Right to repair: Good intentions, but a disaster in the making

Right to repair is a nice concept, but completely impractical - and dangerous

The Verge reports that California has become the 18th state to introduce a "right to repair" bill.  The legislation was put forward by an Assembly member Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), and proposes that electronics makers, including makers of computers and smartphones such as Apple, would be required to provide service manuals and even sell repair parts to both consumers and independent repair providers without requiring manufacturer authorization. 

The "Right to Repair" bill is a disaster in the making. 

If the bill passes, costs will actually increase for consumers. And the only entity that stands to directly benefit from it is the State of California that taxes any entity performing repair on electronics via it's Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair (BEAR) department. Let me explain some background, as well as a few points that Eggman doesn't share in her proposed legislation. If consumers were aware of the full context around electronic repair, the majority of voters - happen to be computer and smartphone owners - would call her bill into serious question.

Eggman proposes that everyone should have the right to repair their own electronics without having to go through the manufacturer.  In brief, she wants you to be able to repair your iPhone or Mac (or PC) by yourself, or by anyone who wants to buy the parts and attempt the repair.  Examples include everything from replacing a battery to fixing accidental damage (e.g. water damage, cracked displays, etc.) to replacing hard drives and power supplies. Her bill's intention is to cut the cord of dependence on the maker, and essentially force manufacturers to provide service parts and manuals to anyone who wants to buy them.

Eggman and others who support the bill claim that it will result in reduced electronic waste by enabling more consumer repair options.  Supporters of the bill, like Kit Walsh, Senior Staff Attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, think that the legislation will benefit independent repair shops by making the market more competitive and thus driving down prices, in turn benefiting the consumer.  Walsh even puts forward his believe that this bill will drive innovation: "We should encourage people to take things apart and learn from them. After all, that's how many of today's most successful innovators got started."  That's a bunch of bunk. Disassembling a truly modern computer or smartphone isn't the same as disassembling a 1970s TV or radio.

There's a reason Radio Shack doesn't sell build-your-own-smartphone kits.  You want to teach electronics?  Programming? Tech? Robotics? There are awesome kits designed to do that, and Apple even offers one of the best applications for getting started for free.

Right to Repair is a knee-jerk reaction to the Service Hell we are now in

Eggman and other supporters of the bill frame it as pro-consumer. And I get it. The ubiquity of devices that we're more and more dependent on in our lives and businesses has created another problem: Service hell. 

Yesterday I spent over five (5) hours on the phone with Apple, AppleCare and an Apple Store, just to get my wife's iPhone battery replaced. As I was on hold this article hit the news.  My five-hour personal hell was actually quite short - I handle these issues for customers for a living, so I've learned how to navigate the system.  The calls I made yesterday were intentionally designed to avoid making multiple, unnecessary trips to an Apple Store, with hours of driving on either side, time away from my family commitments, time away from my customers.  In fact, the AppleCare rep felt so bad about how the call was handled by the other parties who answered the phone, that he generated an AppleCare exception code to take care of all the charges. Still, the call cost me more in time and energy than a replacement iPhone would have cost out of pocket.

And that was only one of three service issues I had to deal with this week for just myself and my family. I just wrote about the worst one here. In fact, the article I wrote contains several important points that Eggman is likely unaware of, our ignoring. Let me explain:

Why Right to Repair is an anachronism

The "Right to Repair" legal battle is already being waged, in Nebraska.  The argument being made there surrounds farmers, not techies. Lydia Brasch, who put forward the legislature LB 67 for the rural eastern 16th Legislative District she represents, claims that farmers fall behind when there's an equipment breakdown during the critical farming season. Back to iPhones and away from tractors, she points out that Nebraska's single Apple Store in Nebraska is over 70 miles away from her district.

I vividly remember running a local-customer-facing tech department in Orange County, California, for over a decade.  During the latter half of March and first half of April, a specific seasonality of customer flow always kicked in. Our repair volumes went down, but the per-repair cost jumped up significantly. Every customer repair before tax time was deemed hyper critical to each customer, usually because they needed access to their accounting information, and they usually had no backup in place. And while our weekly and monthly repair volumes were down, usually because of tax time when expense management becomes a greater priority for most people, we knew that in the days before taxes were due the volume of urgent service seeking customers would jump higher than our normal repair volumes, and because everyone needed urgent service, we could handle less per day. 

This wasn't a local phenomenon. Our parts suppliers told us that providers all over the United States were experiencing the same.  Had all of these customers had a backup of their QuickBooks file, 95% of them wouldn't need service. For hardware, it's the same. Airlines maintain their equipment proactively so planes don't fall out of the sky.  When I read Ms. Brasch's argument pertaining to breakdowns, I can't help but wonder about the farmers' equipment maintenance strategy, and if there even is one. 

It appears Ms. Brasch is focusing on the wrong solution to a problem.  Forcing companies like John Deere to provide tractor parts to desperate, time-sensitive, tired and stressed out farmers so they can perform their own repairs on heavy equipment has worse implications than just damaged equipment. Accidents with farm equipment could cost limbs and even lives.

Opening the kimono: Inside the authorized service provider business

My first decade in business was running the service company I founded, TechRoom. TechRoom, similar to Tech Concierge, provided professional consulting for individuals, like executives and business owners, and their families and offices. What made TechRoom exceptionally unique was that it actually was a TechRoom that you could walk into.

We received thousands of customers, referred by Apple Stores, Microsoft Stores, Sony Stores, DriveSavers, and even Apple Customer Relations, in addition to referrals from our existing customers. Anything the Genius Bar didn't do, wouldn't do, or couldn't do, we did, and we did it extremely well. Every kind of electronic repair, even at the component level at times, data recovery prior to hard drive replacements, cracked LCD replacements, accidental damage from falls, liquid spills, exploding buildings, collateral damage at parties. We even had the main cameraman from Deadliest Catch bring in his corroded, beat-to-hell MacBook Pro that he used to edit video for weeks at a time out at sea in those waters.  

What it takes to run a repair business

My team of technicians were smart and educated. Everyone had at least a Bachelor's degree, usually from University of California, Irvine.  And they had to keep their certifications current in order to remain employed. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the latest, state-of-the-art tools from Apple, Wiha and others. We routinely inspected the tools, recycling damaged tools and replacing with new. All of this was to maximize first-time-fix rates, reduce repair turnaround time, and decrease parts-per-repair to the absolute lowest without compromising first-time-fix. Running a proper repair business is at minimum a million dollar investment in people, tools and training.

Technology has moved past the 1980s and the DIY-ers.

And during the first decade, while we were fixing, Apple engineers (and engineers at other companies competing against Apple) continued to push technology forward. Batteries in a 2008 MacBook Pro were built like bricks and only required a few screws be removed. A battery in a 2017 MacBook is a completely different animal with fine screws, razor-thin cables, and even a type of adhesive that requires special tools for removal. Make one mistake, and you don't just have a bad battery, you now have several hundred dollars in damaged parts to replace beyond what was part of the original repair. Just touching a computer incorrectly can cause this.  Technology had to get to thinner and lighter and more powerful. Repairing new technology is a lot like repairing a fine watch. Not anyone can do it, and the costliness of mistakes is extraordinarily high.

Apple's DIY experiment

In fact, Apple once tried a version of what Eggman is proposing.  Back in the batteries-like-bricks days, when iMacs didn't require heat guns and specialized suction cups to pull apart without shattering, and when components were big, clunky and only required a couple of screws to replace, Apple launched a service experiment with a few hundred of the easiest parts to replace, labeling them as DIY parts and allowing end users to replace their own parts (or have their technicians do it).  The program was an utter disaster.  There were two reasons: First, they learned that most people really don't want to do their own repairs. The second, and I think much bigger reason, is that most technicians have not been trained on how to properly diagnose and complete a repair. See my recent post here for an example - my own - of a misdiagnosis by Apple Support, one I didn't catch, until I lost several hours of time and got very serious. If you own an iPhone, you owe it to yourself to read the post, because it is probably going to happen to you.

Eggman is trying to solve this problem, but what she doesn't realize is that she's making a grave, extremely uninformed error. There is a catch-22 that Eggman doesn't recognize, and why her legislation, if passed, will actually end up costing consumers more money and will back them into a corner they'll misinterpret as "planned obsolescence" far more frequently than they already feel today. People will get a whole lot more angry if her bill passes.

Let's redefine Right to Repair

I'm being gracious in assuming that Eggman is looking at Service Hell and is really trying to solve the problem, and not just trying to get votes by trying to resonate with voters by riding a current issue frequently in the news

The bill as proposed is a hopeful shortcut to solving real issues:

  • The desire to receive a fair and quality repair.
  • The desire to receive a timely repair.
  • The desire to receive a cost-effective repair.
  • The desire for ongoing support of older equipment.

Service provider programs exist to better enable a manufacturer like Apple to maintain some level of quality across a population of service providers. And, as a CEO who has served several years on an advisory board for AppleCare management, I can unequivocally state that this is the case with Apple. As long as management of these programs focus on technical excellence and operational excellence as the key drivers of customer satisfaction, the channel of service providers will product quality repairs.  The moment management of these programs start to incentivize quality through additional product margin on new Apple product sales, bad things will happen.  Happy customers have higher brand loyalty. Great service on your Mac or iPhone when you need it will bring you back when it's time to get another computer or smartphone. This doesn't just apply to Apple, it applies to all technology makers, hardware and software.

I think that Apple's approach to battery replacement, following one of the more recent episodes of service hell, is a great start. $29 for a battery replacement, guaranteed and covered under a 90-day post-repair warranty, is a great price. The issue at hand is a big problem for the AppleCare management team to solve: How do you provide a great repair experience for the myriads of devices out there, without sending someone into a noisy mall, making them wait for hours, and even creating unnecessary trips that could have been avoided in the first place.  

I think Apple, and other companies spanning multiple industries, can come up with excellent ways to improve the customer experience, reduce repair costs, and provide customers some additional options for keeping and using their equipment longer, even when innovation is moving the market beyond them.  Perhaps it will take legislation to encourage this, much like legislation was required to encourage use of use of helmets for cyclists and baby seats in cars, but the "Right to Repair" bills in their current form are a disaster waiting to happen.