The Federal Trade Commission recently released a report that details its investigation into the repairability of various tech products. It found that many devices are intentionally designed to be difficult or impossible to repair, and that the reasons companies gave for these design choices were unsubstantiated.
“For several years, tech companies have made it difficult, if not impossible, for a customer to repair a device they own,” the Washington Examiner reports. “For example, Apple designed its AirPods explicitly to keep owners from replacing the batteries (estimated to last 18 months) without destroying them.”
“Initially inspired by a workshop in 2019,” the Examiner continues, “the FTC spent two years delving into the specific data points and complaints that consumers, companies, and advocates all had about the state of repairability among consumer devices. Over that period, the FTC found several intentional design choices that limited the ability to repair a device. These included making parts inaccessible, imposing software locks, enforcing patents, and requiring users to use company-certified repair services.”
After concluding that there is “scant evidence” to support manufacturers' justifications for repair restrictions, the FTC report encouraged state and federal legislators to consider “right-to-repair” bills which would compel companies to make their designs easier to repair.
But while repairability is obviously a problem, legislation is not the solution. For one, it is very difficult to craft legislation that can adequately keep up with the evolving tech industry. If the regulations are very specific, they run the risk of becoming outdated in short order, and keeping them constantly updated could get quite time-consuming. On the other hand, if the regulations are more broad, they run the risk of being too sweeping, imposing blanket restrictions where they aren’t needed and driving up the price of new products.
What’s more, the legislative solution completely ignores the actual source of this problem, which is a lack of competition. Just think about it. If it’s so commonly known that consumers are demanding repairability, why aren’t the companies adjusting to this demand of their own volition? What’s stopping a competitor from selling the repairable designs that consumers actually want?
The answer, of course, is the government. The government is stopping them, through a combination of intellectual property laws, regulations, and taxes, which together constitute insurmountable barriers to entry in these markets.
Repairability is a great thing, and I’m glad that many people are asking for it. But when companies refuse to adjust to consumer demand, it’s worth taking the time to think about why that is.
Even more, it’s worth thinking about what’s stopping all these repairability champions from producing better designs themselves. After all, it seems like they would have a lot of customers.
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