than that. Cellphones are kinda the area that I am planning on right now, I spent a lot of time doing this. I have a bunch of more ideas about cool stuff that I want to show off that I just haven’t had time to make videos about yet. So definitely going to do more stuff here but also stuff like all over the world that doesn’t have anything to do with cellphones. So it’s broader scope, “Let’s check out cool stuff that we didn’t know existed”.
Mario: You already got a really, really good start for your channel. I think you’re over 60,000 subs and over 3.5 Million views — by the time this gets published, certainly over 3.5, probably about 4 Million views. You were on YouTube trending. You got a lot of attention suddenly. How is stardom treating you, being a celebrity in the YouTube community?
Scotty: Yeah, it’s been really crazy. I didn’t expect this level of a response. I didn’t realize people were going to be this into what I did at such a broad level. I knew the geeks that I hanged out with thought this was pretty cool, but I didn’t realize how much it would sort of work its way out into the mainstream. The other thing that was really unexpected was I didn’t realize how much the Chinese people would share. This has kicked off like wildfire in the Chinese social media and mainstream media. I’ve been on broadcast television interviews here in Shenzhen, I have been on all the major social networks trending on the homepage. Everybody that knows me in China and that has me on WeChat has sent me an article or screenshot or something. It’s been pretty wild and pretty bizarre, and I am just overwhelmed by everybody’s really generous response and how interested everybody is. I have had more people contact me than I had time to respond to yet, and I am just really focused on trying to make the next video, and hopefully it lives up to everyone’s expectations.
Mario: Wow, thanks for choosing us for the interview as well. We’re an Android site, to put it bluntly, but still, I think this is really interesting. I know all my friends at college have seen this video yes of course, we’re all like stem nerds and stuff. Thank you for sharing all these stories with us and allowing us to do this interview. Thanks a lot!
Scotty: You’re welcome!
That concludes our interview with Scotty Allen – the man who built his own iPhone 6s using nothing but locally sourced parts from the Chinese components market.
What are your thoughts on Scotty Allen’s journey assembling his own iPhone? What part of the journey was the most fascinating to you? Does this change your perspective of China and its smartphone market? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!