October 23, 2021

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Why Big Tech should embrace the ‘right to repair’ revolution

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On the face of it, the Framework laptop I’ve been using for the past week is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a sturdy, stylish machine that runs on Windows and borrows its look from the Apple MacBook.

And yet, it’s one of the most ambitious tech products of recent years. And the fact it feels like the stirring of a revolution is a sign of how far we’ve let things fall.

Because there’s something in the Framework box Apple would never include: a screwdriver. Unlike almost every piece of tech I’ve ever bought, this laptop is begging to be taken apart, tinkered with and, above all, kept for as long as possible.

With products designed to be repaired, not discarded, Framework is taking a bet on shifting attitudes towards what “ownership” of our devices really means.

Think of it as the “Trigger’s broom” of laptops. Like the Only Fools and Horses character’s 20-year-old sweeper — “This old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time” — you can separate every component part and upgrade or replace as necessary. 

Removing five screws on the laptop’s underside reveals a full array of guts — a battery, motherboard, hard drive, memory, the trackpad, speakers and more.

A lack of repairability is now being understood for what it is: another expression of corporate power

QR codes on the components help you identify what exactly you are looking at, and scanning each of them with your phone brings you to a website that explains how you can safely remove it — as well as options to upgrade, replace or sell it.

“A consumer should be able to configure their product to meet exactly what they want it to do,” says Nirav Patel, Framework’s CEO, who previously worked on the Oculus VR headset, acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2bn. “And then if their needs change, they should be able to change the product to meet that.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook saying those same words? Impossible. Like most personal laptops, MacBook components are soldered together and not intended to be accessible to users.

This pushes people to replace entire devices when only one part — say, the battery — is causing an issue. Is it Apple’s problem alone? Absolutely not, though the company is routinely given the worst repairability ratings by independent sites such as iFixIt.

The impact of this approach on the environment is growing. A UN report published last year said we’re on track to produce 74.7 million tonnes of e-waste globally by 2030 — a doubling over the prior 16 years. “This makes it the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream,” wrote UN researcher Vanessa Forti.

In the US, the “right to repair” debate has become part of the Biden administration’s aggressive campaign to rein in the power of Big Tech and, it should be said, Big Agriculture.

Equipment maker John Deere has a reputation of being the Apple of tractors — farmers want to be able to fix these computers-on-wheels themselves. A lack of repairability is now being understood for what it is: another expression of corporate power.

In a recent policy statement, the US Federal Trade Commission acknowledged that repairability had not been a priority in the past, but that it absolutely would be now. 

Among the backers of “right to repair” legislation is Steve “Woz” Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple. “We wouldn’t have had an Apple had I not grown up in a very open-technology world,” he said, referencing the company’s early beginnings within the Homebrew Computing Club, a Menlo Park-based band of hobbyists who would dismantle and rebuild computers. 

These days, companies say the locking down of their devices is in the pursuit of making things thinner and lighter and that it provides safety from bad repairs. But we live in an era where most of the devices we own are thin and light enough. It has been achieved.

“I don’t think that people necessarily wanted thin at the expense of durability and repairability,” says Kevin Purdy, an iFixIt writer and right-to-repair advocate. “Did anyone really say, ‘I’d rather pay $1,500 and replace this in two years, than have to carry around an extra 0.6 ounces’?”

Still, even if Apple ends up being forced to make its products easier to repair, it is unlikely it would go as far as Framework. Another question is whether consumers even want such a device.

Past efforts at highly customisable, or “modular”, devices — such as Google’s ill-fated Project Ara phone — have failed. Apple’s one-time motto, “It just works”, is a powerful one. To which Purdy says Framework’s gear “doesn’t have to be a laptop that everybody can fix themselves. It doesn’t matter who’s fixing it, as long as someone can.”

Dave Lee is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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