WHEN Kyle Wiens’ Apple laptop stopped working, he wanted to fix it. But there was just one problem.
The thing standing in his way was Apple. The company’s lawyers had made it as difficult as they could to repair the device by scrubbing the internet of repair information.
The experience put Kyle, still a teenager at the time, on a warpath fighting against arguably the biggest scam Apple — and other technology manufacturers — perpetrate against their customers.
“I couldn’t find any information, and I thought that was kinda ridiculous,” he recalled.
“Then I decided if they’re going to systematically fight having information online maybe I could fight back.”
That was 2003. From his college dorm room in California he launched a website dedicated to providing the world with repair information for faulty or broken electronics.
You can think of it as the Wikipedia of gadget repair, filled with how-to-guides, helpful tips and tool kits for sale.
Fast forward to today and iFixit.com is jaw-droppingly popular. Last year, 94 million unique global users visited the site and 3.2 million of them were from Australia.
According to the iFixit CEO, now 33, the Apple iPhone is the most frequently searched device on the platform, primarily for consumers seeking battery replacement know-how.
“That’s because everybody values the device. Nobody throws away an iPhone because the battery is worn out. But Apple leaves such a gaping void in the market,” Mr Wiens said. “They don’t sell batteries, they don’t provide people with any information and so people turn to other channels.
“I have an entire team of people who just put batteries in boxes,” he told news.com.au.
Apple certainly didn’t invent planned obsolescence but nor has the tech giant spurned the strategy. For instance, at the bottom of the iPhone are two proprietary screws that Apple won’t sell you the screwdrivers for.
Mr Wiens believes consumers should have the right to repair their products, and will be propagating that message when he heads to Australia next month to give talks in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
“If you can’t fix it, you don’t really own it,” he says.
SHOULD WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REPAIR OUR PRODUCTS?
Australia has right to repair laws on the books for the car industry after five leading automotive industry bodies signed an agreement in December 2014 paving the way for information sharing.
However there is no such mandate for other industries like manufacturers of electronics or farming equipment, where replacement parts and diagnostic tools are often carefully guarded by the manufacturer.
That’s where iFixit, and other consumer groups, come in. Mr Wiens’ company has a secondary website dedicated to its advocacy work promoting the right to repair. The tool kits the company sells on its initial platform help pay for the group to lobby for legislation in markets around the world. So far they have had some major wins in the US.
“We have folks working with legislatures everywhere from Brussels to Nebraska trying to solve these issues,” Mr Wiens said. They believe getting governments on side is the most effective way to push the cause.
In Sweden, for example, consumers are given tax breaks for having their electronics repaired in order to reduce waste.
IS PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE REAL?
The short answer is yes.
The extent to which it exists today depends on how conspiratorially minded you are. But far from promoting a caricature of greedy companies fleecing their customers, product makers are often bound by imperfect technology, and a majority of times are simply responding to the desires of consumers who want a sleek new device every few years.
The terms has its origins in the US light bulb industry in the 1920s when a group of light bulb manufacturers — infamously known as the Phoebus cartel — conspired to prevent technological advances that would have produced longer-lasting light bulbs.
For some, today’s smartphone is the new light bulb.
Screens or buttons break. Operating systems, apps, and so on suddenly can no longer be upgraded. And the lithium batteries in smartphones soon die.
In the past Apple has said it expects its iPhone batteries to last an average of 400 charges.
“Any time you’re taking a battery and gluing it into a product you’re building planned obsolescence,” Mr Wiens said. “Batteries have a limited life, just like the tyres on your car have a limited life and if a car manufacturer tried to sell a car with tyres you can’t replace everybody would laugh at them, but that’s exactly what happens with cell phones and laptops these days.”
AN ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE
The iFixit CEO sees the right to repair as fundamentally an environmental issue, as well as an economic one.
“Repair is not seen as a green job but your car mechanic is doing wonderful things for the environment by keeping an existing machine running,” he said.
The amount of raw material that goes into electronics is staggering so making it easier for people to maintain their gadgets and machines instead of recycling them creates a much more sustainable world.
Kyle Wiens will appear at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival in Sydney on March 5, the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on March 9, and WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks in Adelaide on March 12.