Self-repair programs are not a true victory of reform

Apple iPhone right to repair shows iphone and oneplus 9 pro with screwdriver set

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Samsung and Google made headlines last week after announcing that they would follow in Apple’s footsteps with their own self-repair programs and sell smartphone components directly to end users. Even better, the two companies have partnered with iFixit – a reputable source for repair manuals and smartphone parts. While this may seem like a victory for the Right to Reform movement, the unfortunate truth is that these programs are not as user-centric as they appear on the surface.

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Replace, Not Repair: A Flawed and Expensive Strategy

MacBook keyboard replacement repair

One of the most important aspects of repairability is easy access to key components of a device—particularly those that are prone to failure such as the charging port or battery. However, many modern electronic devices are not simply designed to be easily serviceable.

Case in point: Most Samsung smartphones, including the Galaxy S22 series, are shipped with batteries affixed to the display case. Although this is not an uncommon practice per se, almost every smartphone manufacturer includes a pull tab or two for easy removal.

Without pull marks, however, safely removing your smartphone battery requires copious amounts of isopropyl alcohol to soften the adhesive. Lithium-ion batteries don’t react well to physical stress (think again of the Galaxy Note 7 disaster), so staring carelessly can be very dangerous.

Samsung sells replacement batteries along with supply kits, which causes higher repair costs and additional electronic waste.

Samsung may realize that it does not expect all of its users to safely replace the battery. So what did the company decide to do? Replacement batteries are not sold as part of a self-repair program. Alternatively, you can purchase a complete screen assembly with a sticker battery. Needless to say, this greatly inflates the cost of repair, especially on flagship models with high-end screens. Many users would rather buy a new device than pay hundreds of dollars for a perfectly working screen replacement.

It’s not just Samsung that makes devices with a limited scope for repair. Every MacBook in recent memory used screws to secure the keyboard to the bottom chassis. Most other laptops use screws instead. In practice, replacing a MacBook keyboard is nearly impossible—it requires either unreasonable amounts of brute force (pictured above) or meticulous methods to remove each individual rivet.

Replacing a MacBook keyboard takes so much time and effort that even Apple won’t. The company’s repair policy is to replace the entire lower half of the laptop, which also includes a brand new trackpad and battery installed. If your MacBook’s warranty runs out, replacing the top cover can cost you hundreds of dollars, possibly more than the machine is worth. The same will likely be true for parts sold through the upcoming self-repair program.

Despite all the claims of sustainability, the reality is that we are still dealing with deliberate anti-reform design choices.

Despite all the claims of sustainability we’ve heard from manufacturers over the years, the truth is that we’re still grappling with deliberate anti-reform design choices. And, as you might expect, the practice extends far beyond the two examples or even the companies listed here.

Read more: Should we tolerate hard-to-repair devices?

Securing hardware and serial software

Google Pixel 6 Pro fingerprint sensor with light bleeding

Rita El Khoury / Android Authority

Serial hardware is another worrying trend where self-repair software likely won’t affect much, if not at all. In short, sequencing refers to the practice of pairing displays, batteries, cameras, motherboards, and other components from a factory. In many cases, only authorized repair centers have the ability to pair new hardware with devices, essentially restricting users from swapping in their replacement parts.

The practice of sequencing components severely restricts who can and cannot repair a device.

While user safety is often cited as a common reason for serialization, it has always been a rather weak argument. Fortunately, public backlash has forced companies to disable software locks on several occasions, as recently as last year. However, manufacturers can easily bring them back because the hardware is already in every device.

Although serial hardware may not seem like much of a problem, keep in mind that many repairs involve using donor hardware rather than brand-new replacement parts. After all, many discarded devices still have perfectly functioning batteries, charging ports, and motherboards that can be fixed for future repairs. This type of repair can be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. However, it is clearly not possible if each component is locked to a specific device.

The self-repair program will require manufacturers to release their pairing programs to the general public. The Pixel 6 already has such a system for calibrating the fingerprint sensor, but it hasn’t worked for several months at this point. Moreover, there is nothing to stop other manufacturers from imposing restrictions while technically allowing a small number of users to make repairs.

Google’s fingerprint sensor calibration tool for the Pixel 6 was broken months ago. Thus, access to replaced hardware alone does not guarantee repair.

For example, access to a software tool can be locked unless the customer proves that they have purchased a spare part from an authorized source. In fact, this is already happening now. According to iFixit, Apple-certified technicians use cloud-based software to check replacement part serial numbers and sync them with Apple servers.

It is worth considering the extent to which this practice has been invented. If your car needs repair, you usually don’t have to think about buying a “genuine” part, and you don’t usually have to use proprietary software connected to the internet just to pair a new battery or tire assembly on your car. There is absolutely no reason why we should not keep our personal electronic devices on the same level.

See also: Android phones must have a special repair mode

Self-repair for some, but not for everyone

Right iphone repair iphone snapshot overview and tools

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Even if you’re willing to put up with all the hurdles mentioned above, none of the self-repair programs we’ve seen so far seem particularly comprehensive.

Apple’s program will include 200 parts for the iPhone 12 and 13 series. But what if you own an old device or an iPhone SE? Based on what we know so far, you won’t be able to access the parts until later. The company has offered only a vague commitment to extending the software’s reach to Macs and other products, but no one is guessing when that will happen. And even though it’s been nearly six months since the initial announcement, you still can’t buy anything.

We saw: Apple’s Self-Repair Program sets standards for Android device manufacturers

Samsung’s software is somehow more restrictive. The company will initially sell parts for the Galaxy S20, S21, and Tab S7 family of devices only. This is not a very long list, especially since Samsung releases dozens of smartphones and tablets every year.

Google appears to be doing a bit better than either company in this regard, pledging to provide parts and support back to the Pixel 2 series from 2017. However, it’s unclear if that commitment extends to mid-range devices like the Pixel 5a.

It is unclear why these programs support so few devices and are only available in a few markets.

Availability is another potential concern. Google has stated that it will provide parts in most Western markets. However, Apple’s self-repair program will only launch in the US initially. And while Samsung didn’t specify availability, its press release notes a similar focus in North America as well.

It’s unclear why so few devices are supported by these programs and not available in more regions. While some will blame logistical obstacles or supply constraints, manufacturers already have parts on hand to not only assemble new machines but also service machines located in official repair centers around the world. Additionally, iFixit already has a ready distribution channel for aftermarket parts and tools, so it’s not something brands need to build from scratch.

Related: Here’s why we see all our self-repair phone services

Does self-repair help to repair movement?

clorseup removable battery

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

While everything we’ve discussed so far points to a painful future for the electronics repair industry, there may be a silver lining to this whole situation.

After years of apathy, the tech giants have finally succumbed to the pressures of the Right to Reform movement. Regulators around the world are also considering legal intervention and may end up forcing manufacturers to abandon anti-repair practices such as sticky batteries. The European Parliament recently voted to ban non-replaceable battery packs. The move could force Samsung and other smartphone manufacturers to finally change their product designs and embrace true repairability.

What do you think of self-repair programs from Google, Samsung, and Apple?

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