The Necessity of Device Repairability

December 15, 2021 / Ben Bajarin

Summary

    • Device repairability is a noteworthy hardware trend
    • Sustainability is a key part of the story
    • Economically it is strategic to everyone who makes end user hardware

There are now more than a few examples of device repairability announcements to declare hardware repairability in specific categories a full-scale trend. Despite legislation like the Right to Repair Act, many companies have been moving toward device repairability for many years now. The two main categories this trend will move forward with are smartphones and PCs. Furthermore, we believe hardware repairability in these two categories will become table stakes to compete in the market. There are two main points to emphasize around repairability. There is a sustainability story and an economic story.

The sustainability story is more fleshed out than the economic one. No one would disagree that creating hardware that is more easily recycled, re-used, broken down, and enabled not to sit and rot in landfills is a good thing. Anything that can be done to limit waste and limit the need to use energy to manufacture things that could have used a recycled good is positive for our planet and any company looking to reduce their carbon footprint. You would have thought forward-thinking minds would have started with this process as they scaled their hardware manufacturing but, sadly, it was cheaper not to take the sustainability route in many instances. Companies are now beginning to shift sustainability into their forward design roadmaps as it will become necessary to compete in the future. Nevertheless, companies often need economic incentives, and such a move does not need to impact their bottom line drastically. This is why it must also be economically attractive.

Not too long ago, the idea that you could not quickly repair a computer would have been laughed at. During the first growth era of the personal computer era, computers being used in corporate and consumer settings would have been easily repaired using standard parts by any IT organization or third party. Today, if you have to send your device to the manufacturer for a hardware issue, it can take 5-7 days or sometimes weeks to have it back. In today’s world, being without your smartphone or laptop/desktop for 5-7 days or longer is unacceptable. A good case study to dig into here is Apple.

Apple recently announced their self repair program starting with iPhone 12 and 13. For reasons I am going to layout, it is inevitable that Apple expands this program to every iPhone and Mac going forward. With iPhone, Apple has a significant scale worldwide. With an iPhone installed base of ~850-950 million devices, if even a small portion of those devices have hardware problems annually, we are talking about tens of millions of devices that need some degree of hardware repair annually. From a customer service standpoint alone, it is in Apple’s best interest to be able to make hardware repairs as quickly as possible in their own retail stores and incentivize third parties to also offer repair services so their own Genius Bars are not overwhelmed, like they are today, with hardware repairs. Given hardware issues will always exist, I think the phrase “with great scale comes the need for great repairability” will be a mantra that rings true. No consumer who relies on a core computing device like a smartphone or laptop for their daily needs will tolerate being without that product for any length of time. And if they have to be without their beloved device for any length of time, it will drastically impair their opinion of the company who made the product.

Apple is not alone here. Microsoft has been integrating repair and serviceability into a number of their Surface products, like the Surface Laptop, and just recently announced a partnership with iFixit to sell tools and distribute guides to repair a number of Surface products. Dell also recently announced concept Luna, that is not only a very cool looking laptop design but also significantly more modular and thus allowing for more ease of repairability and recyclability.

While there is a consumer scale story here, there is also a commercial/enterprise scale story as well. More and more companies will look to buy hardware they can responsibly deploy, service/support, and extend the life of the device to maximize their investment and company productivity. Making easily serviced and repaired products will become necessary to compete for commercial hardware sales going forward. In discussions with businesses large and small, I have heard countless stories of employees being without laptops for days, sometimes weeks, while they were sent to the OEM to repair hardware issues. During that time, most employees used a personal laptop or one that was far less feature-rich than their current one, which led to security, usability, and productivity issues. Empowering IT organizations, third parties, or the OEMs themselves to quickly turn around device repairs is one of the strategically significant things they can do to serve their customers better and compete for new business. As Device as a Service becomes even more adopted commercially, repairability will play an important role in ISV/VAR and OEMs ability to refurbish and reuse core hardware as well. 

We are in the early days of this trend, but I am convinced it is inevitable. It will require, in some cases, a total rethink of the hardware design and manufacturing process. But I am already hearing from assembly ODMs that they have been planning for this for a while and expect it to be a regular part of their manufacturing DNA. This is a positive trend on many fronts but also one that will not happen overnight. It will be a multi-year transition but the positive impacts all around.

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