Buy a desktop computer and you can probably keep using it for a decade or longer because if anything breaks or needs to be upgraded you can probably open the case and make the changes yourself.
Things are little different with most modern smartphones and tablets, and many laptops. If a component breaks, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to fix it yourself.
Case in point: online repair shop iFixit recently gave the new Microsoft Surface Laptop a repairability score of 0 out of 10 since the CPU, memory, and storage cannot be upgraded, it’s dangerous to replace the battery, and it’s hard to even open the case without breaking the laptop.
But European officials may be taking steps to reverse the trend of non-repairability.
This week the European Parliament issued recommendations for “making consumer products more durable and easier to repair.” Right now these are just recommendations, and include a request to create a voluntary label that could be affixed to products that meet the recommendations.
But the European Commission could vote on the guidelines in the future, turning them into law.
Among other things, the recommendations include:
- Essential components including batteries and LEDs should be removable unless there’s a safety reason for them to be fixed to the product. It’s not clear that this means you should be able to pop out a battery on the fly, but at the very least once you open the case you should be able to replace a defective battery.
- Device makers should make spare parts available.
- Device owners should be able to get their products fixed by an independent repairer.
- European Union member states should provide incentives for device makers to create durable, repairable products.
Overall, if member countries adopt these rules we could see longer product lifetimes for consumer electronics, a more robust market for repair shops and second-hand sales, and a reduction in e-waste.
It’s unlikely that the US would adopt these rules anytime soon, if they have an impact on the design of products sold in Europe that could change the way device makers design products sold around the world… even in the US, China, India, and other large markets that haven’t adopted right-to-repair regulations.
On the other hand, maybe people will decide planned obsolescence isn’t such a bad thing after all. I’m sure there are some folks who normally replace their smartphones every year or two who would hold onto them longer if they were easier to repair. But when Apple or Samsung unveil a new model with better specs or a sleeker design comes out, I suspect there will still plenty of demand.
These days, upgrading to a new phone is only partially about functionality: it’s also about fashion.