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Griffin on Tech: A win for the right-to-repair movement

Peter Griffin, Editor. 19 November 2021, 11:42 am

After years of trying to keep its customers as far away from the insides of its devices as possible, Apple has relented, with plans to introduce Self Service Repair.

Form next year and starting in its home market, the US, Apple will allow customers to buy a range of 200 parts and tools to undertake their own repairs on the iPhone 12, iPhone 13 and eventually Mac computers that run the M1 processor.

The parts will be available for the same price as Apple sells them to authorised repair shops and Apple will issue a credit - the amount hasn't been specified yet, if you return the used part to them.

This is a great move and a win for the right-to-repair movement that has been gathering pace in the US. It means that for a simple repair, such as replacing a dying battery, a broken camera module, screen or case, you should be able to do the job yourself - if you have a little technical know-how and the right screwdriver.

Apple Self Repair

Earlier this year, my iMac literally fell off the back of a house mover's truck in Wellington. I was naturally furious, but the iMac actually survived. Sure, it's screen was smashed and the frame was warped, but it booted up, enabling me to get all of my data off it. The insurance company deemed it beyond repair and paid out for a full replacement. But if I'd have been able to order a new screen from Apple, I'd have been game for installing it myself. The computer had plenty of life left in it.

And that's the problem with our throw-away consumerist society. The business model for electronics is such that there's a very high threshold these days for repairing anything. The default option, whether it's a phone, TV, printer or microwave, is often to just junk it, or hopefully get a replacement under warranty or the Consumer Guarantees Act if it was a recent purchase.

The reality, as Apple itself admits, is that the vast majority of customers will continue to get their iPhone and iMac repaired by an authorised agent. The way devices are designed and built these days effectively makes them sealed units. That's great from a durability point of view, reducing the chances of water or dust getting into an iPhone. By opening the device to replace a component, you'd need to be sure that you can reseal it to make it as durable as it was when it originally came off the factory line. 

Screenshot 2021-11-18 at 5.28.23 PM.png

Worse for wear, but still alive - my trusty iMac after a fall in February

Apple will increasingly need to think about designing devices that are easier to dismantle and put back together. I'm wistfully thinking of the early days of computers, when I'd take the case off my 286 tower computer to replace the processor, add more RAM or a bigger fan to keep my overclocked gaming rig running cool during Counterstrike LAN parties.

We won't get that far, but if electronics makers can address the biggest failure points and upgrade requirements with self-repair services, it will encourage people to hold onto devices for longer, which is great for consumers and great for the environment.

But Apple seems to have jumped just before it was about to be pushed. The Federal Trade Commission had already been drafting right to repair legislation and in June, the New York state senate approved the first right to repair bill, before running out of time in its legislative calendar to pass it. Many other states are following New York's lead.

Apple deserves credit for being the first of the major consumer electronics makers to introduce a self-repair service like this. Other phone and computer makers who have emulated the sealed-unit designs of Apple need to follow suit.

After all, as Matt Stoller of the American Economic Liberties Project, pointed out this week: "This is just a basic protection of your property rights and your right to tinker so long as you're not harming anyone else. Manufacturers want everything to be a service so you don't own anything, so that you're beholden to them."

That needs to end and along with it the throwaway culture that is generating needless electronic waste and consumption of precious resources. 


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David Lane 19 November 2021, 5:28 pm

Good on Apple for jumping just before they were pushed. Well, sort of. I long for a time when corporations producing technology are responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, including 'disposal'. That should kill planned obsolescence biz models (which should be illegal).

The other question for Apple: so now people have the right to repair their hardware... that just leaves... the software? When will users be able to fix that themselves? Oddly enough, there's already a pretty massive global group of people offering that ability... :) (and Apple even benefits from it a lot, giving precious little back).

Nicholas Apperley 20 November 2021, 2:03 pm

Peter's comment on Apple being the first manufacturer to provide self repair isn't true. There are a few major manufacturers that have provided self repair for decades including Lenovo, Dell, and HP. Case in point it is common with Lenovo and ThinkPad branded laptops to have a Hardware Maintenance Manual, which provides in reasonable detail what parts a customer can replace, and how to replace them. Below is one of these documents for a consumer laptop:

Here is another one for a business laptop by contrast:

Saying that Apple is the leader when it comes to repairable products is absurd. Apple have always lagged behind in repair, and the fact that they had to be "prodded" to provide spare parts show this to be the case.

Paul Matthews 20 November 2021, 2:15 pm

Just to put Peter's comment in context, he was referring to phones and "all in one" computers, not general computing devices (which has been self-repair since day dot).

It's an interesting time though, with legislation being considered in several jurisdictions making this mandatory. Other phone manufacturers will likely have to follow suit.

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