Screw-driving the iPhone! Can we — Really?

Tucked inconspicuously, unlike the screw we are about to introduce, in the hot climes of North India is a cool town called Falna.

Cool for being a town that could invoke two kinds of worshippers – one who love aesthetic temples and the one who loved functional idols of music (the Radio generation).

This is a cue to talk to an elder around you and, at the risk of letting one erupt with endless tales down the memory lane, you will discover something bizarre. The town, known as the hub of sturdy radios, was a pet name among radio buyers when TV and Internet were still decades away from even comic-books and their fabulations. For here they got two things when they paid for a radio – the device and something that resembled a screwdriver.

Yes, sellers wrapped in a tool-kit – free and complimentary – for the radio buyer. The idea could have been anything – to encourage loyalty and bonding with the product’ or to discourage trips for repair and thus saving time for both the seller and the buyer.

Making servicing ‘unnecessary’ was a strategy that throbbed beneath this Baker’s dozen. And make no mistake – Radios lasted as long as the strains of Lata and Mukesh’s masterpieces they swaddled so cleverly.

For that very reason, those contraptions of melody would find nothing worth comparing to the device that plays your music today (and prides on being aesthetic first). Those old-school things swore by something else – Functionality and Durability. Who knows what those words even mean anymore!

The I in the Phone – a big blur

Today, and understandably so, a screwdriver would pass by a store as something ludicrous and other-worldly. What use would it have on that taut, sleek, dapper and tightly-cased phone of yours? Except for touching it with when your fingers are busy, of course.

Asia happens to be the region by far with the largest amount of e-waste i.e.18.2 Mt in 2016: Global E-waste Monitor – 2017 report

The very notion of tinkering with your very own device (that you paid for and are the rightful owner of) hangs questionably in thin air thanks to a slew of reasons whirring under the hood of new-age products.

You think you can toy with it, break it, fix it, re-use it (and for the really brave-hearted – even make it)! More so because it is your salient right as a consumer!

Meh! Good sense of humor! – that is all you would get from Rebecca Jeschke, Digital Rights Analyst at Electronic Frontier Foundation who would woefully remind us how Software is subject to copyright. Translation – you might own your device but you only license the software in it. This license, a.k.a. an ‘End User License Agreement’ often comes with any number of restrictions on your ability to potter about your stuff. Welcome to the world of forbidden reverse-engineering, transfer or using unauthorized repair sources. You live right in its very pit.

Let’s face what we have observed in some form or frequency in the last one or two years for sure when, armed or weighed down with this excuse of can’t-fix-it-man, we jumped off to toss a phone in the bin and join the stampede to get another one. It’s just not easy to fix or extend the life of a device anymore – a tractor, a car, an AC, a microwave and specially, a phone.

Say hello to Soft

Yes, abetting this drift is the software’ and services’ components in today’s products that is only increasing with every next rabbit out of technology’s hat. Software is in everything now — from your fridge to your coffee maker to your baby monitor, quips Jeschke from Electronic Frontier Foundation.

E-waste could bloat up to 52.2 mn metric tons by 2021

There is no escaping this covert imperialism of software into a once-hardware-only territory then.
I cannot think of an industry that has escaped, seconds Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association. “Literally everything with a chip is being monopolized for repair ranging from repair of thermostats, appliances, watches, tractors, TVs, forklifts, aircraft, motorcycles and everything internet. Someone figured out that they would demand a license for embedded software and that contract has created the excuse for monopolisation of repair. The products haven’t changed and the software was always there –but it’s a new wrinkle in marketing in the past 15 or so years that has created this problem globally.”

Worsening this iron-clad box further is the advent of digital locks like Digital Rights Management (DRM) or Technical Protection Measures (TPMs) that were supposedly designed to prevent unauthorized copying, but now breaking those locks, even to do something simple and otherwise legal like fiddling with or fixing your own devices, means breaking the law, as EFF underlines.

The ‘why’ is not hard to guess. And as Gay Gordon-Byrne spells it out, “The vast majority of OEMs are under pressure to improve profits. It is simply easy to discourage repair and make more money. It takes a very principled company to eschew the monopoly and skip the profit potential. The difficulty level is just as high for DIY as for independent repair techs.

Even if repair, per se, is not prohibitive in the reckoning of Tushar Verma from MAIT, he puts the spotlight on battery-replacement as a major issue. “Even earlier-generation phones had repair problems and today’s closed-box design is a strategy choice that has become a common streak for many manufacturers. In a way, it helps as long as it does not spur a throw-away society. This topic is still a debatable one though.”

Ashok Kumar, Store Manager, iRepair, throws in some math here. Rs. 10,000 for a battery that comes from the brand-store also takes four to five days to get onto a user’s hands. It’s both a financial and logistical burden to repair things that way today.

Tough Nut to Chew

Changing a battery does not mean changing a light-bulb anymore. It’s a well-loaded trip to and fro the store. Expensive repair contracts and a fast lope to the next new toy have become cleverly interspersed in the grand trampoline of tech-consumption today. Crucial repair information has become more cryptic and evasive than Bermuda Triangles. Manual lockdowns, should you dare to mess with Frodo and his ring, have become more rampant and endurance-testing than that emetic TV soap running since 2000 B.C.

If you have suffered an Error 53 thanks to Apple or a printer-conk-off thanks to HP, you will know what we are talking of.

In other words, you have been spared the consequences of being around raucous pool-party friends or being the official Clumsy-creature of the house or forgetting to get your dog something better to chew on. The life of your phone is now at the mercy and whim of something else – the ‘Pentalobe’ screw holding it together, if you are lucky. Otherwise, it hinges on the mood and marketing-carousel of the company you buy it from.

Bad Workman – Too many quarrels or too few tools?

What’s wrong with fixing your phone? Nothing massive except a loose-end that invites a hacker or an abrupt fire is something that those who deter you to do so would tell. Accidents, security mishaps and botching up are kept at bay when people cannot open the closed boxes the manufacturers want to stay closed for good.

Average Smartphone lifecycle: Just 18 months to 2 years

To some extent and with a fair lens, these possibilities exist. Rakesh Pahuja, who has spent ten years in the electronics industry with exposure in the servicing-side too, lets on how humidity and misperceptions like drying a phone with DIY gimmicks can cause unexpected sparks and safety slips. “Most consumers would not know what goes under the bonnet and why experimenting with rice and batteries can cost more than what one thinks.”

But arguments purporting safety, privacy concerns, legal damages around repair-injuries and efforts ‘to protect consumers’ significant investment in equipment’, as whipped up magnates like Apple, AT&T and John Deere; often find themselves slightly discombobulated when activists and experts reason back with the commercial lens.

Gordon-Byrne attacks that with a lawn-mower’s grunt. “Safety ! When equipment is purchased – safety of use becomes the responsibility of the buyer. The contract ALWAYS disclaims any responsibility for accidents of use (unless the equipment itself was defective. The change of ownership is the END of their claim. Again, most people don’t understand the contract and are easily misled to think Apple is looking out for them. “

As Jeschke also contends, “It’s always a mistake to think that hiding vulnerability protects consumers. It protects companies from criticism, but the hackers still know about it (or can independently discover it), but it leaves consumers in the lurch.”

DIY mishaps aside, Pahuja also feels the room for affordable technicians a reasonable one in today’s increasingly-closed repair market.

Gordon-Byrne also has something more to tut over. Warranty Violations and Innovation-spanners, huh! “Consumers are not violating copyright law when making repairs. However, if they have signed a contract that states they won’t repair their equipment or other limitations – they would be in breach of contract.” As to the innovation argument, she tags it both silly and backwards. “Fixing equipment isn’t keeping people from innovating – it’s only helping the customer enjoy their purchase a bit longer. Professors of engineering and computer science have been very clear that repair and tinkering is a gateway to learning, and that if kids don’t get their hands inside technology to explore – they aren’t going to be innovators in the future.”

This is where Crusades for more apt and meaningful regulatory changes assume serious contours today.

Think before you throw

How much would India need to worry about here? The market looks like not-so-a-deplorable picture if we go by some industry-insiders. If it takes Rs. 10,000 for a battery that comes from the brand-store, a good repair outfit would send you back smiling with something like Rs. 2000 and it’s a fix that gets done in one day.

Squeeze more out of products, they are not disposable diapers

Ashok Kumar from iRepair, for instance, seems sure-footed about sourcing proprietary technology that is violation-free, has no legal-complexities and prides on the growth the firm has achieved. “We are slightly expensive than the informal market but we bring in transparency, technical grip, documentation, original components, warranty and confidence. And people are aware of this alternative. It is a customer’s decision when to buy a product or not. But one can actually open a phone easily in India. It is not so tough – legally or technically. After a determined period, a device can go off for replacement and fixes. The thing is – it should not be too expensive. That’s what we have been trying to address.”

Exactly. Repairing should be an option worth trying, if not a cake-walk.

“The DMCA absolutely hurts consumers’ efforts to extend the lifespan of their devices. If you can’t tinker with the software, then it’s just a dead device filling up the landfill.” Jeschke drills home the ugly nail.
Tushar Verma from MAIT tells us more about the e-waste monster. “Informal sector is more dominant in India and that explains why price reigns and sophistication wobbles in this industry even now. That affects recycling and re-use among other factors.”

What if Edward did Garden-scapes?

There has to be some workable answer to this tug of war between anti-repair folks and pro-repair hands.

Would manufactures always be dead against the idea?

Interestingly Gay Gordon-Byrne told us in an interview that while OEMS are claiming they will be repair-friendly or environmentally responsible at some vague point in the future – there is no compelling reason for them to make those changes until forced.

Repairing should not be too tricky or costly: Ashok, iRepair

Legislation waves like the recent ‘Right to Repair’ one in the US would, ideally, ensure that the likes of Apple not only sell repair parts to consumers and independent repair shops but also slip in diagnostic and service manuals, Service documentation, Specialty tools , and firmware with safety and security patches and fixes for the ease and convenience of a customer.

What could be stopping them? If it’s a genuine concern about how half-baked skills can lead to accidents, they could stress on expertise and proficiency of a good independent service outfit that is a win-win for both customer and seller.  Expand the ecosystem instead of cornering it all.

If it’s something about the profits that service pours out regularly, the answer, ironically, lies in the ‘software’ problem itself. Software can allow for so many more features and revenue-streams that sellers would not have to eke pennies out of arm-twisted customers anymore but can actually enjoy ripe-r profits from new services. Make money off existing products by making them richer, deeper and more durable and not by shrinking their life.

If not anything else, repair should be more affordable and easy. That’s a user’s prerogative too.

Coz, when it’s easy, affordable and practical to repair one’s existing device or equipment, it’s possible to extend the life of that thing just enough to shave off some of that nightmarish e-waste flab we are kneading up with every new phone that hoicks on to a shelf even before we get to pop the bubble-wrap on its previous model.

It’s not just our right but our duty too to lighten up the weight of e-waste knolls that rise an Andes every time we give up fixing a crack in our modern toys; and rush to get a new distraction for our thumbs.

Who knows if we do that – what we may end up finding? We may just stumble upon something forgotten for decades sitting under these metal mountains then.

A radio? With its vintage buddy.

Pratima H


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