You’ve bought a swanky new iPhone. Or maybe a high-end Tesla. A year or maybe two down the line you realise one part of your product is giving you a problem. The screen shatters on your phone due to a fall or your car handle gets damaged. The replacement process is now arduous and mostly monopathic. You can send the phone to Apple or an official Tesla Inc. repair shop. To save some money you decide to go in for a third-party repair. Now, here is where the problem comes in. Both Apple and Tesla Inc. are vehemently opposed to letting anyone else fix their products except themselves. A software update, which was later reversed, bricked several iPhones that had ‘third-party,’ ‘unsafe’ and ‘non-genuine parts’ inside them — aka the conglomerate had not addressed the issue themselves.
This is where the argument for the right to repair comes in. One would imagine, if we buy something, it is ours, right? I can do whatever I’d like with it since legally, I own it. This, however, is seldom the case. The manufacturers of products are adamant to agree with this. They believe that they should have sole control over the repair and/or refurbishment of products that they manufacture. In the year 2021, administrators in the USA and UK have both proposed bills that would skew in the favour of consumers, to allow them to have a right to repair their own products. Legislation could alter the dynamics of the industry forever and hence the administrations are moving with caution.
Right to repair is a global movement that has been burgeoning for quite some years. Recently, software and hardware limitations imposed on products after they have been sold have left users unable to repair their own products. This movement is not forcing manufacturers to fix products free of cost for the consumers after the warranty has voided. That is ludicrous. The main goal of this movement is to give consumers the choice — they should be allowed to repair their own products and face the consequences. For example, if someone breaks their phone’s screen while replacing its battery, it is on the — not the manufacturer. Which sounds fair enough. Companies are opposed to giving consumers this kind of freedom. Let us look at both sides of the argument.
● Consumers argue that since they have bought the product, they own it. What they choose to do with it is their lookout and should not be bogged down by the OEM.
● Repairability of certain products was a given not long back. Phones were shipped with removable batteries, cars with entire systems that could be changed. However, as the technology has advanced, so has tight integration. Changing a component yourself is now almost unheard of.
● Small businesses that capitalise on fixing and refurbishing old phones, laptops and other reusable electronics have also been badly affected by this limitation.
● Manufacturers claim that if they were to release their design plans in detail for the world, anyone can emulate their product. Years of research and development, as well as funds, are poured into a product before it is unveiled. If they were forced to release information of all the individual components, anyone could make a cheaper version of it and the original company would be at a major loss.
● The industry of in-house repair is a lucrative one. Apple will gladly sell you add-on insurance, in which, any damage done to the product is taken care of by apple. Similarly, if your phone falls and the display shatters, Apple will offer to fix it for you. If you don't get the insurance … well then out-of-pocket is very expensive. The business is a big part of how any OEM generates revenue even if sales of their products are not at an all-time high.
Right to repair is also based on sustainability goals of the environment. Due to capitalism and a need to boost revenue, we are often convinced that a product that is a few years old is now ‘ancient’ and needs to be ‘upgraded.’ Nowhere is this more evident than for electronics. Every year since 2000, the e-waste produced by humans has been on an exponential rise. So, the inability to repair an older item that gets damaged just pushed us to buy a newer and ‘better’ product.
Another issue is the non-availability of original components. Manufacturers contract out various contracts to other companies, but these companies have a contractual obligation to sell only to the manufacturers. So tomorrow, if you look for a ‘genuine’ or ‘original’ part, you simply won’t be able to buy it. And if you decide to buy a third-party component and do the repair yourself, well, then certain software detections will be able to tell and may completely brick if not severely cripple your product.
Let’s extend the iPhone example. Generally, Apple offers software support for up to five years for these phones. About two to three years in though, your battery may fail or need to be replaced. Now it’s a simple trade-off. Battery replacement at Apple will cost anywhere between Rupees 8 and 15 thousand depending on your locality, taxes and store. If you break the screen off your phone, that replacement costs even higher. And a new iPhone? You’ll probably be able to get a model with discounts at 60,000. So as a consumer, which one will you pick? Well … everyone likes new things, right?
Simple contractions that no one would expect are also facing the brunt of resistance to repair. Some farming equipment by companies like John Deere can only be fixed by certified repairmen and the tractors get software updates via USB! But, in rural areas. A breakdown can take days if not weeks to fix. And farmers are not allowed to fix the equipment themselves!
Tighter integration and regulation of hardware and software have aided the growth of new technologies, no doubt, but they have unknowingly also bogged down the ability to repair our own products. Manufacturers argue that an open-source platform will cut down on their revenues and ability to advance technology further. Either way, we are stuck in a vicious circle. What is the right thing to do? Well, that’s like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg!