(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, you are in Minneapolis and you drop your iPhone, who will repair the cracked screen? If you’d like an authorized repair, with Apple Inc.-certified parts, the options are suddenly limited. Apple’s retail stores, and the service centers inside of them, are closed indefinitely. Similarly, Twin Cities-based Best Buy Co., which offers authorized Apple repairs in its stores, is not repairing products in-house at this time. Apple maintains a modest network of authorized repair shops, but — thanks to Covid-19 business shutdowns — the closest one available to repair an iPhone is nearly 200 miles away, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That leaves one reasonable authorized repair option: Mail in that iPhone and wait.
Admittedly, this might not appear to be the most pressing issue during a pandemic. But consider: Covid-19 is spreading at a time when dependence on personal technology is more important than ever, connecting Americans to family, work, health information and news. As that dependence has grown, manufacturers of electronics — from mobile phones to essential medical equipment like ventilators — have made design and policy decisions that restrict device repair to themselves and their chosen representatives. In normal times, those decisions might amount to an expensive inconvenience for consumers. During a pandemic, they raise a pressing question: Who will repair our stuff if the manufacturers can’t or won’t?
It’s not a question the U.S. faced during the 1918 flu pandemic. A century ago, most of the devices purchased by Americans were mechanical in nature, and home mechanics were plentiful. The Ford Model T circa 1918 was designed to be serviced by its owner or anyone nearby with basic mechanical skills. In the 1920s, American farmers started the mass adoption of mechanical tractors, and so had to develop formidable repair skills to keep them running. When World War II arrived, and farm equipment and repair parts became scarce, manufacturers like John Deere Inc. actively sought to aid farmers in the personal upkeep of their equipment. That self-reliant spirit persisted for most of the 20th century, epitomized by weekend mechanics working on their cars in the driveway.
By the early 1990s, however, the skills and motivation to repair at home, or to start repair businesses, were in decline. As manufacturing jobs shuttered, mechanical and repair skills withered. At the same time, globalized manufacturing drove down the costs of manufactured goods. Once-expensive repairable televisions gave way to disposable $300 flat screens. The TV repair shop, once a fixture in American cities, has largely disappeared.
More intentional reasons for the decline also emerged. Device, appliance and even farm-tractor manufacturers opted to wring more money out of their service and parts businesses by restricting access to repair parts and documentations. For example, on March 31, camera manufacturer Nikon Corp. will stop providing official parts, tools, software and repair manuals to the U.S. repair shops in its authorized repair network. (In 2012, it stopped selling parts to independent camera repair shops.) It will now only provide certified repair and parts in two Nikon-owned facilities. For camera owners, that means waiting longer, and probably paying more, to get their stuff fixed. For independent repair shops, it means one less reason to stay in business.
Nikon’s practices aren’t unique. Apple restricts parts, diagnostic software and repair documentation to its stores and a small network of authorized repair shops. It also actively dissuades independent repair shops from fixing Apple products. One of the world’s most valuable companies is suing a small, unauthorized Norwegian phone repair shop for selling aftermarket iPhone screens. Without aftermarket parts, such shops cannot fix iPhones.
And John Deere, once a proponent and partner in the independent repair of tractors, has built a repair monopoly by installing software that effectively prevents anyone but its authorized service centers from doing even simple repairs to its tractors. For some farmers, this practice has resulted in delays in planting, a particularly ominous prospect during a spring pandemic. Equally ominous, if not more so, is the prospect that in-house medical technicians — especially in hospitals in emerging markets — will not have access to repair documentation, software and tools in the midst of the pandemic.
It's too late for manufacturers to provide more convenient, affordable and accessible repair options to most consumers and businesses during this pandemic. But there are some radical steps that could easily make a difference right now. For example, manufacturers of medical equipment such as ventilators should release repair guides for therapy devices to hospitals rather than forcing them to wait for a certified technician. Similarly, Deere and other farm equipment manufacturers should suspend their software locks for the 2020 planting season, at a minimum, to ensure that there’s no delay in servicing needed farm equipment. Finally, consumer electronics manufacturers, including Apple, should post information on how consumers can quickly obtain simple repairs like battery and screen replacements while authorized repair is unavailable.
Longer-term, the states and federal government need to pass long-stalled “Right to Repair” legislation to expand access for all Americans. Key provisions include requirements that manufacturers make repair documentation for their products freely available, and sell parts and diagnostics to independent repair operations at a fair market price.
Self-reliance has long been a part of the American self-image. Giving back the right to repair stuff is a good way to ensure it’s maintained during and after Covid-19.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
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