Right to Repair

Story by William Chappell

            One of my computer’s two USB-C recently broke. This extended my streak of luck with things breaking while on the road for the year. In June, my car battery died the day after arriving in Colorado. In July, my phone bricked out on me and within a week both my clutch and transmission failed and had to be replaced while I was on the road in Southern California.

            I looked up the computer repair online and saw that it was a simple matter of installing a $25 part to replace the one which had broken. I began calling around town to see who might be able to do the job for me.

            At the moment, I have moved my hermetic COVID existence to the beautiful ski town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. For those unfamiliar with Colorado geography, Steamboat Springs is smack in the middle of the state about 40 miles south of the Wyoming border, as the crow flies. It’s a beautiful town, but an Apple store there is not.

            Despite this, the third local repair shop I contacted said that, unlike the first two, they were willing to work on late model MacBooks. They would order the part and when it came in, they would need my computer for two to four hours to complete the job that would take between thirty minutes and an hour. The helpful technician on the phone then asked if I had AppleCare, which I do, and told me that if they did the work, it would void my warranty.

            Not wanting to do that in case of larger issues in the future, I resigned myself to making the six-hour roundtrip drive to Denver and an Apple store. After booking a Genius Bar appointment, my mom suggested that I call the store to be sure that they would have the part in stock and be able to complete the repair for me the same day.

            So, I called the number listed online for the store. I was connected with an automated system that wouldn’t connect me to an employee, instead opting to connect me to Apple’s main automated system. Luckily, this system saw fit to transfer me to a human representative who was able to connect me to his own company’s store after a five-minute wait. Following another three-minute wait to be connected with a service representative, I was informed that they could not assign me a part until I had diagnostics run in the store. Further, they would not be able to do the repair in-store that day. Even if the part was in stock, they would need my computer for three to five days.

            I was flabbergasted. How could it be that one of the largest companies in the world thought that three to five days without a computer is an acceptable solution in 2021? Literally, every bit of schoolwork I do, and all the work for my two internships and part-time job happens on my computer. Until the semester is over in December, giving my computer up for three to five days is impractical.

            As the frustration and anger passed, I realized that my travails were thanks to one of the major gripes that consumers have with modern manufacturers: the right to repair, that is, the manufacturers’ condition their warranties on the manufacturer doing all repairs on your device.

Apple is an innovator in ensnaring users in their “ecosystem,” integrating more and more products and services in their users’ lives, while simultaneously engineering those products to be extremely difficult to repair (using proprietary screws, for example). This drives away would-be repair shops, like the first two that I called, that don’t want to invest in the costly tools or risk damaging products in overly complex repairs. Consumers are then forced to use Apple stores, generating recurring revenue, or forced to go to an Apple authorized repair shop, which will have paid Apple a handsome licensing fee.

            But Apple is hardly the only offender in this area. Tesla has staked a strong position of overcharging for simple repairs in its dealerships. To ensure compliance Tesla employs the even more draconian measure of banning owners who try to salvage vehicles or modify them too drastically from using their supercharger network. John Deere has taken a similar tact with service for their tractors, with a huge backlash from farmers. Perhaps most galling of all, fast food megalith, McDonald’s, has been forcing franchisees to buy ice cream machines from a longtime partner. However, the machines have a greater than 10% fail rate with almost no ability for in-store employees to remedy issues necessitating an expensive call to a technician from the company and leading to extended, frequent downtimes.

            These companies have recognized and seized a way to generate recurring revenue, the hottest attractor of investor capital. They lock their consumers into their network of service with drastic consequences for any attempt to find another solution when that network fails. When a consumer has paid thousands of dollars for an ice cream machine, central to their business, or tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a car, or three-quarters of a million dollars for a tractor that enables their livelihood, why should the company be allowed to force them to use substandard, overpriced or dilatory service for that purchase?

They shouldn’t. In my case, I’m lucky that my computer has two USB-C ports and remains functional so I will delay the repair until the semester ends and I’m back in Nashville closer to an Apple store. It’s enervating that I can’t have an hour-long repair done to replace a $25 part, but it pales in comparison to the situations of other consumers. And the sad truth is that this problem will likely worsen as more and more products integrate advanced technology. It’s easy to imagine a world where TV, dishwasher and all automotive repairs become this way due to complicated artificial intelligence and chips requiring costly, in-network repair. For the moment, there are alternatives for most of these products, but it remains to be seen if the lure of recurring revenue will prove too attractive to the Samsungs and Microsofts of the world.

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