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Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios. — John Prine

For Earth Day 2010, iFixit.com has announced an ambitious goal: To teach every person on Earth how to fix each thing they own. To that end, iFixit has expanded their wiki-like platform for online repair manuals beyond the Apple product line. In this interview, Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, talks about developing an appreciation for repair and tapping into the expertise of DIY communities who share what they know how to do. It’s about learning how to care for things that are broken instead of throwing them away.

iphone.standard Earth Day 2010: Caring for things

Don’t you hate when that happens!

Dale Dougherty: What do you think will make more people *want* to repair things?

Kyle Wiens: Repairing things yourself is almost always cheaper than replacement, so convincing people that repair is a good thing actually isn’t that hard. The tricky thing is convincing them that they can do it. So I think the biggest thing we can do is to make repair as easy as possible, and accessible to as many people as we can. We’ve found that providing people with step-by-step photo instructions ahead of time makes all the difference in the world. Rather than saying “I don’t know if I could ever fix my iPod,” they look at the photos and say “Oh, is that all it takes? I can do that!”

We need to get back to the days when repair was something we took for granted. When my dad was growing up, it was commonplace for people to maintain their own cars. People don’t tinker with cars as much anymore, and that’s a shame. This is partly because our culture doesn’t value things as much, and partly because cars are much more complicated now.

Fortunately, technology can make it easier for us to fix things. Tinkerers worldwide are connected now better than ever before, and we are planning to collaborate with them to write a free, open repair manual. Our hope is that comprehensive, easy to follow service documentation will make repair accessible so that people will be excited about making their things last longer.DD: It’s hard to repair things even when you *want* to do it yourself. Do you think products are designed without repair in mind?

KW: I think that really varies by manufacturer, and can even change over time. The original iPhone was definitely not designed with serviceability in mind, but the new iPhone 3G definitely is. In this case, Apple made it more serviceable to reduce their warranty costs. But it’s clear that ease of repair is not most designer’s primary concern. The shift to non-user replaceable batteries is a particularly nefarious trend.

I’ve talked with some manufacturers of low-cost electronics that don’t even bother writing a service manual for their own internal use, because they don’t fix devices sent back for warranty! They just ship out a replacement and scrap the old one. So I’m concerned that serviceability is not prioritized by designers.

That’s not true for all companies, however. I’ve spoken with Dell’s design team, and they send all their designers to an electronics recycler once a year! The designers disassemble the machines they designed, as well as their competitor’s hardware. They take the lessons they learn, both mistakes and things that worked surprisingly well, and work to make the next generation of devices easier to disassemble. The results speak for themselves — Dell’s hardware lasts longer and is widely regarded as being easier to service than most PCs.

DD: Consumer electronics are especially difficult to repair. And they also become obsolete in a year or two, so you need the newest version. Is that going to change?

KW: Consumers should consider total cost of ownership when they purchase a device. How long will it last you? How expensive are repairs? It’s interesting — people factor this into car purchases. Asian cars have historically been considered more reliable and easier to repair. Whether or not this is still true, it impacts the perceived value and increases the used value of the car. Electronics are the same way.

The more difficult a repair is, the more it’s going to cost to repair. The original iPhone was an absolute bear to service and replacement screens were almost impossible to come by, so the device had a lot less total value to consumers than an iPhone 3G where you can replace the display if (when?) you break it.

DD: I own an espresso machine (Rancilio Silvia) and I’ve been able to find replacement parts and good instructions on how to fix and modify the machine. It’s very satisfying to know you can do it yourself. Can you give me an example of a device that’s easy to repair and one in the same category that’s not?

KW: Most commodity, low-end Nokia cell phones are easy to repair. These phones are stalwart communicators in the developing world, and replacement components and repair protocols are widely available. That keeps the cost of the device down and lessens the price gap between new and used phones. In contrast, many of the new smartphones from RIM and Apple are much more difficult to maintain and expensive to repair.

We’ve definitely seen devices getting more difficult to repair over time. Digital cameras are harder to maintain than film cameras. We just put up a repair manual for an old Polaroid camera, and it is dead-simple to service. Of course, thanks to our good friend Murphy, the easier it is to service the less likely it is to break!

DD: Can you give me some examples of the different kinds of repair manuals you have?

KW: Replacing the hard drive in an iBook G4 12″ is a unique task that needs very specific instructions. Repairing a headphone cable applies to a wide variety of hardware. Here’s a manual on how to repair a jammed optical drive.

We’re even working on instructions about tools: Constructing a Capacitor Discharge Tool.

We have community-contributed instructions for Fixing the brakes on a Dodge Caravan.

We’ve also got a thriving community of people creating teardowns (which are like a preview of a repair manual). Here’s a teardown of a Sony Transistor Radio.

sonytransistor.large Earth Day 2010: Caring for things

An iFixit.com image of a Sony Transistor Radio teardown.

We are looking for people who love tinkering and fixing things to join us and share what they know with the world.

What have you repaired recently? What would you like to repair more easily?

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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