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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?


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.”


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.”

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