Apple’s frayed power cables – an explanation

Sat, Jun 11, 2011


What you see above is the difference between an Apple powercable circa 2007 and 2009. The one on the left is robust while the one on the right tends to break a whole lot easier. Indeed, an iPod Touch cable I purchased about 9 months ago is already starting to fray after only moderate usage while an old school iPod power cable proved to be extraordinarily resilient.

So what gives? Why would Apple abandon a perfectly functional design for one that has unarguably causes a lot more problems?

A recent thread on Reddit from a purported former Apple employee attempts to explain why Apple went astray.

I used to work for Apple and interfaced with every division in the company, and I know EXACTLY why this happened. It has nothing to do with trying to get customers to buy more replacement adapters, but rather with the hierarchy of power at Apple.

But before I go into this, let me explain the engineering of a power cable. If you look at a power adapter cable for any non-Apple product, you’ll notice some plastic “rings” where the plug transitions to the cable. These rings are called a strain relief. The purpose of a strain relief is to prevent the cable from bending at a severe angle if you bend the cable at the base. The strain relief allows the cable to have a nice, gentle curvature if you tweak the cable instead of bending at a severe 90 degree angle. This gentle curvature prevents the cable from being broken through repeated use.

Now let’s look at the hierarchy of power at Apple. As with any company, Apple consists of many divisions (Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, etc.) THE most powerful division at Apple is Industrial Design. For those of you unfamiliar with the term industrial design, this is the division that makes the decisions about the overall look and feel of Apple’s products. And when I say “the most powerful”, I mean that their decisions trump the decisions of any other division at Apple, including Engineering and Customer Service.

Now it just so happens that the Industrial Design department HATES how a strain relief looks on a power adapter. They would much prefer to have a nice clean transition between the cable and the plug. Aesthetically, this does look nicer, but from an engineering point of view, it’s pretty much committing reliability suicide. Because there is no strain relief, the cables fail at a very high rate because they get bent at very harsh angles. I’m sure that the Engineering division gave every reason in the world why a strain relief should be on an adapter cable, and Customer Service said how bad the customer experience would be if tons of adapters failed, but if industrial design doesn’t like a strain relief, guess what, it gets removed.

Buying it?

A commenter on a Hacker News thread isn’t.


6 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Says:

    Then engineering should get the funding to design a strain relief system that can support the harsh, cut, monochromatic, texture free designs that the design team want.

  2. Patrick Says:

    I agree with Dave. This tension between a known solution and a desired look can force a company to come up with an innovative design that does both (looks nice and doesn’t break).

    Just because the engineering problem of strain relief was solved a hundred years ago doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to better.

  3. Steve Says:

    Probably the same guys that designed the hockey puck mouse…

  4. Jason Anderson Says:

    My 2010 MBP MagSafe adapter is completely shredded at the end because of this bullcrap. I had to go back to my old 2007 MacBook adapter with the straight-out wire because I can’t even use it anymore. And the store said it’s not covered. So I can’t even get it replaced even though I have AppleCare. And now the end of my iPad cable is starting to show stress bumps.

  5. totally_true Says:

    Worked there too, every word that guy wrote is 100% true.

  6. W.T.Effyall Says:

    Maybe someone needs a can of Steve Jobs WhoopAss ™:

    “Can anyone tell me how long a power cord should last?”

    “Um, well… maybe a year?”

    “So why the f*** doesn’t it do that? You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation. You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

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