When your car has problems, your instinct is probably to take it to a mechanic. But when something goes wrong with your smartphone — say a shattered screen or a depleted battery — you may wonder: “Is it time to buy a new one?”
That’s because even as our consumer electronics have become as vital as our cars, the idea of tech repair still hasn’t been sown into our collective consciousness. Studies have shown that when tech products begin to fail, most people are inclined to buy new things rather than fix their old ones.
“Repair is inconvenient and difficult, so people don’t seek it,” said Nathan Proctor, a director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, who is working on legislation to make tech repair more accessible. “Because people don’t expect to repair things, they replace things when by far the most logical thing to do is to repair it.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. More of us could maintain our tech products, as we do with cars, if it were more practical to do so. If we all had more access to the parts, instructions and tools to revive products, repairs would become simpler and less expensive.
This premise is at the heart of the “right to repair” act, a proposed piece of legislation that activists and tech companies have fought over for nearly a decade. Recently, right-to-repair supporters scored two major wins. In May, the Federal Trade Commission published a report explaining how tech companies were harming competition by restricting repairs. And recently, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that included a directive for the FTC to place limits on how tech manufacturers could restrict repairs.
The FTC is set to meet this week to discuss new policies about electronics repair. Here’s what you need to know about the fight over your right to fix gadgets.
What is the right-to-repair act?
The legislation, which was previously proposed in about two dozen states and is now being discussed on a federal level, would require tech and appliance manufacturers to provide the tools, instructions and parts necessary for anyone to fix their smartphones, tablets, computers and refrigerators, as well as other products.
That would be a major shift. Tech companies currently provide service tools and parts only to a network of officially approved partners, including big brands with service centers like Best Buy and some independent repair shops. These official partners typically follow strict rules, which include using genuine parts bought directly from the manufacturer, so costs to the customer may be higher than repairs done by unauthorized repair centers.
By making resources broadly available, the unofficial repair centers could more easily compete to drive costs down. And that would make repair a more compelling option than buying a new gadget.
Why should I care?
Tech products are among our most expensive household purchases, and their prices keep climbing. Not long ago, the price of a high-end smartphone was $650. Today, new Apple and Samsung phones start at $700 and $800.
The average household would save $330 a year if it repaired products rather than replaced them, which adds up to $40 billion nationwide, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
By prolonging the life of your gadgets, you would also put more use into the energy, metals, plastics and human labor invested in creating the product.
Why don’t more people repair their tech?
There are several barriers to repairing consumer electronics that can make it intimidating.
Basic repairs, like replacing a shattered screen or a depleted battery, are not simple. Modern gadgets are so thin and tightly glued together that special tools are usually needed to pry them open. It’s also not straightforward to buy genuine parts — you can’t go to the Apple or Samsung website to order a replacement screen or battery, for example.
Fixing basic components is also becoming increasingly impractical for unauthorized repair shops, especially with Apple phones. Many important parts inside newer iPhones, including cameras, batteries and screens, require proprietary software tools to finish the job, independent fixers said.
Going to the Apple and Microsoft retail stores and authorized repair shops is a simple option, but the costs there can be so high that you might be persuaded to just buy a new device. When I took my wife’s iPhone to an Apple Store this year, I was quoted $280 to replace a broken touch-screen, about 40% of the price of a new iPhone. I turned to another route instead.
Why won’t unauthorized fixers become authorized?
Independent fixers get access to tools, parts and instructions for repairs when they enroll in partnerships with tech companies to become authorized service centers. But Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which publishes free instruction manuals for people to restore their gadgets, said many independent fixers were turned off by the contractual terms to become authorized.
One requirement to be an authorized Apple repair center involves collecting detailed service records, including customer names, product serial numbers and mailing addresses. This information must be provided to Apple in the event of an audit to verify that repairs are being done properly. Even if a repair provider terminates its agreement with Apple, it must agree to continue to share this information with the company for two years.
There is also the issue of price. Shakeel Taiyab, an independent fixer in South San Francisco, said he charged lower prices to customers because he obtained authentic parts from channels such as electronics refurbishers who extract working components from defective gadgets. (He charged me $180 to fix my wife’s iPhone screen, undercutting the Apple store by $100.)
Taiyab said that if he became an authorized provider, he would follow the rules, which might result in raising prices for his customers — something he said he didn’t want to do.
Apple declined to comment. A spokesperson referred to a news release that said there were 1,500 authorized, independent repair centers across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Why are tech giants opposed to the right to repair?
Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google have contributed to lobbying efforts against the right-to-repair act. The most common argument is security — the idea that people with access to repair and diagnostics tools could perform illegitimate repairs and steal people’s data.
TechNet, a trade group that represents Apple, Google, Amazon and others, said opening up repair could put consumers in harm’s way.
“Allowing unvetted third parties with access to sensitive diagnostic information, software, tools and parts would jeopardize the safety of consumers’ devices and put consumers at risk for fraud,” Carl Holshouser, a TechNet executive, said in a statement.
But in its report, the FTC concluded that there was “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”
Why is it easier to service a car?
When your car breaks down, you can take it to a dealership’s service center or potentially get more affordable service at an independent mechanic. Broadly speaking, cars are more customizable with aftermarket parts, and basic maintenance and repair jobs like changing the oil or replacing a cracked windshield don’t require special software.
In 2012, Massachusetts enacted a right-to-repair law for automobiles, and automakers agreed to adopt the requirements of the law nationwide. After cars evolved to rely more heavily on computers, the legislation helped make special tools and instructions broadly available to independent mechanics for repairs.
“When your car breaks down, you know exactly what to do,” Proctor said. “You find a mechanic, you pay, and it’s back. If you don’t like your mechanic, you find another one. Or you could go to the dealer if you want.”
In other words, buying a new car is the last resort. And buying a new phone could become one, too.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.