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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Countering The Throwaway Mentality With The Right To Repair – Part 2

 
February 25th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

Last week, in Part 1, I ended the blog by saying that if you can’t fix something, you don’t own it. I still stand by that statement. This week will continue the discussion for those of us who want some control over the devices we own and use and not the vice versa.

Just a couple weeks ago, Bloomberg columnist, Adam Minter, asked in an article he wrote, “Why Can’t You Repair an iPhone?”

In the article, he says, “Imagine if Ford remotely disabled the engine on your new F-150 pickup because you chose to have the door locks fixed at a corner garage rather than a dealership. Sound absurd? Not if you’re Apple.

Since 2014, the world’s most profitable smartphone company has — without warning — permanently disabled some iPhones that had their home buttons replaced by repair shops in the course of fixing a shattered screen. Phones that underwent the same repair at Apple service centers, meanwhile, have continued working just fine.

The message seems clear, at least to the multibillion-dollar independent repair industry: Your phone is yours until you decide to get it fixed. Then it’s Apple’s.

Apple says it was merely trying to keep the iPhones “secure,” and that “Error 53” — the code that pops up after the company bricks a unit — is meant to ensure that nobody messes with the phone’s fingerprint sensor. Whatever the intent, the company now finds itself amid a PR and legal debacle that could upend the lucrative business of servicing gadgets worldwide.

As discussed last week, that’s not a unique business model, of course. For decades, auto manufacturers and dealerships have done their best to undermine independent garages by limiting access to original parts and diagnostic tools. The results, in both industries, are predictable: Repair shops have to turn away willing customers, and consumers lose the benefits of free competition, notably lower prices and more convenience.

Needless to say, Apple could fix this problem on its own. It could offer tools and spare parts to independent shops at market rates, form an association with its competitors to encourage information sharing, and even push for a certification standard to ensure quality repairs. Doing so would not be in Apple’s DNA, of course. But it might ease public outrage, mollify newly attentive regulators, appease customers at a time when sales are slipping, and — not incidentally — forestall a wave of class-action lawsuits.

You Deserve the Right to Repair Your Stuff

There’s a lot at stake for companies that find they must rely on OEMs for everything, potentially cutting out roles once filled by VARs and specialized repair outfits.

The Ancient Romans had an adage, freely translated from Latin as “let the buyer beware.” In no uncertain terms, it implied that once you bought something, it was yours – including whatever troubles that might bring. However, nowadays, the act of purchasing something (software and electronics in particular) is encumbered by layers of legalese, which often means that you don’t really own what you just bought — at least not in the sense that most people are accustomed to.

That has direct implications on the extent to which the “owner” is legally permitted to modify or repair a product and it is true for both consumers and for businesses. It is a situation that has prompted multiple groups to rally around a concept called the “digital right to repair.”

“Repair is not a sexy topic but when people can’t get things fixed, it is a problem,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition. Her own interest in the topic began, she explains, when she was working in the large scale enterprise IT leasing business. She says part of the challenge that sector experienced was the steady change in how manufacturers operated. “It used to be that IBM mainframes were open to tinkering – you could change memory, reconfigure them, keep them going, or trade them for parts – until IBM made that impossible,” she says.

Byrne says she was personally motivated to get involved in right to repair because she was selling a database product for the IT service industry and saw a substantial part of her prospect base disappear after Sun was acquired by Oracle and many of the existing terms and conditions affecting Sun products were altered, shortening their service life.

iFixit’s Kyle Wiens sums things by saying, “I think that if you bought it, you own it. I mean really own it. You have the right to take it apart, mod it, repair it, tap dance in the code, or hook it up to your personal brand of Arduino kung-fu.

But if you want the right to tinker, you’ll have to start fighting for it. Fight for your right to mod and make. Fight for your right to repair. Fight for your right to own your own things.”

I couldn’t agree more. This is an important issue for all of us as the products we buy and use get more complex and cloistered.

Like last week, feel free to weigh in on how you feel about the Right To Repair. Contact me at jeff@ibsystems.com or 719.221-1867.

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One Response to “Countering The Throwaway Mentality With The Right To Repair – Part 2”

  1. Dennis Nagy says:

    What Apple and others are doing is creating/instituting another class of consumer. “Buying” an iPhone means, to Apple, that the consumer is buying the perpetual right to use it for “its intended purpose,” but that doesn’t include any rights to repair/tinker with it or let any 3rd party do it for you. The intended purpose is phoning and connecting to the internet to download/use apps that are compatible with the iOS. The vendors of this new class of product use just need to make that clear when you “buy the right to use” and let the consumer decide if that’s sufficient access for the price.

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