Is it all a fix?

We live in an era of rapid technological development and ever increasing complexity of the products we use, but as technology is advancing it seems to be getting more and more locked down. Are companies making products harder to repair in the interest of consumer safety or out of corporate greed? Tech firms will insist that most consumers aren’t qualified to make high-quality and safe repairs, however DIYers feel they are being denied a basic right.

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do

Gone are the days when you would go to your local repair shop to fix your malfunctioning TV, these days you’re better off binning it and get a brand new one, preferably three inches larger than your neighbour’s. Today’s reality is that companies are increasingly locking down their products to others from making repairs, and at the same time are resisting legislation to enable third-party repair services, and it’s setting a worrying precedent. Many independent repair shops are being driven out of business due to lack of cooperation from manufactures in providing spares and repair documentation.

“Manufacturers keep restricting access to service documentation, parts, and software—which forces consumers into more expensive ‘manufacturer-authorized’ repairs and drives small repair shops out of business…” — Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit.com

In 2012 Nikon announced that they would no longer supply replacement components to anyone, instead all repairs would be made through their own repair service. As well as devastating the livelihoods of independent repair personnel, this move has made it more arduous for photographers to have their camera fixed. Nikon claims that their products are becoming too complex for unofficial repairs, however this claim seems ridiculous considering the repair website iFixit offers repair guides for over 90 separate Nikon products and counting!

Meanwhile large companies such as Apple are actively lobbying against right-to-repair laws and are known to deliberately disable phones that have been serviced by third parties. Apple have gone as far as creating bespoke tools for ‘in house’ repair, ensuring that other repairs remain sub-standard. Why? In order to add another type of built in obsolescence, to encourage you to buy a new phone every few years or succumb to artificially inflated repair costs. Apple may argue that third-party repairs are second-rate and dangerous, however many high quality services already exist and providing them with replacement components and proper documentation would only enhance their quality and safety.

From a utilitarian point of view, facilitating the repair of broken products makes perfect sense, it allows millions of consumers to save money, discourages a wasteful throw-away culture, creates independent jobs and prevents companies from forming a monopoly on repairs. Companies could benefit too, making a market from selling spare parts. Our culture’s shift away from repairing leads to massive amounts of waste, in fact 50 million tonnes of electronics waste is produced every year. Within that “waste” lies perfectly functioning parts as well as a huge amount of useful material including rare earth minerals, precious metals and, which are vital for the manufacture of all modern electronics yet supplies are rapidly being depleted. Recycling helps to recover some of these materials however it is predicted that only a pitiful 13% of e-waste generated each year is recycled. A much better solution would simply be to become a less wasteful society by repairing our electronic devices instead of replacing them.

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But do we really need repairs?

After stories of exploding phones swept the news, the importance of consumer safety throughout the lifetime of a product has been brought into sharp relief. Allowing an unrestricted flow of untested third party components and repairs could cause a deluge of dangerous goods to flood the consumer market. Why should an engineer be forced to allow their years of precision design work to be damaged and destroyed by penny pinching do-it-yourselfers?

Imagine the chaos if companies let everyone try to repair their products. While some people may be able to fix things perfectly, many of us would lack the necessary skills and would end up making the problem worse. If these inevitable damages had to be covered by warranties, then the total cost of our products would skyrocket to cover it. Should we all have to pay the cost to allow the chosen few to tear apart their phones?

We all love new tech innovations, whether it’s getting that extra 30 minutes on our phone battery or getting the latest lightweight laptop. If companies had to make more repairable devices, then it would either mean using more standardised components or releasing designs for their new breakthrough technology. Eliminating this competitive edge from innovation would not only make it more difficult for the companies to make a profit, but deprive us of any potentially revolutionary breakthroughs they could otherwise make.

But what about all the companies whose very existence relies on offering repairs of their own products? Rolls Royce PLC, for example, generates the majority of their income from repair contracts. If they could not guarantee customers would return for repairs, they would be unable operate and pay their almost 50,000 employees a suitable wage. And if companies can’t maintain this source of income, where is the incentive to make repairable devices in the first place?

More than ever, we rely on devices like our phones to perform everyday tasks, whether it’s paying for that vital morning coffee or snapchatting questionable photos. If we allowed third party repairs, who’s to say that the cheap repair shop on the corner isn’t adding extra bits into your phone to spy on you? Or hacking into your personal data to steal your credit card details? With all of the sensitive data we keep, trust in the people who carry out our repairs is paramount. While companies are under close scrutiny from the world’s media and law enforcement, smaller companies can operate unchecked. Would you really want to leave your security and privacy in their hands?

Living in a culture of yearly upgrade cycles and fashionable phones, right to repair is fighting against the inevitable. Focusing on recycling and reusing the endless rare earth metals contained in our tech is already a big target for manufacturers, with Apples Liam robot deconstructing 1.2 million iPhones a year. The idealist right to repairers may like the idea of lego smartphones, but how long until their demented dreams fall to pieces?

Group 74: Henry Gibson, Rahul Philip, James Wingham, Lewis Parsons

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14 thoughts on “Is it all a fix?

  1. I feel very strongly about this, after being charged £28 to get a quote from Sony for a battery replacement. They then had the cheek to put the estimate at £142! Money grabbing scammers.
    (please check my trustpilot review for more information if you’re desperately interested)

    The alternative was buying a third party battery for £10 and fitting it myself, which I obviously did. Is it dangerous? Possibly, as Sony refused to sell me a genuine Sony battery. However, if it’s made in the same factory, it’ll probably be fine.

    Manufacturers like Motorola have responded to consumer criticism by providing local dealers who are authorised to sell genuine Motorola replacement parts, or you can order online. Much like the car parts industry, the prices are inflated compared to aftermarket parts, but you can be assured quality, unlike aftermarket, which is a gamble. But at least you are given FREEDOM! We should do as all good consumers do, and vote with our feet. Pressure Apple (and the other industry fruits… are orange still around?) until they turn to juice and give us what we want! Grape expectations for the future… Oh vine, I’ll shut up wine-ing now. Just raisin peoples awareness.

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  2. I’m all for e-waste recycling but most of it would be sent to developing countries to be recycled (in order to reduce costs). Most of these countries do not have proper safety laws which would mean that the local people would be exposed to the harmful chemicals and waste produced during the recycling process. If the government of these countries and the tech companies worked together to come up with a solution for this issue, then not only does it benefit the environment but also the countries’ economy.

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  3. A thought provoking article! I’d not thought before of the security threat of handing over my malfunctioning phone to a smaller, perhaps unregulated, company. Would this encourage me to fix the phone myself? I doubt I’d be able to… A bowl of dry rice doesn’t seem to improve a scratched screen…

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  4. Companies want to make money and replacement parts do not generate a large amount of revenue. If someone is charged 1/4 price of the product for repair, the user may consider upgrading to a newer model which would provide them with a newer, more capable device. I would like to see companies investing more modular electronic devices with capability of easy repair along with ability to upgrade components rather than the whole device.

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  5. The technical complexity of many electronic products renders them unserviceable without specialist tools and skills irrespective of access to service documentation. That arises from miniaturisation, for example. In many cases, the cost of manufacture is lower than the cost of repair, so items are economically disposable even thought enthusiasts like to repair them.
    However, there is the issue of waste disposal and the amount of materials recovery taking place. As products change, so this becomes more of a concern. Consider the old fashioned light bulb – glass and some metal compared with a modern low energy or LED bulb with electronic components and plastics. Maybe there’s a need for a defined recycling system to be required for products from launch so that manufacturers consider the whole life-cycle, not just make and sell. At some point, resource limitations may well force this. A thought: would consumers prefer to buy products which are more recyclable and could this be a basis of differentiation that would allow a price margin?

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  6. First off, loved the font- very New york Timesey.
    I understand your point about companies wanting to keep their proprietry technology under wraps by not standardising, and the obvious competitive incentive-but I don’t understand why this is a good thing. Having a major war is brilliant for technological progress as well, it doesn’t mean that people should just go along with it.
    Fair enough that as specialists, engineers should be able to understand technology that the average citizen cannot, barring users from repairimg their own devices themselves or through third parties seems suspiciously like reinforcing corporate capitalism and all the wealth inequality that entails under the banner of convenience. Yes, perhaps Rolls Royce really is the best qualified to repair it’s own products, but is making everyone with a smartphone pay for a costly upgrade to a new device, thereby shifting more units, ethical? Or repairimg the existing one at not so different a price? It’s not inevitable that a small number of people in Southern California own most of the worlds wealth, why should it be inevitable that tech repair become a second monopoly for them.
    And they said that capitalism won the intellectual duels of the twentieth-century…But at what cost?
    WHAT COST?
    Your humble servant,

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  7. Interesting article, with some interesting points, having experienced trouble finding repairs for phones even by manufacturers a year after they were released, your article makes it feel as though I might need to look closer at the subject myself! Great read!!!

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  8. Component level repair at an electronic level is impossible now, and was in any case a hazy memory for all but a few. It’s as true for all electronics, be they cars or mobiles.

    There is much to commend the iFix it brigade, and even 15 years ago there was a lively market in Apple and Sony laptop scrap on eBay. A cannibalised Sony keyboard I purchased for a repair came with a couple of keys absent, and was resold to a chap in Ireland after I nicked a couple more. Sure I saw it reappear for sale again.

    These days I am more likely to buy a three-year warranty on a wheezing Apple laptop and dump it at the feet of one of Apple’s spotty geniuses, farming out the unreliability to the manufacturer.

    It’s a company purchase, so at the magic tax office write down period of three years (see what Apple did there….) it is recycled over eBay, the risk of component failure bought by the new owner.

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  9. A very interesting article. Having been dealing with expensive phone repairs and all the faff which comes along with that for the past couple of months it’s certainly a subject that has been on my mind.

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  10. Interesting points, the reason is most likely a combination. I agree with you that they want to keep repair costs high to encourage replacing them with the latest and greatest. But, I more lean towards the argument that electronic are harder to make repairable because the form factor in increasingly decreasing, so it’s not preferable compared to a thinner and lighter phone which needs replacing after your contract runs out.

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  11. An interesting article! To some extent companies such as Rolls Royce can push forward their service to repair all be it being a pricier option for the customer. Offering these repair contracts to companies offers a degree of confidence and piece of mind to not only extend the interaction at point of sale but to maintain and prolong the life cycle of their products. This can be seen as an ideal business model especially with industry.

    Tech companies seem to offer a different solution to their customers promoting consumerism allowing mass amounts of electrical waste with no long term plan to recycle their products. Sure companies such as apple have recycling incentives however this is not necessarily wide scale and can be seen as a intent to care but not necessarily enough to be effective. This should not be acceptable with the likes of apple as they are able to sell millions of their products but only now recycling opportunities are being made to reduce their impact on the environment. It may not even require companies to have recycling schemes, they could simply design a product to be easily recyclable and with there being a recycling facility that all intermediaries can send to recycle or simply having a recycling bin for electronics making it mandatory for households to have them.

    Tech companies need to approach this in a different manor, they should be looking at repair centres, allowing access to parts. It is not necessary to have a new iteration of a phone instead they should look at modularity which may not be a lego clip on clip off concept but to be able to have the same form factor but offer interchangeable parts such as camera, storage, memory which could be done as a package product instead of a new model of phone. Which makes you think having apple as a prime example, if they release a “s” model of the same phone design the year after a design change why do they have to change the connectors to prevent older model phones from being upgraded. Providing the new component sizes haven’t deviated much and can still fit in the same form factor I don’t see why we can’t upgrade say our iPhone 6 to a 6s with the opportunity for apple to sell the screen, logic board etc as a package upgrade for their employees to implement.

    All in all, Tech companies should approach this like Rolls Royce having fewer products released and providing a long term solutions to keep their products running. Since not everyone is handy at repairing their own products, repair centres is the best solution but companies should set lower repair costs and allow owners to buy parts to attempt to repair if they feel it is necessary.

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