If you buy a fridge for $500 and it breaks outside of warranty, how much are you willing to pay to get it fixed before buying a new one? $200? $300? Maybe even $400? And, if you were to choose to repair, would the parts you need even be available to buy?
It’s a scenario posed by Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a wiki-based platform encouraging people to share their technical knowledge (and repair manuals) with others. Kyle’s been a vocal advocate of the ‘right to repair’: a movement to dismantle the stranglehold that giant tech companies have over the repair of electronic gadgets.
What’s the problem?
According to Kyle, we’ve reached a point where tech manufacturers can control the whole repair process by making it difficult or expensive to go down the DIY route – giving a small list of approved technicians tools, parts and know-how that aren’t available to the public. And instead of letting non-approved people fix devices, manufacturers often let products fall into planned obsolescence.
However, new legislation, approved in the UK, EU and being addressed in the US (read the whole Federal Trade Commission report here), seeks to put a stop to this – thereby extending product lifespans and reducing our estimated 54 million metric tons of e-waste a year. Companies like Apple and Google have (unsurprisingly) opposed the new rules, which effectively make buying a new product a last resort.
Justin Millman is co-owner of Cell Mechanic in Westbury, New York, which repairs devices like Chromebooks and iPads for schools to give to students. He says the status quo with Apple, in particular, is ‘beyond ridiculous’. For one of his clients, if the motherboards of MacBook Pros are beyond repair, the whole device is totally useless: ‘Changing the motherboard means the unit has a new serial number, and the school literally cannot enter a device serial into the management software unless it is purchased through Apple. So it has to throw the whole computer away.’
The big fix
So, are there new opportunities for small businesses? Consider Kyle’s fridge scenario. Paying $500 for a new fridge would benefit the tech manufacturer above others along its global supply chain. But spending $200 to $400 on parts and labor instead would go straight to repair stores and benefit local community through keeping people in skilled jobs. ‘Do I want to spend money on employing people overseas to make stuff that’s disposable and will end up in landfill?’ Kyle asks. ‘A repair economy is always going to create a more vibrant local culture than a linear manufacturing economy.’
Are we likely to see neighborhood repair stores return? New legislation should give indie repair shops the same access to equipment, parts and documentation as the manufacturers’ authorized providers – something that has kept many mom-and-pop stores out of business for a long time. ‘I think there’s no reason we can't go back to every town having at least one repair option,’ Justin says.
What’s the impact on smaller tech manufacturers? Giving people the tools and know-how to fix their products could increase loyalty as customers opt to stick with the same brands for longer. Plus, you might need to factor in new revenue streams for making parts available to the public, Kyle highlights. And, as for new businesses just starting out, repairs and parts sales can be baked into their business models from the off.