The age of fixing your own phone is almost here

When I called iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens, I thought he’d be in for a treat – after years of fighting for the right to repair, big companies like Google and Samsung suddenly agreed to provide spare parts for their phones. Not only that, they have signed agreements with him to sell these parts through iFixit, along with the company’s repair guides and tools. Valve too.

But Wiens says he’s not done making any deals yet. “There are more to come,” he says, one in a few months. (No, it’s not Apple.) Motorola was the first to sign on nearly four years ago. And if Apple joins them in a meaningful way to offer spare parts to consumers – as it promised to do in early 2022 – the era of fix your own phone could be upon us. Last October, the United States effectively made it legal for many devices to be opened for repair with an exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Now the necessary parts arrive.

What changed? Didn’t these companies fight tooth and nail to avoid the right to repair, sometimes sneakily stopping bills at the last minute? Sure. But some legislation passes anyway… and one French law in particular could have been the tipping point.

“What’s changing the game more than anything else is France’s repairability scorecard,” says Wiens, referring to a 2021 law that requires tech companies to disclose how repairable their phones are – on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0 – right next to their price tag. Even Apple was forced to add repairability scores – but Wiens points me to this Samsung press release instead. When Samsung commissioned a study to test whether French repairability scores were meaningful, it didn’t just find the dashboards to be handy – it found a staggering result. 80% of respondents would give up their favorite brand for a better rated product.

The repairability score is visible at the bottom right of the product page.

“Extensive studies have been done on the scorecard and it works,” says Wiens. “It’s the behavior of the engine, it changes the buying habits of consumers.”

Stick, meet the carrot. Seeing an opportunity, Wiens suggests, drove those companies to accept iFixit as part of the deal.

Nathan Proctor, Director of the Right to Repair Campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), still thinks the stick is first and foremost to thank. “It’s cheeky to say 100%…but none of this is happening unless there’s a threat of legislation.”

“These companies knew these were problems for a long time, and until we organized enough influence that it started to seem inevitable, none of the big companies had particularly good repair programs and now they herald them all,” notes Proctor. He draws my attention to the fact that the European Parliament has just voted 509-3 in favor of asking the EU to oblige manufacturers to make devices more repairable.

“I think there’s a growing realization and resignation that phones are going to last longer and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Wiens says.

Google might also have a financial incentive, Proctor admits. “Google is a huge, huge company, but their Pixel phone sales aren’t a big chunk of the market, are they? Part of the carrot is that they can do something about a problem. very popular anti-trust and anti-monopoly in an area where they are not the dominant player.

What about the practical reasons why tech companies have blocked right to repair in the past, concerns about consumers accidentally puncturing their batteries or breaking their phones, and forcing Google or Samsung to handle more calls help? Wiens says they’re a bit over the top. But he also claims that’s why these companies chose iFixit, because its website provides repair guides and tools specifically designed to make people less likely to go wrong.

Samsung, Google, and even Valve aren’t necessarily opening the floodgates to all kinds of repairs, mind you. Wiens says iFixit won’t sell cards with chips, so if your Pixel is germinating the kind of notorious bootloop issue that has plagued many Nexus phones, you’ll still need Google to fix it. “[Boards are] definitely something to watch, but there are supply chain challenges around making these,” he says.

Google Pixels alongside iFixit tools.
Image: iFixit

Crucially, the most common parts should indeed be included in iFixit’s new parts caches, such as official screens and batteries, and iFixit says it’s committed to supporting phones even if it has to stockpile “last chance” components when factories stop making them. While it’s hard to predict how many of these components they’ll need, manufacturers are helping some, sharing data with iFixit, such as how many phones they’ve sold.

Wiens says iFixit already has hundreds of thousands of parts in an offsite warehouse and is currently expanding as a result of those agreements. Wiens won’t say if tech companies subsidize the parts or how much you’ll pay, but iFixit says it has to buy them and will sell them at a markup.

While you don’t necessarily need officially approved parts for every type of repair, it looks like there might be some advantages: iFixit’s repair kits will come with the same type of pre-cut gaskets as Google and Samsung use to properly re-seal their own phones. “As long as you do it right, get the seal all around, then you’re good again,” Wiens says.

He says it’s something more people should probably do once a year or so anyway, because the adhesive manufacturers use to waterproof their gadgets tends to wear out over time. “You do your first test in the shower and you’re happy with it, that doesn’t mean three months later it’ll still work in the shower,” he adds.

Whether these companies are pushed or led, the result could be the same: an era where your fairly aging phone can stay pretty good for longer than it otherwise could. Politicians, governments, regulators, shareholders and advocacy groups like US PIRG are putting the pressure on, and that can also open up opportunities.

“If the market were to change and people kept their phones much longer… eventually businesses would change and they would find a way to make more money in that environment, right?” says Proctor, suggesting that a phone that lasts could be another way to entice customers to stick around. “I’m just encouraged that those incentives are now a little more aligned with what’s best for the people of the planet.”

I expect tech companies to continue to resist the right to repair in some way, even pretending to embrace it. (We’ve seen this from Apple before, and Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment this week on its self-service repair program.) There are plenty of ways companies can get it wrong, like charging overpriced for parts or throwing out scary warnings – to its credit, Apple seems to be backing down on that one.

And of course they’ll keep urging you to move quickly to new phones, like how carriers brought back the subsidy model last year to boost sales while the company was still stuck at home, and how Apple is reportedly looking to sell the iPhone as a subscription service now.

But it seems that when my iPhone mini’s battery expires and there’s no new mini to replace it, I’ll be able to swap out the battery myself. And otherwise? I could take a hint and upgrade to a newly serviceable Pixel.