AS NEW LAWS ARE PROPOSED TO LET CONSUMERS REPAIR THEIR OWN TECH PURCHASES, MANUFACTURERS REDOUBLE THEIR EFFORTS TO PREVENT IT, FINDS STEWART MITCHELL
Companies are actively trying to block products being repaired
Lay down your screwdrivers. That’s the message from the tech industry, despite efforts to make it easier for consumers to repair their own kit. With lawmakers in the US threatening to legislate a right to repair, the tech firms are fighting a rearguard action. And they’re fighting dirty.
Apple, for example, is suing independent repair shops that import spare parts to repair customers’ iPhones. Meanwhile, sources tell us the company is increasingly stamping its logo onto internal cables and devices to make it easier to spot refurbished parts and punish offenders.
LG, on the other hand, is attempting to block a right to repair on the grounds that independent engineers don’t have the “extensive background checks” and “drugs screening” that its own staff are subject to.
Is this the behaviour of an increasingly desperate industry fighting its last stand, or will it continue to make repairs nigh on impossible?
FIXING THE FIXERS
Environmental campaigners say manufacturers make it intentionally difficult for individuals and independent repair shops to find parts, and are designing devices in a way that makes repairs impractical.
“Apple and Microsoft are good examples, and they also happen to be two of the biggest players in the market,” said Mauro Anastasio, resource efficiency spokesperson for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an umbrella body for 140 environmental groups.
“They actively discourage repair in a number of ways, like not making spare parts available and issuing software updates that aren’t compatible with older models. They make key components impossible to replace and will not provide repair information.”
According to Anastasio, “when a company makes a product that’s difficult to repair, consumers are more likely to buy a new one when it breaks. That’s a fact.”
“Whether it’s a motivation or not, only the companies can tell,” he said.
Batteries that are impossible to replace are a prime case of designing kit that’s designed to fail within a finite period. “It’s crazy,” said Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, which provides information and tools to aid with repairs. “If you buy a laptop it should last longer than a 500-cycle battery. It’s guaranteed to fail in everything. Any other failure is accident or wear and tear, but the battery always goes. It’s a consumable like tyres on a car and you wouldn’t buy a car where you can’t change the tyres.”
The process of making repair easier isn’t limited to batteries, though. “Across the board, the parts are not supplied in any official way to third-party repairers,” said Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project, which runs workshops where consumers can take defunct hardware and try to repair it themselves under the watchful eye of experienced engineers. “The manufacturers are not trying to encourage repairs and instead are trying to control everything and reduce the chances that people will repair.”
iFixit’s Wiens agrees. “In order to repair something, you have to have a product that can be repaired, then you have to have parts information and know-how to do the repairs,” he said. “On the other side you have Apple, which is systematically trying to lock down every aspect of the system that it possibly can.”
JAILED FOR REPAIRING?
The difficulties facing repair and recycling companies trying to prolong the life of tech is perhaps best summed up by a legal case in which a recycling company’s founder was recently sentenced to 15 months in jail for counterfeiting Microsoft restore discs.
Eric Lundgren built up a US recycling company and said he was trying to improve the opportunities for repair shops to breathe life into old machines, which already had a licensed version of Windows installed. He believed that, because the software could be downloaded by users with an original product code, it could also be distributed as a disc. The judge disagreed and put a value of $25 on each disc, which is the price that Microsoft would have charged a repair shop for a fresh install.
Lundgren says that charging small repair companies for an operating system that’s already been paid for once is unlikely to keep hardware from landfill. “Microsoft built this Registered Refurbisher Program to doublecharge customers,” Lundgren claims.
“Specifically, it wants to charge you for a licence multiple times on the same computer. This would eliminate the ability to refurbish most of the lower-end laptops and PCs in the world as it is simply not economically feasible for older, functional computers.” Microsoft says the programmes it runs see millions of PCs recycled.
iFixit’s Wiens says the case highlights how manufacturers have all the power. “What you see when you step back from this is a system that’s stacked in favour of the manufacturers,” said Wiens. “They have the lawyers, they have the customs, the copyright and the trademarks are theirs, and these poor repair shops are being strangled by the system.”