Groups campaigning for electronics manufacturers to make it easier for people to repair their own devices scored a surprise victory when Apple promised to sell parts and tools for fixing iPhones
Apple made a surprise announcement in November that it would begin selling parts and tools so people could repair their own iPhones, and eventually other devices, assuming they have the know-how, rather than having to take them to a shop. The move was applauded by “Right to Repair” campaigners, who want all devices to be similarly easy to service – but electronics manufacturers still have a long way to go.
Many smartphones and laptops are being designed to make what should be simple repairs difficult or even impossible for anyone except manufacturers, say campaigners. The growing Right to Repair movement believes this shortens device lifespans and drives unnecessary consumption, and is demanding equal access to the parts, how-to guides and proprietary tools.
Manufacturers, including Apple, are still introducing new features that appear intended only to make repairs more difficult, says Kevin Purdy at iFixit, a company that sells spare parts and offers free how-to guides. Components that are glued together or require proprietary tools to remove are common and can often be overcome using third-party kits from such services, but a growing trend is for companies to add software-coded serial numbers to components, which alert the device to any unauthorised repairs.
“That means that anyone who puts replacement parts inside with a different serial number, genuine or third-party, will endure software warnings, reduced functionality, or sometimes outright failure to operate,” he says. “It’s past time we had the ability to fix the things we own.”
Apple didn’t respond to a request for interview, and Google declined. A Samsung spokesperson told New Scientist that its smartphones “use technical components and materials in a highly integrated and efficient manner. Naturally these components, as is the case for other advanced technology products in other sectors, may not be easily repaired by consumers in a way that preserves full functionality, safety and data security.”
Other manufacturers disagree. “The rapid technology innovation they want us to believe in is not there anymore,” says Miquel Ballester, co-founder of Fairphone, which aims to produce devices that avoid minerals mined in conflict zones, reject exploitative labour practices and are repairable and long-lasting as possible.
“The difference between smartphones from one year to the next is not big,” says Ballester. “A part of the market is realising that, that they can keep their devices a little longer.”
Law-makers are also coming around to the idea of longer-lived electronics. For example, European Union legislation that came into effect in July requires companies to sell commonly needed parts for each model for 10 years after its last sale.
Currently, this legislation only covers larger appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and televisions. Chloé Mikolajczak at Right to Repair, a campaign organisation representing 18 member groups in 18 European countries, says that this needs to change to include phones, tablets and other electronics. The average smartphone has a life of just three years according to the European Environmental Bureau, but campaigners believe that could be doubled, slashing carbon emissions from the sector.
Mikolajczak is hopeful that the EU will extend the legislation to cover other devices, but is concerned that it won’t come until 2023 or later, and still needs to be strengthened to prevent parts being priced high deliberately.
That aside, she believes that EU legislation has the potential to solve the “premature obsolescence” problem of technology worldwide. “Manufacturers aren’t going to start making one super-repairable printer or phone for Europe and then a whole other non-repairable one for the rest of the world,” she says.
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