I run iFixit, an online repair community dedicated to helping people fix their things. As manufacturers have rolled out mechanisms to artificially force people to replace their products more often, we’ve been fighting back. Through a conjunction of open source activism and political pressure, we’re beginning to reset the damage done over the last few decades to consumer expectations and manufacturer behavior.
More and more policymakers are hearing the call to protect repair. Legislators in 27 U.S. states introduced right-to-repair legislation last year. The bills passed the Senate in New York and Arkansas but did not make it over the finish line, setting the stage for a lively fight across the nation this year. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission performed the landmark investigation, “Nixing the Fix,” detailing the problem and coming to the conclusion that “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” President Biden followed up with an executive order aiming to “make it easier and cheaper to repair items you own by limiting manufacturers from barring self- or third-party repairs of their products.”
The fight has gone international. France has rolled out a repairability rating system, scoring products based on availability of spare parts and access to information. In Australia, car manufacturers must make parts, tools, and information available to independent repair shops. The Australian government is reviewing a report on electronics repair restrictions, with some legislation likely to follow. And a Canadian right-to-repair bill passed one chamber of their legislature unanimously in 2021. 2022 should be a banner year for right to repair legislation.
Challenge One: Parts
One of the biggest hurdles in securing our right to repair is making sure that spare parts are available for independent repair shops and DIY fixers. In 2012, Nikon cut off the parts supply to their retailers. Canon has taken similar measures, effectively ending local camera repair in the United States. Where once you could order parts directly from manufacturers, now we rely on a network of online retailers and eBay sellers often importing parts directly from Shenzhen.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Motorola has started selling parts directly to consumers (disclosure: via iFixit), and startups Fairphone and Framework have built their business models partially on selling parts. Most notably, Apple announced in November that they would start selling parts directly to customers, as well as making the software available to pair serialized parts to the device. After two decades of fighting repairers at every turn, it’s hard to trust Apple, so we will be watching closely.
Challenge Two: Exclusivity
Many parts shouldn’t have to come directly from the OEM — they’re not actually making the components anyway. Modern manufacturing is more like integrating, where “manufacturers” buy parts from a variety of suppliers.
But there we run into another trap laid by manufacturer legal teams: exclusive contracts. The legal term for this is exclusive dealing: In exchange for a commitment to buy a large number of parts, suppliers give up their autonomy and agree not to sell to anyone else. Frequently, my parts purchasing team is told that they cannot buy parts without permission from the manufacturer. Another tactic that Apple is notorious for is asking manufacturers to make a slight change to a retail version of their product and then restricting it from sale. This has been a major thorn in the side of circuit board–level repairers like Louis Rossmann, who are forced to turn to donor boards rather than new parts supply chains.
Challenge Three: Know-how
I started iFixit because the service manual that I needed to fix my iBook had been removed from the internet by Apple’s crack intellectual property legal team. They scour the web for unauthorized copies of this must-have repair documentation and threaten legal action of $150,000 per infringement and up to 3 years in prison if you don’t censor the information. Apple’s not alone. Toshiba’s legal team went after Tim Hicks, a young Australian who hosts a tremendously useful website, Future Proof, that hosts hundreds of laptop service manuals. Without the resources to defend himself, Hicks removed the manuals. (iFixit has since crowdsourced open source manuals to replace them.)
Schematics, critical for board–level repairs, used to be available for everything from TVs to the Apple II. No longer. Nowadays, professional fixers rely on OpenBoardView and Chinese tools like ZXW, a $79 software tool that includes reverse-engineered schematics for hundreds of smartphones. But the market is limited to devices where the schematic has been fully decoded and published.
iFixit is well on our way to creating a free repair manual for everything, with over 75,000 how-to guides online and more being added all the time. And we may have help from the manufacturers to get this done. Apple announced that they will be publicly releasing the iPhone’s service manual for the first time, and Framework is sharing schematics directly with repair shops.
Voluntary measures only go so far, however. Once right-to-repair laws pass, you should expect a baseline of public service information available for every electronic device.
Challenge Four: Tools
I make a living selling specialized screwdrivers like Nintendo’s GameBit and Apple’s Pentalobe. There’s even an oval screw used in high-end coffee machines. Violating my best interest, I’ll say it: Knock it off, product designers. We have enough fasteners in the world already.
Look at manufacturer service manuals (and the tools hinted at in Apple’s recent announcement) and you’ll find a surfeit of specialty repair fixtures. These tools are more akin to the jigs used in manufacturing than the kind of tools you’d want in your toolbox. Heavy, bulky, and often designed for a single device’s form factor, these specialized tools are expensive and wasteful. They’re the result of a combination of fine tolerances and a desire for reproducible perfection, but they leave repairs out of the realm of the typical maker.
What we need instead are general-purpose tools that address a wide range of product designs. Repairs do not need to achieve the same tolerances as factory manufacturing.
Challenge Five: Design
The iPod pioneered a design trend that we’ve seen spread, first to other media players, then to the iPhone, then to every single other phone in the world. The Maker’s Bill of Rights, drafted by Mister Jalopy way back in 2005, reads like a point-by-point counter to the iPod. “Cases shall be easy to open” — the iPod’s case snaps together, and opening it is rather akin to shucking an oyster. “Screws better than glues” — we’ve had to engineer a whole suite of specialty tools to remove adhesive, from suction cups to heat application tools.
What was rare is now the norm. When it debuted, we gave Microsoft’s Surface Laptop our first ever zero out of 10 repair score. The battery was welded inside the case, and replacing it was not possible without destroying the laptop. Fortunately, Microsoft has seen the error of their ways. They redesigned the Surface Laptop (it now earns a five!) without compromising their industrial design, and agreed to a shareholder proposal to “Expand the availability of certain parts and repair documentation beyond Microsoft’s Authorized Service Provider network.”
Ever since the iPod, we’ve been operating without a baseline of support from product manufacturers. No parts, no information, and tinkerer-hostile designs. That is starting to change. As companies grudgingly start sharing and participating in the repair economy, it’s going to be up to all of us to guide them.