Can you repair modern laptops, smartphones and other gadgets independently of the original manufacturer?
You drop your expensive, premium smartphone and the screen shatters. Your child shuts the lid of their laptop with a pencil inside and crushes the display panel. The USB charging port of your portable games console has been working loose over time and your workaround of applying pressure to the charging cable to make the connection does not work anymore.
You consult the device manufacturer who tells you that the device can’t be repaired. Third party repair shops offer to help, but can only use “compatible” lower-quality parts as the device manufacturer does not make replacement parts available. Because our electronic equipment cannot be repaired, we tend to throw it in the bin, and this is a significant problem. A report in 2020 by the Global E-waste Monitor estimated that the world discarded over 53 million tons of so-called “e-waste” in 2019.
To address the problem of E-waste generation, the European Union enacted “right to repair” laws in 2019 – ratified by the UK in 2021 – that require manufacturers to make spare parts available to third parties. However, these laws have significant gaps because they were designed to mainly cover so-called “white goods” – equipment such as refrigerators and washing machines that usually are white in colour. Even when the wording of the law covers “electronic displays”, this is meant to cover televisions and not technologically similar items such as smartphones and laptops.
One of the biggest targets for criticism is Apple. Apple started selling its high-end laptops with “Retina” displays in 2012, but has not made replacement screens available to third parties despite it being one of the most fragile parts of a laptop. A further issue with Apple’s computer products is that circuit board-level components such as system controller chips can fail. Again, it is impossible to purchase replacement chips directly.
The problem can be solved by recycling suitable parts from donor boards from similar computers that are broken, but this undermines the theft deterrence aspect of Apple’s iCloud locking system, which requires authentication from the “legitimate” owner.
The problems with incompatibility when swapping parts between similar iPhones is best illustrated by the following examples. You would imagine that you could swap parts between identical iPhone 12 smartphones and each phone would continue working normally.
Certain camera features such as panorama and portrait mode stop working, and battery health reporting as well as “True Tone”, which automatically adjusts the colour of the display, are disabled. Similarly, swapping the main logic boards between two identical iPhone 13 Pro models disables the cinematic front-facing camera feature and automatic screen brightness function. With both iPhone versions the biometric Face ID system stops working, but this can be excused, as it is a security feature of Apple’s biometric authentication system.
However, the problems do not stop there: the operating system software of the iPhone complains they are “non-genuine Apple parts” even though the exchanged parts are genuine because they came from a similar iPhone.
Perhaps most galling is the replacement of phone batteries, which, by Apple’s own admission, are consumable items needing replacement at some stage during a phone’s life. In recent iPhones some parts are “software locked” to a particular phone. This software, which Apple does not make available to third parties, frustrates attempts by non-Apple repairers to replace the battery, screen, and other parts of the phone.
Added to these software locks are challenges such as the strong adhesive used to fix the screens to the phone chassis and the proprietary screws that hold the internals together that make getting into the phones very difficult.
Competitors and right to repair
What about Apple’s rivals? The situation is somewhat mixed: parts for HP, Lenovo, and Dell laptops are far easier to come by, and these computers are relatively easy to repair. However, for other popular models such as the Microsoft Surface Pro, it is both difficult to find parts and difficult to repair even if you could.
Samsung’s recent Galaxy S20 smartphone does not employ the same “component pairing” tricks as Apple’s recent models, but it is still glued together in a way that makes opening the phone to perform repairs difficult. At least Samsung does sell replacement parts to smartphone repair businesses.
Developments in the US
The “right to repair” movement has gained most momentum in the United States, starting with the Massachusetts “Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right To Repair” law passed in 2012. This was a response to the increasing use of computers and software systems on motor vehicles and the “de facto” outcome that it enabled vehicle manufacturers to control the effectiveness of third party repairers.
This led to the founding of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition in July 2013, which lobbies for further state and federal “right to repair” laws in the US. In November 2021, Apple announced that it would allow third parties to purchase parts and tools to repair certain iPhones from early 2022 however details on this programme are still eagerly anticipated. Apple has only acknowledged that it will extend to the most recent MacBook models and will only cover displays, cameras, and batteries, leaving owners of older MacBooks out in the cold.
In response to pressure from shareholders, Microsoft committed to expanding repair options for its devices and recently posted a “teardown” video for its Surface SE laptop targeted at schools and colleges, showing how to take the device apart – a useful first step in reparability.
The Biden government issued an executive order in 2021 to stop companies blocking agricultural equipment owners’ rights to repair after tractor manufacturer John Deere attempted to prevent third parties from performing repairs that touched on their tractors’ software.
Future of the right to repair movement
The recent moves by Apple and Microsoft suggest pressure is building and that the future of the movement looks bright. Independent repair shops may be able to repair older devices, avoiding them ending up as e-waste and their owners no longer propelled in the direction of expensive upgrades to the latest model.
It seems that companies like Apple want your technology to break so you have to buy the next model, and this just feeds into a consumerist model. We should have the right to repair our devices, but today’s world seems more occupied with getting the latest model and upgrading.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏