Your tech will die — and right now, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
Imprisoned inside slick designs and end user license agreements, you don’t quite own your device. You’re just agreeing to use it as the manufacturer allows you to. And that manufacturer doesn’t always allow you — or anyone not authorized by the manufacturer — to fix it if it breaks. This ensures that all repairs generate revenue for the parent company. And, if the device can’t easily be fixed, many consumers may choose to dispose of the device and buy a new, updated version.
It’s a problem that plagues not only smartphones and laptops but even unconventional tech like tractors and McDonald’s ice cream machines. It costs consumers money and creates electronic waste that’s bad for the environment.
But this disposable setup, imposed by corporate Goliaths like Apple and John Deere, are facing Davids all around them. The right to repair movement is pushing for, well, your right to repair the tech that you paid for. And recently they gained a powerful ally: the White House.
Joining the consumer advocates, farmers, and politicians in this fight are companies like Framework, designed with the right to repair in mind and a business model not dependent on disposability. Framework designs easy-to-repair, easy-to-customize modular laptops. It’s all in a bid to disrupt the disposable tech economy by creating a laptop that lasts longer.
“The right to repair is incredibly important, and it is actually a core part of what we’re doing,” Framework founder Nirav Patel says.
The DIY Laptop
Framework wanted to build a laptop with the right to repair at its heart, but one still the roughly the same size and weight as other laptops on the market. The manufacturers he reached out to initially balked at the idea, Patel says. But over months of designing and troubleshooting each component piece-by-piece, his team eventually arrived at a working product that they began shipping this summer.
Framework currently offers two different laptop models. The Framework laptop arrives put together, but is still customizable, upgradeable, and repairable.
The DIY laptop option allows consumers to build their own laptop from a kit of modules, creating a customized product right off the bat. You can bring your own choice of operating system, memory, storage, and WiFi capabilities, or buy them from Framework.
Essentially, they’re aiming for the customization of a desktop computer in a modular laptop.
“We want consumers to feel like the products [are] their’s,” Patel says.
“It’s not ours, it’s not our Framework laptop, it’s their laptop, and they can do whatever they like with it. And that’s just this mindset shift from how most consumer electronics products are treated.”
The Rise of Disposable Tech
Most consumer electronic products are treated like disposable devices: pretty soon, it’ll break, wear out, or become obsolete, and you’ll end up needing to buy a new device — which is good news for the tech company, and bad news for your wallet.
Tech wasn’t always this way, Patel points out; companies used to pride themselves on their devices lasting as long as possible — pity Maytag’s poor, bored repairman — and packaged them with manuals, parts, and even schematics so you could repair them yourself.
“But really over the course of decades, devices have become increasingly locked down and glued together and soldered down in a way that they just weren’t accessible,” Patel says. “They’ve gone from being these really flexible, configurable tools and products for people to being these glued together, disposable items instead.”
As Ars Technica lays out, the road to disposable tech began with software sales. Unlike a piece of hardware, it’s fairly easy for someone to reverse engineer software they’d bought and put out their own version.
Big tech companies argue that is a business and safety issue: this would make it easier for hackers to compromise devices, and third-party repairs to compromise their tech. So, they turned to end user license agreements to protect their product, which are rules laid out for the use of the device.
But now, it’s harder than ever to separate software and hardware. Sure, your phone is a piece of hardware, but without the software that runs it, it is nothing more than a beautiful assemblage of raw minerals and petroleum products. These agreements make it impossible to tinker with the software and the hardware.
This protects the device’s design as well —something a company like Apple, whose bedrock is design, wants to safeguard.
“Apple is a complicated company,” Patel says.
“On one hand, they really have elevated consumer electronics from being a set of tools that people sort of begrudgingly use to these devices that feel essential and seamless in our lives.”
But their design philosophy sees their products as “perfect,” not needing to be tampered with. They are hermetically sealed artworks as much as products, “objects that you pick up from Apple, borrow for a number of years, and then send off into recycling or into the landfill.”
Disposable tech not only costs consumers thousands of dollars replacing devices, but it costs the environment as well. Creating more tech products requires mining and manufacturing processes that can be dangerous to people and environments, and leave large carbon footprints. Each iPhone X produces about the same amount of CO2 emissions as burning 8.9 gallons of gasoline over its lifetime, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize they’ve sold millions and millions of them.
And when the consumer is done with the device, it ends up in landfills in developing nations.
Open-air burning and acid bathing e-waste to get at the valuable minerals inside can expose workers to high levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic, leading to cancers, miscarriages, and neurological impacts.
“It’s important for people to be able to fix their own products in that it both empowers users to be able to use the products in the way they would like to,” Patel says, “but it also helps reduce this global problem of e-waste where we’re generating something like 50 million tons of e-waste each year as a civilization, and that’s not something that is sustainable over the long term.”
Framework’s modular laptops look to cut into this e-waste.
A Right to Repair Your Laptop
Patel’s parents were immigrants from India, and they brought with them across the sea a mindset of self-sufficiency.
“And so growing up, anytime anything was broken around the house or we needed to come up with something or fix something, instead of calling someone, we would just try to fix it ourselves in every way we could,” Patel says.
Cars in the driveway, pipes and wires in the house; Patel learned from a young age that things don’t need to always stay the way they are.
“If you see a problem you can actually just pick up the wrench or the screwdriver and fix it,” Patel says. “And if you can’t, you reach out to someone who can teach you how to do it. And then you know how to do it and can do it yourself in the future.”
That spirit drove Patel’s journey from Apple to Oculus to founding Framework.
Framework began when the pandemic did, building out their prototypes throughout the virus year. A March 2020 trip to Taiwan carried ominous overtones of what was to come.
“We were taking temperature checks every time we went into any building, and actually some of our suppliers refused to meet with us in-person,” Patel says. “We ended up being on one of the last flights out of Taiwan before they closed the borders.”
Framework built a team on the ground in Taiwan to work with to help smooth logistical difficulties caused by the virus. Then they set about designing a modular laptop.
David vs Goliaths
Patel envisions every Framework laptop as still being in use a decade from now. The company hopes to build a community around its products, all helping to repair, upgrade, and create new things based on the original frame.
Eventually, Patel hopes to bring right to repair design into other categories of consumer tech, chipping away at a disposable, expensive, e-waste producing tech economy.
Right to repair advocates have momentum, bipartisan political support, and executive orders on their side.
Standing in their way is not just inertia, but some of the biggest names in tech and manufacturing — companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft.
“So, we love that our competitors are all giants,” Patel says.
“We get to go out there as this scrappy new start up with a new idea and be the David to the Goliath’s out there.”
We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].