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You’re close to becoming powerless over your phone, and it all has to do with the little “wake” button on its skinny right side.

Companies like Apple have worked for decades to remove mechanical parts, including true power switches, from the gadgets they release to the public. Opening up these devices, fixing them, or even fully disabling hardware features has become much more difficult. That’s created a new status quo of slender electronics that corporations have full control over — displacing you, the consumer who paid a lot of cash to “own” a modern smartphone.

This transformation didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, the seeds of this tech transition can be seen in completely unassuming appliances from long ago. My grandparents had one of those lamps where you would touch the metal casing to turn it on. It was a fun gimmick, but the novelty wore off quickly.

It turns out that physical switches have a lot going for them. They work when your hands are wet — my grandparents’ lamp was impossible to use after I washed my hands. A switch’s position can tell you if something is on or off. They are predictable. And cats don’t turn them on in the middle of the night.

Today, simple, intuitive objects like light switches are being replaced by internet-connected smart switches. We’ve become disconnected from how things actually work. If the bits that make the switch function are stuffed away inside a microchip, then we have no idea where to turn when things go wrong. Like when Google decided to permanently disable its smart-home hub Revolv, instantly disabling smart homes around the world.

I’m just one short circuit away from frying the phone.

This digitization has brought about a lot of changes. The platonic ideal of a modern gadget is thin and waterproof, with no moving parts inside. Any interruptions to the device’s smooth exterior gets in the way of that design imperative — for a removable battery, say. Or a fan vent. Or a power button. But the path to removing these features has been fraught.

Steve Jobs hated anything that got in the way of a seamless user experience. He especially despised fans and famously demanded that the Apple III eschew active cooling. Despite massive heatsinks, the lack of cooling created a thermal expansion problem that forced chips to migrate out of their sockets. Apple’s recommended “fix” was to lift your computer six inches off your desktop, then let it drop — in hopes that the chips would reseat themselves on impact. Seamless user experience indeed.

Years later, Jobs created the Power Mac G4 Cube. Like the Apple III, the G4 Cube was fanless. It also eschewed one mechanical item possessed by almost every electronic device to date: a power switch.

The Power Mac G4 Cube took a capacitive cue from my grandparents’ lamp. Stroke the top of the case and the touch sensor would power the system on. No snick, no physical feedback. Just touch the top and bong, the Mac’s F-sharp major chord would sing, and the friendly face of Mac OS would beam at you while the machine booted.

The cube never sold well. Low End Mac explains one reason why: That touch sensor was awful. “Touch it by accident and watch the Cube shut down. That was annoying every time it happened — and even once was too often.”

The Cube failed, and Apple’s replacement had a proper power switch. But with Steve Jobs in the driver’s seat, mechanical switches were not long for this world.


I run iFixit, where we teach people how to open and repair electronics, including Steve Jobs’ greatest invention: the iPhone. His “internet communicator” ushered in a great many changes to cellphones in one fell swoop. Amid all the grand transformation, one detail went mostly overlooked: Jobs had finally managed to kill the power switch. Instead of a mechanical switch, you now held down the side “wake” button for a second, then swiped a virtual indicator on the screen to power it off.

Other phone makers followed suit. The Google Pixel 3, unveiled this week, has precisely three physical buttons and one USB-C charge port. That’s a huge divergence from the dozens of buttons (and a headphone jack) on the BlackBerries of yore.

The power-buttonless phones work okay day-to-day but present a challenge for repairers like me. Our normal approach to working on electronics — any electronics — is to disconnect the power before we do anything. But without an off switch or a removable battery, you have to disassemble the phone in order to remove power. So that’s what we do.

We’ve become disconnected from how things actually work.

The first step when I’m servicing an iPhone is to open it up and disconnect the battery. Then, and only then, am I confident that the power is off. In fact, it’s common for me to have a phone halfway open only to have the screen power back on. That’s scary — I’m just one short circuit away from frying the phone. So I carefully reach inside and unplug the battery cable. Only then is the phone truly off and safe to work on.

Levers of Power

There’s an element of agency intrinsic to a power switch. You are literally in control of the lever of power. There’s often a pivotal scene in science fiction novels that use robots to explore the line between machine and human intelligence: The robot glitches out and threatens its maker, so the heroine reaches behind its neck and — snick — shuts off its power. Turns out, that moment may soon be a reality.

Last year, lawmakers in the European Union proposed legislation requiring every robot be equipped with a “kill switch.” With knife-wielding Roombas wandering around, that may not be such a bad idea.

And so I wonder about my phone. Without a way to definitively remove power, I never really know if it’s actually off. Is my phone listening to me right now? If I started talking with a friend about taking a vacation to the Maldives, would Facebook start showing me flight suggestions? A lot of people think so, to the point where it has become a joke. But surely using the software “off switch” to disable your phone will stop that, right?

… Right?

People like Edward Snowden aren’t so sure. He told NBC News that manufacturers — or the National Security Agency — “can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off to the device.” He recommends the rather extreme step of physically removing the microphone and camera from any device you’re worried about. And it’s not just phones: Researchers have uncovered ways of taking control of smart TV sensors while the TV is ostensibly powered off.

The world of always-on gadgets in our pockets was not inevitable. The current state of affairs is the result of intentional designs that integrate batteries inside our devices alongside the wholesale removal of power switches. But it is here. Steve Jobs has won: No major phone manufacturer uses a removable battery or a physical power switch.

And so, the last remaining true power switch available to us is the humble screwdriver. If you can open it, you can turn it off.