We can all agree that there are already many barriers to the repair of electronic products. From glued batteries to the need for specific tools, expensive spare parts and difficult to find repair information, only around 11% of consumers in Europe will follow through with a repair when their smartphone breaks.
But what if on top of these existing challenges, software could make repair even harder?
A growing trend
Part pairing is an increasingly common practice used by manufacturers of smartphones and other electronic products to control who can and can’t perform certain types of repairs. It is made possible by serialisation of spare parts. Here is how it works: some parts have a unique serial number, which is paired to an individual unit of a device using software. If any of these parts need replacing during a repair, they will not be accepted unless remotely paired to the device again via software by the manufacturer. This approach could create major barriers to independent and self repair.
To find out more about this issue, join our webinar on Tuesday 13 July at 3pm CEST. We’ll discuss the extent of the threat posed by part pairing to repairers and what policymakers should do about it. You’ll hear from:
Alexandre Isaac, founder of the Repair Academy, a French initiative that specialises in micro soldering and training of new repairers.
Marie Castelli, Back Market public affairs manager, she has been working in government relations for the past 11 years in France and Europe. She has dedicated her entire career to sustainability, first fighting for electric mobility and now defending a true circular economy and longer lifespan for electronics.
Thomas Opsomer, repair policy engineer at iFixit and member of the European Right to Repair Campaign’s Steering Group.
The iPhone: a worrying case study
This phenomenon is currently mainly observed with Apple products, although it’s likely to expand across the industry. The trend is clear: while in 2015 only 2 iPhone parts were serialised, in 2020 that number had increased to 9 with the majority being non-replaceable by anyone but the OEM without loss of functionality. The rest can only be replaced without loss of functionality or error messages if they are reprogrammed using equipment that is only available within the manufacturer’s authorised repair network. Only a minority of paired parts can be replaced but need to be reprogrammed with tools available outside of the manufacturer’s authorised network.
A serious threat to independent and self repair
These restrictions go in the opposite direction of the universal Right to Repair that we stand for. By mainstreaming these practices, manufacturers could require that only new genuine spare parts sold by them could be used to complete a repair. This would effectively mean controlling the cost of type of repairs that can be performed. It would also mean that independent repairers, consumers and community repair initiatives could be prevented from attempting repairs using genuine parts recovered from another phone or any aftermarket spare part, irrespective of their quality.
Yet, independent repairers (i.e. not part of a manufacturer’s “authorised” repair ecosystem) are essential if we’re hoping to make repair the norm. Not only are manufacturers limited in the number of locations they operate, they often don’t perform many types repairs. It’s not uncommon for consumers to be told that the repair they come for isn’t possible which can lead them to purchase a new product instead.
Meanwhile, a recent survey found that 78% of independent smartphone repair technicians offer additional repairs over those offered by large OEMs, and 41% of their repairs are the kind of repair that the OEM would not do in store. Smartphones can also be repaired by people themselves, often with the help of online tutorials or assisted by volunteers at community events.
A threat to making products more repairable
In March 2020, the European Commission committed to making sustainable products the norm and putting the focus on electronics and ICT devices, starting with smartphones. « Ecodesign » regulations are currently being prepared, for approval next year. Under the current draft of the regulation both the screen and battery, which represent a high proportion of the fault types addressed in community repair events (41% and 16% respectively), should be user-reparable. Yet, in all recent Apple models, these parts are serialised and paired with software to a specific device.
The regulation might make many other spare parts available, at least to professional repairers. However, we are concerned that manufacturers might use part pairing as a way to further restrict these repairs, and prevent independent repairers and others from completing more affordable repairs using spare parts not provided directly from manufacturers. Similarly, people should be the ones to make an informed decision on where to source a repair and whether or not to accept a replacement part into their device. This growing issue risks having a severe impact on the likelihood of electronics repair and needs to be addressed urgently by regulators.
Join our webinar on the 13th July to learn more and to ask questions to our speakers!
Image: « Source code Brain » by Christiaan Colen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.