Every week there are too many developments in the world of repair for any mere mortal to keep track of. Fortunately, the folks over at the Fight to Repair newsletter are here to help: recapping the most important repair news for iFixit readers. As a special offer, iFixit.com readers can claim a free, 60-day premium membership to the Fight to Repair newsletter. Visit fighttorepair.substack.com/ifixit.
Efforts to curb our addiction to buying (and trashing) electronics often focus on physical components. Parts and information are a key piece for making sure we can repair the physical components that make devices work, but due to its slippery nature, the role of software is often underrepresented.
Media outlets are quick to point out more flagrant examples of software fueling obsolescence. Whether its BMW’s heated seat subscriptions or Sonos’ remote near-bricking of its smart speakers, these are extreme examples of the controls that corporations maintain over the devices we own. But what about when software fuels obsolescence in less clear-cut ways?
Right to Repair Has Limits, Especially For Software
Software is being stuffed into anything and everything. Your car, your thermostat, your toaster—even your light bulbs— can be internet-connected, leading to a stunning average of 20.2 connected devices per U.S. household.
At the same time, product lifecycles are increasingly short as companies attempt to convince consumers to buy the next shiny piece of tech. Statista shows phone lifespans hovering around 2.5 years through 2027. Right to repair laws are expected to make these devices last longer as users get access to easier and cheaper repairs, but access to physical components and diagnosis information doesn’t address the issue of software support for these longer-lived devices.
Let’s take our friends at Apple as an example: right to repair laws such as those passed in New York State and, more recently, Minnesota will force the company to make parts and information available for phones and computers. However, it does not require Apple to support the software used by older devices. For example: the latest phone to officially have support revoked is the iPhone 6s which was released in 2015—less than eight years ago. And there are rumors that the iPhone 7, 8, and X—all of much more recent vintage—can no longer run the latest operating system updates. Without up-to-date software, users expose themselves to increased privacy risks, and more practically, lack of app support. That means consumers with perfectly functioning iPhones will be forced to ditch those devices because they are no longer able to use innumerable features. It may still make phone calls, but what’s the point of a smartphone that can’t run apps?
The same dynamic is playing out in thousands of public school districts, where fleets of Chromebooks purchased to facilitate remote learning during the COVID pandemic are expected to have software support cut off by manufacturers within the next two to three years. As a report by US PIRG noted, that could lead to a tsunami of e-waste, while simultaneously burdening cash-strapped school districts with the need to replace perfectly functional hardware—a tab totaling $1.8 billion.
Longevity vs. Security
In a perfect world, companies would offer consistent security updates for their internet-connected products. Regular software updates and patches can keep someone from stealing your financial information through your toaster or spying on you via nanny-cam.
As right to repair laws allow consumers and businesses to hold onto devices longer, the focus shifts from repairable hardware to ephemeral software. Both components are needed to keep devices useful. But, as with repair networks, software support costs companies money and, as it stands, manufacturers have few incentives to make that investment.
We wrote last week about our software-driven world eroding ownership, moving deeper into a subscription-based economy. One manifestation thereof is the growing trend of “renting” things we already own. However, subscriptions are one solution to maintaining support for older devices. And while savvier people are leaving Android and iOS to run their phones on open-source projects like GrapheneOS or Copperhead OS—ensuring they can receive updates—this won’t be the reality for most people.
The EU has taken up the software issue, proposing that OEMs offer at least three years of OS upgrades and five years of security updates to devices. With hardware support theoretically able to keep devices alive for 10 or even 20 years, it’s time we ask software to do the same. Whether the manufacturers provide it, or others are empowered to do so, right to repair has a new frontier.
Repair manuals and support documentation for devices used in a health care setting or procedure.View Device
- Massachusetts’ AG began enforcing an expanded auto repair law on June 1st, after the federal judge overseeing the case denied automakers’ last minute attempt to block enforcement. Passed by voters with a nearly 3:1 margin in November, 2020, the law has since been tied up in court and still awaits a decision by federal judge Douglas Woodlock. Massachusetts new Attorney General, Andrea Joy Campbell, signaled in April that she would begin enforcing the law on June 1, absent a court ruling invalidating it. Something that has, thus far, held true.
- California passes electronics legislation through senate: California Senator Susan Eggman’s “Right to Repair Act” (SB 244) passed a chamber vote on Tuesday with a 38-0 bipartisan vote, but still needs to pass the state assembly. The bill covers electronics and household appliances.
- Medical device repair debate: Medical device manufacturers are working hard to carve medical devices out of right to repair laws despite the ample evidence that constrained, monopolized medical device repair markets pose a public health risk. The pandemic put a spotlight on the issue, as hospitals struggled to bring ventilators out of storage to treat COVID patients, only to find authorized repair monopolies charging extortionate prices, or failing to scale to meet their needs.
- DIY repairers need identifiable parts: Majority of DIY repairers struggle to access the parts they need, highlighting the need for improved access to spare parts and repair instructions for greater sustainability and to combat planned obsolescence. A new study found that 83% of DIY repairers struggle to identify and find replacement parts, 30% facing this challenge most of the time. Even professionals face difficulties in accurately identifying parts.
- Quebec moves to ban planned obsolescence: With Bill 29, this proposed legislation is aimed at encouraging the durability, reparability and maintenance of the products we buy.
- Taiwan could implement repairability scores: Mirroring France’s repairability index, Taiwan could start rating products starting with smartphones and laptops, to minimize the environmental impacts of electronic devices.