Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Has Steve Jobs built a secret MacBook factory?

October 5, 2008: 7:23 AM ET

''I'm as proud of the factory as I am of the computer,'' Steve Jobs told Fortune 18 years ago, describing the 40,000-square-foot plant he had constructed in Fremont, Calif., to manufacture circuit boards for his ill-fated NeXT, the $10,000 workstation into which Jobs poured his heart and soul after he was forced out of Apple (AAPL) in 1985.

The factory, as Jobs described it, had everything: robots, lasers, tolerances within one 10,000th of an inch, defect rates of less that 17 parts per million -- one tenth the rest of the industry's -- and the speed to turn out 60 machines a day. (link)

Now, according to a pair of reports in 9 to 5 Mac and Computerworld Blogs, Jobs has built that plant's successor: a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that is already turning out the new line of MacBook and MacBook Pros that Apple is expected to introduce on Oct. 14.

This factory, according to Seth Weintraub, a tech reporter with good sources within Apple and a knack for correctly predicting the company's next moves, is the answer to a question that has been haunting Apple watchers for the past month: What is "the Brick"?

The Brick, Weintraub says, is not a new Apple TV, a table-sized Mac, a wireless USB hub, a Windows-smashing software breakthrough -- or any of the other ideas put forward in the month of fevered speculation since Weintraub's 9-to-5 colleague Cleve Nettles first posed the question. (See Anatomy of an Apple rumor: "The Brick".)

What the Brick really is, according to Weintraub's sources, is a block of high-quality, aircraft grade aluminum out of which Apple's new laptops will be carved using robot-controlled lasers and high-powered jets of water in Jobs' new factory.

"It is totally revolutionary, a game changer," writes Weintraub. "One of the biggest Apple innovations in a decade." (link)

It may also be the answer to another mystery that has bedeviled Apple watchers -- the innovation that Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer, speaking at the last quarterly earnings conference call, warned analysts would cut deeply into Apple's near term operating margins but result in something that "Apple's competitors won't be able to match" for years to come. (See Apple teases with mysterious "product transition".)

Weintraub paints a picture, drawn heavily from a long piece in The Mac Observer by John Martellaro, a former NASA engineer and Apple manager, of a nonpolluting, energy-efficient, wind- or solar-power plant, built in the United States, that would free Apple of its dependence on Chinese manufacturers (and unpleasant Chinese labor conditions) and fulfill Steve Jobs' long-held dream of moving Apple both up and down the value chain -- building a legacy at Apple that could survive and prosper long after he is gone.

"An Apple factory (or two), in the right place," writes Marellaro, "costing several billions would be a worthy endeavor for Apple and its cash. It would achieve the grandest goals for Apple's technical future, make a contribution to the planet and its people's well being and help insure Apple's financial and political security." (link)

Marellaro concludes on a wistful note: "But, sigh, it's just an idea"

We'll find out soon enough how much of it is true.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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