The era of repairing your own phone is almost here

When I called Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, I thought he was celebrating — after years of fighting over the right to repair, big-name companies like Google and Samsung have suddenly agreed to provide replacement parts for their phones. Not only that, they signed contracts with him sell those parts through iFixit along with the company’s repair guides and tools. So does Valve.

But Wiens says he’s not done making deals yet. “There are more coming,” he says, one in a few months. (No, it’s not Apple.) Motorola was actually the first company to sign up nearly four years ago. And if Apple meaningfully joins them in offering spare parts to consumers — as it promised through early 2022 — the era of repairing your own phone could finally be here.

Last October, the United States made it legal to open many devices for repair with an exception under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The required parts are now arriving.

What has changed? Didn’t these companies fight tooth and nail to keep the right to repair off the table, sometimes surreptitiously stopping bills at the last minute? For sure. But some laws do get through… and one French law in particular may have been the turning point.

“What changes the game more than anything else is the French repairability scorecard,” says Wiens, referring to a 2021 law that will require tech companies to measure the repairability of their phones — on a scale of 0.0 to 10 ,0 – right next to their price tag to be revealed. Even Apple was forced to add repairability scores — but Wiens directs me to this press release from Samsung instead. When Samsung commissioned a study to see whether the French repairability scores were meaningful, it not only found the scorecards handy — it found them amazing 80 percent of respondents would be willing to give up their favorite brand for a more highly rated product.

The repairability rating is visible at the bottom right of the product page.
Screenshot: Apple.com

“Extensive studies have been done on the scorecard and it works,” says Wiens. “It’s driving behavior, it’s changing how consumers buy.”

Stick, meet carrot. Wiens suggests seeing an opportunity that prompted these companies to turn to iFixit for the deal.

Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair Campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), still thinks the cane is primarily due credit. “It feels cheeky to say 100 percent … but none of that happens unless there’s a threat of legislation.”

“These companies have long known there were problems, and until we built up enough clout to make it seem inevitable, none of the big companies had particularly good repair programs, and now they’re all announcing,” notes Proctor. He reminds me that the European Parliament just voted 509 to 3 to ask the EU to force manufacturers to make devices more repairable.

“I think there’s a growing realization and resignation that phones last longer and there’s nothing they can do about it,” says Wiens.

Google could also have a financial incentive, Proctor concedes. “Google is a huge, huge company, but their Pixel phone sales aren’t a huge chunk of the market, are they? Part of the carrot is that they can do something about a really popular antitrust and antimonopoly issue in an area where they are not the dominant player.”

What about the practical reasons tech companies have historically blocked the right to repair, concerns about consumers accidentally punctured their batteries or broken phones, and forced companies like Google or Samsung to handle more support calls? Wiens says they’re a bit exaggerated. But he also claims that these companies chose iFixit because its website offers repair guides and specially designed tools that reduce the likelihood of people making mistakes.

Samsung, Google, and even Valve aren’t necessarily opening the floodgates to any sort of repair, mind you. Wiens says iFixit will not sell boards with chips. So if your Pixel has the kind of infamous bootloop problem that has plagued many Nexus phones, you still need to fix Google. “[Boards are] definitely something to look at, but there are supply chain challenges in making these products,” he says.

Google Pixel alongside iFixit tools.
Image: iFixit

Importantly, the most common parts should actually be included in iFixit’s new part caches, like official screens and batteries, and iFixit says it’s committed to supporting phones even if they stock “last chance” components must when the factories stop making them. While it’s difficult to predict how many of these components they’ll need, manufacturers are helping some by sharing data with iFixit, e.g. B. how many phones they sold.

According to Wiens, iFixit already has hundreds of thousands of parts in an external warehouse and is currently expanding as a result of these deals. Wiens won’t say if tech companies will subsidize the parts or how much you’ll pay, but iFixit says it has to buy them and will sell them at a premium.

While you don’t necessarily need officially approved parts for every type of repair, there seem to be some benefits: iFixit’s repair kits come with the same type of pre-cut waterproof gaskets that Google and Samsung use to properly reseal their own phones . “As long as you do it right, get the seal all the way around, then you’re good again,” says Wiens.

He says it’s something more people should probably do every year or two – since the glue manufacturers use to waterproof their devices wears out over time. “You do your first test in the shower and you’re happy with it, but that doesn’t mean it still works in the shower three months later,” he adds.

Whether these companies are pushed or led, the result could be the same: an era where your aging, good-enough phone can stay good-enough for far longer than it otherwise might. Politicians, governments, regulators, shareholders and interest groups like the US PIRG are exerting pressure, and this could also create opportunities.

“If the market changed and people stuck with phones a lot longer… eventually companies would change and they would find a way to make more money in that environment, right?” says Proctor, suggesting that a long-lived one Phone could be another way to get customers to stay. “I’m just encouraged that these incentives are now a little bit more focused on what’s better for the people of the planet.”

I expect tech companies will continue to somewhat resist the right to repair, even as they profess to accept it. (We’ve seen this from Apple before, and Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment about its self-service repair program this week.) There are plenty of ways for companies to play around, like overcharging for parts or throwing up scary warnings – to its credit, Apple appears to be backing away from it.

And of course they’ll continue to entice you to switch to new phones quickly, like how carriers brought back the subsidy model last year to boost sales while society was still stuck at home, and how Apple is reportedly trying to launch the iPhone so now sell a subscription service.

But it sounds like I can replace the battery myself if my iPhone mini battery dies and no new mini can replace it. And if not? I could take a hint and switch to a newly repairable pixel.