How the ‘Right to Repair’ Might Save Your Gadgets—and Save You Money

New legislation aims to provide more options for fixing our broken gadgets. A journey to fix two MacBooks illustrates the repair restrictions put in place by Apple and other big tech companies.

By guest author Joanna Stern from the Wall Street Journal

The related Video is available here

Name: MacBook Pro.

Date of birth: 2017.

Cause of death: Water. So. Much. Water.

Second chance: Replaced corroded parts on motherboard.

Just call me the Mother Teresa of laptops. I saved that MacBook Pro from being just another sad hunk of metal in the e-waste cemetery. OK, fine, a computer repairman saved it.

See, with no AppleCare+ to cover accidental damage, Apple said it would repair the machine in five to seven days…for $999. Nearly its original price! The Apple Genius said buying a new laptop would probably make more sense.

Then I brought it to an independent repair shop. It was fixed within a day…for USD 325.

It’s exactly what Apple and various tech companies don’t want you to do. It’s exactly what proponents of the “Right to Repair” want to make it easier to do.

Welcome to the fight to give us more repair options. Don’t worry, you don’t have to roll up your flannel sleeves and get out your tool belt. This fight is mostly about giving independent repair shops the ability to fix without so many roadblocks—and saving you money keeping your older gadgets alive.

The movement has gained momentum recently. In June, the “Fair Repair Act” was introduced in Congress. It is very similar in wording to bills that have been introduced in over 20 states, including New York and Massachusetts. (None have been enacted.) Then in July, President Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission to “make it easier and cheaper to repair items you own by limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.”

Those efforts are different, but they all ask for something similar: that anyone—not just the megacorp that made your device—be able to access the information, manuals, parts and tools to make a repair. It can be your smartphone, laptop or TV—even your tractor.

Video and all captions courtesy by the Wall Street Journal

I devised an experiment to see how this might affect us normal, nontinkerers. I asked my IT department for two broken MacBooks, and took them around to various repair shops.

What I learned is that replacing a dead machine—or spending its initial cost all over again to fix it—shouldn’t be our first inclination. It’s possible to save money and time by seeking an independent repair shop, but only if that shop has the information and parts it needs to do the repair.

For this column I focused on Apple and MacBooks specifically, but repair restrictions like these can impact the maintenance of all types of gadgets from many big tech companies.

The Options

My journey began with a 2020 MacBook Air and a 2017 MacBook Pro, both of which had fallen victim to laptops’ greatest foe: water. I took them both to various New York City gadget-repair establishments, which—it turns out—resemble the city’s pizzerias in their astounding variety.

Apple Store: Apple quoted USD 999 to repair the Pro—USD 899 for an accidental-damage repair plus USD 100 for labour. The Air would cost less: USD 799. But, remember, it costs USD 999 to buy a new one.

“We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using Apple-genuine parts,” an Apple spokesman said. “We continue to expand Apple’s offerings to better meet our customers’ needs.”

Authorized Apple service: Mike’s Tech Shop, an Apple-sanctioned repair shop, quoted meUSD 1170 to fix the Pro and USD 870 for the Air! Why even more than Apple? Because, for this type of issue, small shops like Mike’s send the systems out to an Apple repair centre, and charge for the effort.

Independent repair shops: These shops have zero affiliation with Apple. Simple Mac and Rossmann Repair both did a diagnostic on my two machines. On the Pro, Rossman quoted USD 325 to fix the corrosion on the motherboard. Simple Mac quoted USD 350. I opted to go with Rossmann Repair, which is owned by Louis Rossmann, a Right to Repair advocate who often, on his popular YouTube channel, speaks out against Apple’s policies and teaches people how to do their own repairs.

As you’ll see in my video, I watched Mr. Rossmann replace the corroded Wi-Fi, power and LCD chips on the board with chips from an old MacBook board—what he called a donor board.

Apple would have replaced the whole motherboard with a new one—thus, the higher price. The company spokesman said Apple has found individual chip replacement to be unreliable.

I wrote this whole column on the fixed machine.

The Limitation

The MacBook Air wasn’t so lucky. Neither Rossmann nor Simple Mac could repair it. For starters, it was more damaged. But the repair people didn’t have the parts or information for this newer model to even attempt to fix it. From watching Mr. Rossmann repair the Pro, I learned that independent repair shops need these two things to do the job.

Parts: He had donor boards for the Pro but not for the Air. These parts aren’t sold by Apple, or with its consent. Rossmann and other repair shops buy them through third parties or take them from recycled systems. Mr. Rossmann says Apple restricts chip makers from selling these parts, too.

Information: He works off of documents called schematics and board views—basically maps of what’s in the system. “You’d be here for weeks trying to do a single repair for a customer without having access to the board view, as well as the schematic,” he told me.

Mr. Rossmann and others obtain Apple’s in-house documents, often leaked from people who work at the company, from sites on the internet.

“When a repair is needed, a customer should have the confidence a repair is performed correctly. It’s more than just the parts. It’s about the training Apple provides, the tools and diagnostics, safety procedures, protecting customer data, and privacy,” the Apple spokesman said.

The spokesman also pointed to Apple’s Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program, which provides “access to Apple genuine parts, tools, training, service guides, diagnostics and resources.” Mr. Rossmann and Sunny Lin, the owner of Simple Mac, said this Apple program doesn’t provide schematics, board views and many specific parts that make repairs more affordable to consumers. They also say it can require the shops to share customer information with Apple.

The Fight

Access to those things is what Right to Repair legislation and the recent executive order mean to provide. Proponents say this is good for consumers. Companies shouldn’t control how a product is fixed, or determine when it should be replaced, they say.

“It isn’t like we’re asking for something that’s impossible. It’s something that’s easy to do: Provide parts, provide information and let people really feel like they own their own devices,” Tim Wu, a special assistant to President Biden for technology and competition policy who worked on the executive order, told me. “It gets to deeper questions about autonomy and control.”

Tech companies and their lobbyists, such as the industry group TechNet, have a counterargument: consumer safety. If there’s an unreliable repair, the device can potentially harm you. (Companies and lobbyists reminded me that lithium-ion batteries can blow up.) They say if more information is available about devices or the parts aren’t sanctioned by the company, there might be more opportunities for hackers to breach them. And your private information might be in the hands of a shady repair person. (Although that has happened with Apple’s authorised repair services, too. The Apple spokesman says it took immediate action and has since strengthened protocols.) Finally, they also worry that sharing too much intellectual property might help competitors.

“We don’t believe state law should mandate that manufacturers provide a how-to manual for any product and provide it to anyone who asks,” said David Edmonson, vice president of state policy and government relations at TechNet, which counts Apple, HP and Google as members. “We believe that this legislation would eliminate the security and privacy protections that are contractually in place between the manufacturers and their authorized repair networks.”

Except…I went to an authorized repair shop and was told it would cost even more than Apple. So I’m sitting here with a choice: Do I pay Apple USD 799 to repair the MacBook Air, or pay Apple USD 999 for a new one? It isn’t really a tough choice. Some might say it isn’t a choice at all.