It might not surprise you to learn that 89 percent of independent phone repair shops surveyed believe their business would be more successful if they had access to Apple and Samsung’s diagnostic and repair software.
What is surprising is the size of the impact those shops could have with an even playing field, according to the results of a survey by U.S. PIRG released today. The elevator version is that the majority of repair shops offer repairs Apple won’t take on for iPhones, that those repairs make up more than 40 percent of the repair shops’ work, and that the environmental impact of people buying new phones instead of keeping or fixing their phones can be measured in Empire State Buildings, or Boeing 747s.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reached 302 phone repair techs through iFixit’s Pro program, and asked them about the repairs they do, comparing them to the work that phone manufacturers typically make available—screens, batteries, cameras, and speakers.
Most of the independent repair shops fix those things, but an additional 49 percent offer water damage repair, and another 54 percent offer board-level repair (i.e. microsoldering) to their customers, whether in-house or mailed out. This work, supported by ready access to parts, schematics, and diagnostic software, could put a big dent in the 161 million new smartphones Americans purchase every year. It takes 23.7 million tons of raw material to supply that need—an Empire State Building of material every 6 days. If repair allowed Americans to hold onto their phones one year longer than their current 2-year average, it would be like taking 636,000 cars off the road, according to U.S. PIRG’s data.
The survey makes a point of noting that it’s not just parts or diagrams that hold back a repair, but private software locks and serialized parts that make repairs incomplete or discouraging for customers. The prime example is the software tools Apple only makes available to its licensed repair techs. Without the ability to hook up to Apple’s tools, replacements of screens, batteries, and home buttons can present warnings about genuine parts (in the case of an iPhone 11 screen), or, much worse, remove features such as battery health indicators and Touch ID security.
It’s an issue that’s crept up on us, the PIRG study suggests, as we’ve all slowly become accustomed to the way device makers treat us when we want to fix something, anything, inside the devices we own.
Thirty years ago, most of these aspects were standard. Spare parts were general, and available at electronics stores like Radio Shack, or in part catalogs, and often standardized. Instructions or diagrams were included in the manual, or available from the manufacturer without charge.xiii The tools needed were ones you would find in any reasonably stocked toolbox. The device would display any known errors prominently, and not conceal diagnostic information. There were no software locks against repair or installing new parts.
But modern device-makers design products in such a way that makes independent repair difficult. As products become more reliant on software, it creates new methods to limit repair
There are work-arounds for a lack of official parts and tools (hi!), and repair guides (hello!), but little right now could prevent manufacturers from making it nearly impossible to return a device to working condition without their encrypted, internet-connected blessing:
Software pairing allows manufacturers to eventually design products which are completely locked against independent replacement of any components. Even if there are instructions generated by the public and compatible parts, or parts salvaged from other devices, there will be no way to complete repairs outside of the manufacturers control besides breaking those locks.
You can download the full report at U.S. PIRG. If you think that maybe you’d like to help us fix things in full without the blessing of corporate software locks, you can get involved with the Right to Repair.