Monday, July 06, 2020

Is The Computer World Getting Beyond Repair?

Louis Rossman runs the Rossman Group, a team of about a dozen computer repair people in Manhattan.  Recently he was interviewed on the topic of the "right to repair," a concept that is of intense interest both to technicians employed in the repair industry and to anyone whose computer or phone goes on the blink, and is not prepared to chuck it and buy a new one. 

In the interview, Rossman describes the many ways that companies like Apple make it hard for anyone outside of Apple (and often inside too) to repair their ubiquitous devices.  For starters, a blanket of proprietary exclusion conceals useful information such as schematic diagrams, part numbers and identification, and diagnostic software.  Rossman has developed back-channel connections with engineers who work for the companies whose products he tries to fix, and sometimes can get the information he needs that way.  But he says that repair organizations shouldn't have to resort to legal gray areas such as under-the-table schematics to fix things.

Another obstacle arises when companies intentionally make their designs hard to fix.  Rossman said that some firms go to the trouble of pairing certain hardware chips with the particular computer they are installed in.  The machine would run just as well without this feature, which from the repair viewpoint is a bug.  All it does is prevent anyone from fixing the machine if that chip breaks, because even putting in a new chip won't work because the new chip is no longer paired to the machine, and it won't run.  Designs like this are aimed specifically at making the unit harder to repair.

Rossman devotes a small amount of time to promoting legislation and awareness publicity concerning the right to repair, but he isn't optimistic that huge changes will occur.  In an era when large corporations have skewed the intellectual-property field steeply in their favor, it's hard for small, independent operators like Rossman to gain a hearing.  And Rossman himself doesn't want too much government interference, as he is personally inclined toward libertarianism. 

If consumers were simply more aware of what was being done to make the products they buy harder to fix, they might make better choices, and repairability might become a cultural value like sustainability.  And the connection between the two is closer than you think.  For every computer (or phone, or car) that is fixed and stays in service, there is a new device that doesn't have to be made and sold, and the day is put off when that device ends up in a dump somewhere, as most electronics does despite increasing efforts at recycling. 

The simplistic view of this from the manufacturer's standpoint is that repair, especially by someone other than the company that made the product, simply cuts into sales of new units, and is to be discouraged as a pernicious legacy habit that consumers can eventually be trained to break.  But this is not the only way to go, as the automotive industry has abundantly demonstrated.  The average internal-combustion-engine car needs more maintenance and repair as it ages, and if you get attached to your old car (as I do), the inside of a car repair shop becomes very familiar. 

Perhaps if computers and phones had visible odometers like cars (and buried somewhere in the software, they probably do), it could become a point of pride to show how many hours your machine has racked up. 

But fixing things and keeping them for a longer time than absolutely necessary is to buck a trend that has been going mostly the other way since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when cheap machine-made products helped to bring millions up from poverty into the middle classes, both as employees of factories and as consumers of the products they made.  I'm not in favor of poverty, nor am I calling for a return to the bad old days when a watch was built mostly by hand, and a man expected it to last most of his life for the simple reason that most people couldn't afford to buy more than one watch in a lifetime. 

With Rossman, I'm in favor of reasonable accommodations for small repair firms and even individuals who are willing to crack open a computer or phone and see if they can fix it rather than simply getting a new one.  Such behavior is good stewardship of the built environment, which includes computers and phones.  Waste is not one of the seven deadly sins, but it's not a good thing either.  And when a fiendishly complex thing like a computer, with all its billions of coordinated parts that do amazing things, gets tossed in the trash simply because one of those parts falls down on its job, the world in general takes a hit that is not that noticeable, perhaps, but is significant nonetheless. 

Years ago I saw a TV episode of The Twilight Zone, I think it was, in which the writers wanted to show a man who lived a deplorably extravagant lifestyle.  So five minutes after the man picked up a new car, he pulled back into the dealership and said, "Hey, I want to trade this in on a new model."

When the salesman asked him why, the man said scornfully, "The ashtrays are full!"  (For those below a certain age, most cars used to have ashtrays, and most drivers used to smoke.)

Throwing away a complex piece of electronics simply because one part breaks that could be easily repaired (given enough information from the manufacturer) isn't much better than trading in a car because the windshield is dirty.  While there are plenty of other things to think about these days, perhaps people will use the extra time they have on their hands to take up a new occupation such as electronics repair.  And maybe the rest of us could look into how easy or hard our next piece of gear is to fix, and let repairability be a factor in our choices.  It would make Louis Rossman's job easier if companies recognize the value of repairability and start doing something about it.  And to let things go the way they're headed, which is a world where repairing stuff is unheard of, would be a waste in more ways than one. 

Sources:  The article "A Computer-Repair Expert Takes On Big Tech," appeared on the website of National Review on July 1, 2020 at  I most recently blogged on the right to repair on Nov. 6, 2017 at

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