Repairability is longevity. A device that can be repaired over and over again can be made to last. Which is why I am enormously pleased to hear Apple’s recent announcement that they are going to help users repair their own devices, and provide official parts.
Whatever your brand of smartphone, tablet or computer, it will eventually go wrong. When it does you’ll either have to repair it or replace it, and the choice will probably be down to cost. If the cost of repair is more expensive than the replacement, then the world has just gained another item of e-waste.
These days most people no longer replace their smartphones at regular intervals. Even fewer people replace tablets or laptops regularly. In fact the most common driver for replacement is that an old device has been broken or become unusable in some way.
Phones are fiddly to repair
There are several factors which make phones difficult to service. Firstly, most phones these days have some degree of waterproofing, which means cases have to be sealed shut to prevent water getting in. Generally screws or other fasteners are ineffective long-term at maintaining tightness against a seal, so most manufacturers glue their phones shut. That makes them very difficult to open back up again.
Secondly, phones are made to be as small and lightweight as possible. Generally a manufacturer will therefore opt to solder components onto a single circuit board, meaning that if one thing goes, the whole lot has to be replaced. Charging ports, for example, often break through wear and tear, and for some phones that means having to replace most of its guts.
…But some devices are deliberately difficult anyway
Some manufacturers go further than this, and actively prevent devices from being repaired. After all, if you have to buy a replacement, or if the manufacturer is the only one who can perform a repair, then that’s money in their pocket, right?
Microsoft and Apple have historically been particularly bad at this. The Microsoft Surface Laptop, for example, earned a historic zero repairability rating from experts iFixit. It is impossible to open without breaking, making it essentially disposable.
Given that a laptop computer doesn’t have the same waterproofing requirements or size limitations as a phone, this is appalling. There is no good reason for it.
And Apple has ploughed significant amounts of research into how to make your device untouchable except by their self-declared Geniuses. For example, like any battery, the one in your MacBook will eventually degrade and need replacing. When it does you’ll find that it’s stuck down – entirely unnecessarily – with insanely strong adhesive. If you try to unstick it, you’ll take out the trackpad and much of the case. That glue is unlike any other, and deliberately designed for the purpose of preventing user serviceability. Just like the proprietary screws on the case.
…Which is what makes Apple’s U-turn all the more surprising, and very welcome indeed. In the last few weeks they have announced that they will publish repair manuals for iPhones 12 and 13, and will make available parts for those phones. Suddenly we have Apple devices which can be repaired cost effectively, meaning less unnecessary waste.
This is an enormous step forward, and has rightly been praised by consumer rights organisations and right-to-repair campaigners. Some questions do remain, which will only be answered after the programme launches. Chief among them is, which devices will this extend to, and will this new attitude inform future design principles? It’s in every consumer’s interest for it to do so.
The manufacturers who always did it right
Some manufacturers have always been good at repairability. Dell is a great example of a manufacturer whose devices can be easily opened with standard tools and exhibit very few “gotchas” whilst working on them.
The Dutch manufacturer Fairphone has built a phone which is entirely modular and user serviceable. If you break the camera, for example, you can just open it up and replace it with a new one for about £50. You can even upgrade: when a newer and better camera becomes available, you can usually swap it into your phone with minimal effort.
In summary, I very much hope that the tide is turning against unrepairable devices. That can only be good for the environment and good for consumers’ pockets.
Given Apple’s clout in the marketplace, and their newfound leadership in this area, I’m watching their next moves with anticipation. And bravo to all the campaigners who have fought tirelessly to keep this issue on the agenda. It’s great to see these results.