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Consumer gadgets are getting harder to fix and that’s creating a disposable culture

CoPIRG and other advocates for ‘Right to Repair’ want to make it easier and affordable for Coloradans to get tech devices repaired

Old iPhones get ready to be recycled after consumers toss them because of broken screens or dead batteries. The Right to Repair movement wants manufacturers to make it easier to repair tech gadgets so consumers don't feel the only option is to upgrade. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Independent repair shop TechHub in Denver finds it harder to make a decent living fixing Macbooks, iPhones and other consumer electronics. 

As devices — looking at you iPhone — have become more technically complex, so has the ability to repair them. New tools, like the pentalobe screwdriver, were invented. Software locks were created partly to prevent users from using cheaper third-party parts. TechHub owner Dave Whalen, who says his time and cost to repair devices has increased, has had to double his prices and now limits Apple repairs to screens or battery replacement.  

“There’s adhesive (inside the iPhone), they do this to make it waterproof, you have to have a specialized heat gun to pry the case off and if you touch the wrong thing, it can brick the phone,” Whalen said. “Some of that I agree with. Technology is not going to stand still. The devices will get smaller and smaller and the technology will improve. But they’re blatantly changing this to force an upgrade instead of a repair.”

Colorado PIRG report, “What are Coloradans fixing?”

There’s a high-tech skirmish going on pitting major consumer electronic manufacturers against consumers, independent repair shops and environmental advocates fighting for what they call the Right to Repair. In a new report out Tuesday, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group criticizes the consumer electronics industry for making repairs difficult and creating a culture of disposable electronics. 

For their part, manufacturers say they have strict repair guidelines to protect trade secrets and ensure safety, security and reliability. But CoPIRG feels manufacturers could approach this differently.

“We need to move to a zero-waste system and we’re trying to emphasize that we don’t need to keep replacing things when something breaks,” said Allison Conwell, with CoPIRG. “In an ideal world, manufacturers would make their devices with repairability in mind. They would make the tools, parts and guides available for people who want to fix their stuff.”

More: Thousands of usable iPhones trashed by one Colorado firm because well-meaning donors forgot to turn off “Find my iPhone”

The threat of voiding a warranty if a customer opens up a device or the use of technology that makes a product unusable if consumers try to use cheaper third-party parts — as is the case with some ink cartridges for printers or coffee pods for coffee makers — has become a larger issue in recent years. 

Advocates for the right-to-repair movement point to some protection from the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a 1975 federal law to protect consumers from unfair or misleading disclaimers on warranties — like stickers on a device that say a warranty is voided if you remove this seal. Last year, the national arm of CoPIRG found that 45 out of 50 home-appliance companies would void the warranty due to independent repair.

The issue has become widespread enough that the Federal Trade Commission hosted a special Nixing the Fix workshop in July to discuss the effect of repair restrictions on consumers and small businesses. 

During the workshop, Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, which adovcates for right-to-repair legislation, pointed to a a Consumer Reports study that said if the cost of repairs is more than 50% of the replacement, then buy the replacement.

“And amazingly enough repairs are now roughly 50% or more of the cost to replace the device. It’s almost uniform. If a refrigerator’s $1,000, repairs are $500,” she said. “…And the holy grail of all of it is to send you to the showroom to buy another product.”

Manufacturers weren’t happy about the workshop. In public comments filed with the FTC, a letter signed by industry groups, including the Consumer Technology Association and the Entertainment Software Association, called the premise of the workshop and the description of industry practices “flawed.” They said their member companies invest in training, equipment and safety to make sure authorized repair shops do the job properly.

The letter said, “our members are not ‘Nixing the Fix,’ but instead have developed a variety of lifecycle support systems that are designed to ensure that customers can depend on those products to operate in a safe, secure, and reliable manner.”

According to CoPIRG, nearly 20 states (Colorado was not among them) considered some sort of right-to-repair legislation last year that would, for the most part, require companies to make repair guidelines available publicly. None passed. Apple, Microsoft and other tech companies reportedly lobbied against such bills. Microsoft and Apple did not comment about it for this story. 

Top devices Coloradans tried to fix on iFixit:

  1. Cell Phone
  2. Laptop
  3. Automobile
  4. Tablet
  5. Desktop Computer
  6. Gaming Console
  7. Wireless Speaker
  8. Vacuum
  9. Controller
  10. Clothing

Source: iFixit and Colorado Public Internet Research Group

CoPIRG worked on the report using data from iFixit, a website that provides instruction manuals and guides to fixing almost anything. Last year, 1.2 million Coloradans visited iFixit to figure out how to fix a variety of things, from laptops to clothing to cars. The very top query? How to replace an iPhone battery. Replacing the screen was the second highest.

The site has an instructive video and lots of pictures, including images of special tools needed to open up your iPhone. Apple, on the other hand, instructs owners to take it to an authorized service provider.

An Apple spokeswoman on Monday pointed to a new repair program the company announced in August that offers the same parts, tools, manuals and diagnostics to independent repair shops that have Apple-certified technicians.  

“When a repair is needed, a customer should have confidence the repair is done right. We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested,” Apple’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams said in a press release.

The two repairs are the only Apple-related repairs that TechHub still offers. Because of the changes in Apple’s technology and the difficulty to repair the devices, Whalen said he’s probably only doing about 25% of the business he used to (he said he now survives on consulting and tech-support services.)

Whalen said he understands a tech manufacturer’s need to continue growing its revenues, protect trade secrets and ensure the process is safe. He just wants to be able to repair the electronic devices he owns — and those of his customers.

There’s a solution, he added.

“Then make those parts easier to access and replace,” he said. “The moment the weakest parts go bad, they want you to replace the device. Manufacturers have done this for hundreds of years, only recently did they put these shields on. These are not for consumer protection. You need to design the components (that need to be replaced) to make them easily accessible, the same way your car battery is right up in front.”


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