26-11-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Apple announced that it will provide parts, equipment, and instructions to allow anyone to repair their main products, including the iPhone and the Mac. What exactly will Apple be providing customers, why is this a major win for the “right to repair” movement, and how does the right to repair devices help the environment?
Apple, famous for many products, including the Apple I, Apple II, the Macintosh, and the iPhone, goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that its brand is untarnished and only associated with sleek artistic products. Despite the brilliance of their products, they are also known for their extremely anti-competitive practices concerning repair.
For example, some of their products introduce minor changes with new versions that don’t necessarily add functionality but instead prevent newer devices from being repaired using components from older versions. To make it more difficult to repair modern electronics, Apple seldom allows independent repair shops to purchase genuine Apple parts, such as semiconductors, that only cost a few cents each. In these circumstances, Apple will frequently perform an entire PCB replacement for many hundreds of pounds.
Despite many customers asking for more affordable repairs, Apple has always insisted that repairs are only carried out by Apple-approved repair centres. However, to the amazement and shock of many, Apple has announced that it will now allow customers to repair their own devices.
The new service, called Self Service Repair, will provide customers with the parts, tools, and instructions to perform repairs. These repairs can include screen replacement, camera replacement, and battery replacement, arguably the three most significant areas for device repair.
By providing customers with genuine Apple parts, Apple can ensure that they only use authorised parts while also providing a more cost-effective solution to device owners. Furthermore, supplying Apple parts also ensures that the operating system doesn’t behave unexpectedly, as many iPhone owners have experienced using third-party screens that do not include a chip needed to utilise FaceID.
While the “right to repair” movement as we know it today may have only been around for a decade or two, its roots go way back to when products were bulky, discrete, and primarily mechanical. A good example of this is the automotive industry before the use of electronics and modern design.
Cars would be manufactured from individual parts that could be removed, serviced, and placed back in. While this would require a large degree of effort (depending on the part being replaced), just about every part in a car could be purchased from repair shops. Fast-forward to modern vehicles, and many parts in a vehicle are now integrated into a single unit that can make the repair virtually impossible without the right tools, while parts can be extraordinarily hard to obtain. Furthermore, the mass integration of electronics makes cars far more complex than they used to be. Trying to debug an electronics issue is far beyond most car owners requiring special automotive computers to interface with the CAN bus.
Modern electronics suffer from the same problem; past electronics were often built with discrete components that could all be purchased off the shelf, but modern electronics are highly integrated devices that are extremely difficult to repair. Furthermore, the mass use of firmware also prevents many repairs as pre-programmed chips are virtually impossible to get.
Fundamentally, the right-to-repair movement wants to see companies that offer electronic products also offer repair documentation and parts and give customers the right to perform such repairs. This doesn’t mean that manufacturers are expected to hand over schematics or copies of their firmware. Still, they would be expected to provide customers with the same services that their own in-house repair facilities offer.
Apple providing self-repair services is a major win for those advocating the right to repair because Apple has historically been opposed to the movement while never showing signs that it would ever adopt the idea of customers repairing their own devices. If Apple can be persuaded to allow customer repairs, then other companies will most likely follow suit.
Giving customers the right to repair their devices is more than just providing cheaper repairs; it could provide major benefits to the environment, consumerism, and product design.
Before the 20th century, products were manufactured to last, and their owners would almost always take care of them. For example, tools would be produced to a high degree of quality, and these tools would find their way down generations of families (I still have my grandfather’s vice, which is dated 1908 and still does the job). The same would apply to large machinery powered by steam, and some of these machines are still operational today.
However, the introduction of mass production, consumerism, and rapid technological advancements has seen electronic devices produced in unimaginable quantities that are used for a few years and then replaced when a newer version comes out. Many blame society for this, but this is an unfair accusation to make as technology moves faster than we can invent, meaning that the moment the computer is finally designed, it is already outdated.
But the large number of devices ending up in landfills is not suitable for society and the environment in general. Manufacturing new devices require large-scale mining operations to get precious metals (gold, silver, platinum, and palladium). Dumping perfectly usable electronics into landfills can often destroy the environment while dumping into landfills can see toxic chemicals leak into the ground. This e-waste is often shipped to third-world countries whose environmental practices are virtually non-existent, meaning that local populations can be left devastated.
The right to repair could help breathe new life into devices and extend their lifespan by a few more years. While this may not seem like much, a few extra years for devices with a lifespan of 5 years could be half the amount of e-waste being produced. Manufacturers recognising that customers prefer products that can be upgraded may also be able to capitalise on this by producing products with future upgrades in mind (such as the Framework Laptop).
Overall, Apple allowing customers to repair their devices and giving them access to key resources is a major win for the right to repair movement. This could be the tipping point that starts to see manufacturers give in to the environmental and social concerns of repairability in electronics.