You Don’t Really Own Your Hardware: The War on Electronics Repair
The ways that companies like Apple try to extract more cash from their customer base are many. The notion of planned obsolescence is defined by the Oxford dictionary like so:
A policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.
The dictionary definition obviously doesn’t cover it all, but suffice it to say that releasing a new model every year with improvements only sufficient to make older models not capable of running updates is one good example. But getting customers to buy new hardware is not the only way to make more from them. You can also make it nearly impossible for the common person to repair their own stuff, so that they then either a) buy new hardware or b) bring it back to you for repair. The ways this is done are myriad, as Motherboard writer Jason Koebler notes in his recent report on the subject.
Koebler caught up with the CEO of iFixit, Kyle Wiens. iFixit is a company which has helped people repair their own hardware by developing tools to counterbalance the complicated designs that Apple has implemented. A particular gripe among consumers is the Pentalobe screw, a screw for which there are not widely available screwdrivers.
Koebler recounted how he personally discovered the Pentalobe after breaking his Macbook screen and deciding against the $600 Apple replacement plan, as well as the $500 independent
repairman replacement. He wanted to do it himself. In a bygone generation, this urge would have been commonplace. This is to say that it didn’t used to be the realm of “hardware hackers” to fix your own stuff. It was just smarter, since repair people value their time like anyone else and rightly charge fair labor rates.
Wiens told Koebler that Apple and other companies have been on a mission to eliminate consumer access to their own devices, from software to hardware. The DMCA has been used to make code virtually off-limits, and there’s not a lot that can be done about that at this point in history. But on the hardware side, the companies must find more creative ways to combat user creativity. Speaking of his company’s production of a consumer grade Pentalobe screwdriver, Wiens said:
That was the first screwdriver in the world outside of Apple that would remove the pentalobe screw. Apple was literally screwing their customers, and because we had a heads up, we were able to sell a screwdriver as soon as it came to the United States.
iFixit also offers other help to consumers, such as the ability to fix the red ring of death – a rather common occurrence for Xbox users. One has to wonder if it was always this way, and for the purpose of this investigation, we will focus on Apple.
Apple was not always the major conglomerate it is now. Without the help of countless retail outlets, third-party repair people, and even open source software (BSD is the basis for OS X, which can be seen as a major part of Apple’s resurgence), Apple may never have been a household name. The company didn’t open its first retail outlet until 2001, decades after its founding. Koebler notes that in 2010, Apple started with the Pentalope screws. Before that, it was mostly Philips and other industry-standard kit.
But Wiens doesn’t see it as merely a consumer rights issue. He also considers it an environmental one, in that many devices which don’t get fixed are destined for massive landfills in Africa and elsewhere. He believes that the people who live near these e-waste dumps are lacking crucial information on how to fix the wealth of electronics which have been dumped there. This is not to mention the mercury and other toxins which eventually seep out of dumped electronics, part of the reason there are special methods of disposing them in the West. Wiens said:
What’s really the problem is there are products that are complex and the manufacturers are sharing none of the information on how to fix them. You make a million printers, they’re used in a million different ways. At the end of their life, they also get thrown away or discarded in a million different ways. That’s the lever we can pull by teaching people to fix things. We had accidentally stumbled across the solution to a really big problem.
Apple and other companies employ numerous other methods to keep the repairmen at bay, including imprinting their logo everywhere they can in hopes that a judge will consider trademark infringement. But in the end, Apple doesn’t need to earn money this way, and as long as there are barriers, there will be tunnel diggers.
Chinese parts which cost a fraction of list price and do the job just as well abound. To further solidify their position, companies have begun making deals with phone carriers to have “leasing” programs as opposed to ownership. And given all the ways they seem to desire that people don’t work on their own stuff, it certainly seems they don’t believe it matters that you bought the product with the expectation of having ownership of it. For Apple posted record smashing profits this year and brought in more than 90% of all smart phone profits. So in their eyes, the status quo is working.
Featured image from Shutterstock. Additional images from iFixit.