Chances are, if you’re reading this, you will be doing so on a smartphone, a computer screen or a tablet. You know how to type in the web page address, to navigate the search engine and the website. You can update, download, program, customize and track the functions of your smart device, but how much do you know about its hardware and what to do when things go wrong?
Monopolizing the tech repair market
When your phone slips out of your back pocket into the toilet, when your touchscreen no longer functions and when your laptop battery explodes, bending the entire keyboard into a small cone shape (true story) you curse and begin searching for a reputable repair service. In most cases this will be a licensed repair centre where you will present your damaged goods, knowing with almost certainty that the result will be expensive and if you’re no longer within the warranty period. Even if you are, it’s often the case that the company will hand over a brand new device to you, claiming the old one is too expensive to fix. Additionally, the company will discourage you from approaching your local repair store, suggesting that non-licensed replacement parts may jeopardize the functionality of the device. In reality, many large electronics companies fear that third-party repair dealers threaten the integrity of device blueprints, intellectual property and compromise trade secrets. As most of us have no idea about what actually exists under the exterior of our devices, we accept this response unquestioningly.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. There are movements around the world addressing the right to repair and empowering consumers to better understand the products they own and how to repair them.
The right to repair
When her toddler first flushed a brand new iPhone down the toilet, Jessa Jones tried in vain to save it via the age old method of submerging it in rice. When that failed, she opened up the back and consulted iFixit, a free online repair manual. Realising she would have to take more drastic measures and she taught herself how to microsolder and two years later, repaired the logic board. With this new knowledge, Jessa founded iPadRehab, an online service for those who had been told their phone was beyond repair, recovering precious photos and data and breathing fresh life into devices which would otherwise be e-waste.
In 2015 iPadRehab launched on Youtube, sharing important information about how to repair your device, improve battery life and guard against unnecessary updates which may slow down older models. iPadRehab is one of hundreds of Youtube channels dedicated to assisting consumers to repair and improve the life of their smart devices and electronics, independently of the manufacturer.
Due to the frustration of people like Jessa, in 2013 the Repair Organization was formed in the US, advocating for consumers to have the right to repair, including transparent information about the products they own, fair access to parts and tools, and for manufacturers to design products with repair and replacement in mind.
The lobbying efforts of groups such as the Repair Organization may be slowly paying off. In August 2019, Apple announced that it would provide official support to third-party repair dealers for the first time, including a free Apple certification. Apple also claims that parts will be available at the same prices and quality as you would pay at the Genius Bar.
Designed to last?
But why does it even matter whether we can fix our old phones and tablets, when there are cheaper and faster models being released every year? It comes down to sustainability, ethics and consumer rights. You might already be aware of concepts such as ‘planned obsolescence’, where manufacturers deliberately limit the life-span and durability of a product to encourage consumers to upgrade. And we should all care about this because it is an issue that affects everyone with an electronic device. We have all experienced the frustration of slow and crashing applications following an upgrade, something which Apple has admitted to programming into its system. Other companies like Samsung are also accused of using similar tactics to slow down current models in order to prompt customers to buy more and increase sales.
This kind of corporate greed and manipulation should be disturbing for all consumers. Add to this reports of poor working conditions at the point of manufacture, the climate footprint from mining, chemicals and transport, as well as the incredible amount of e-waste generated. We won’t even get into corporate tax avoidance. In short, it’s easy to see the benefits of taking care of, and repairing, what you already have.
What can you do?
Vote with your wallet! Even though our lives are so entangled with technology, as consumers, we still have control over where we spend. For instance, supporting your local independent phone repair store benefits your local economy, prolongs the life of your device and will most likely save you coin. When you do need to upgrade, consider these options:
- If something goes wrong and you’re semi-confident with tinkering around yourself, you could try following a Youtube instructional video or repair blog such as iPadRehab and iFixit (or the many others!) They are also handy places to check out if you’re concerned about the speed or functionality of an older device. Sometimes these things can be reversed and sanity restored.
- Find a reputable second hand dealer where you can buy a refurbished device for a fraction of the price of a new one. If you really must upgrade, you can also trade in or sell your old model and they will sell it on to a new customer.
- Repairing and prolonging the life of smartphones is the philosophy behind the Fairphone, now in its third iteration. The designers created the hardware to be upgraded and replaced. Parts and tools can be ordered and installed by the customer and the phone itself is made from recycled and fairtrade materials, put together by workers earning a decent wage.
- When your device has finally and completely kicked the bucket, don’t put it in a drawer and forget about it, recycle it! There are precious metals and parts which can be salvaged and repurposed.