There was a time when attacking your broken appliance with a screwdriver in hopes of fixing it was not only considered appropriate, it was the only option.
But now your refrigerator has more computing power than the Apollo moon missions and your entire life is bouncing around in your pocket — on a device you have little power to maintain or repair.
Over the last decade, Apple has sold 1.2 billion phones and over 75 per cent of Americans rely on a smartphone for nearly every activity in their lives. Shopping, traffic, grooming, exercise, sleep tracking — everything is happening on the phone.
Since the inception of the smartphone, companies like Apple and Samsung have been reluctant to repair devices. Often forcing customers to buy new or refurbished units and reluctant to offer support for consumers to solve their own issues.
Sometimes, this reluctance has drifted into outright aggression toward consumers, third-party repair shops and parts distributors. But a growing number of people in Calgary and around the world are battling back, arguing for the right to muck around and fix their phones.
Louis Rossmann — a YouTube celebrity and owner of Rossmann Repair Group in New York — was visited in 2016 by Apple’s lawyers. The threat of a lawsuit loomed over Rossmann for several weeks during the summer because he was making schematics of Apple’s logic boards available online. However, the law firm representing Apple claimed their contact was merely a type of approval of his YouTube channel. Rossmann himself made a video outlining how confusing their communication had been and no suit ever appeared.
Businesses in the U.S. felt Apple’s powerful grip in 2013 when the company used a relationship with ICE — the U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement — to kick down doors to repair shops and seize repair parts.
Nobody’s kicking down doors but this effect has even made its way to Calgary.
Cindy Luffer — owner and creator of the aftermarket repair shop iPhix — has had her business affected by policies of smartphone makers trickling down to Canadian customs.
“We definitely had problems here and it was from border control,” Luffer says. “We’ve had parts seized and whole shipments sent back.”
Luffer began iPhix in 2009 when her iPhone broke. Her screen was cracked and when she went to Apple the only option she was offered was to purchase a refurbished unit from the company for $200. Luffer looked for a third-party that could provide service or parts but nothing came up so, she decided to start her own company.
She spent two years fixing phones in coffee shops and pop-up kiosks at the University of Calgary or Stephen Avenue, until business was lucrative enough to open the first location in Eau Claire Market Mall. Now iPhix has four locations in Calgary and ten technicians. Luffer expanded their maintenance operations to include tablet, laptop and desktop computers.
A policy of reluctance
In October, CBC sent a reporter with a hidden camera into an Apple store in Toronto to get an assessment on a laptop with a screen issue. After an apparent checkover of the device, the Apple representative quoted over $1,500 worth of repairs to get the laptop back up and running.
CBC took the device to Rossmann in New York to film his assessment and repair. A bent pin on the ribbon cable that controlled the backlight was preventing it from getting power. Rossmann fixed the issue by bending the pin and plugging the cable back in. Under five minutes and the cost?
“Nothing, I’d send you on your way,” Rossmann says.
This is a well-known story to the repair shops like iPhix.
“We hear that a lot,” Luffer says. “We get at least two or three people a week who come in and they’ve been told something similar from their smartphone maker.”
Luffer has slowly adapted her business model to accommodate the number of people who are bringing in devices other than phones to be repaired.
Canada begins to stand up
The Right to Repair movement is pressuring governments to legislate protection for consumers and their electronics. As more computing has entered into cars, appliances and other common goods, many companies have been reluctant to make these products repairable or provide reasonable access to tools and schematics.
Currently, there are a handful of states initiating Right to Repair legislation: Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Wyoming, Illinois and Tennessee.
Canada is following suit, albeit slowly. When Apple was caught affecting the processing speed of older model phones, under the guise of protecting hardware, the Canadian government brought the company to testify before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in the House of Commons.
Apple lawyer Jacqueline Famulak was grilled before a panel of MPs who demanded to know why changes were made to consumers devices without warning. Famulak offered a seemingly contradictory statement when she claimed Apple had done nothing wrong, just days after the company had issued an apology.
In the aftermath of their meeting, NDP MP Brian Masse spoke to CBC, stating that Canadian consumers needed to “stick up for their rights.”
“Canada is seemingly treated as colonialist when it comes to consumer matters,” Masse said. “I think Canada is not well positioned for consumer protection. We often get the bum’s rush when it comes to many of the consumer decisions and end up being kind of an afterthought.”
Apple’s policies regarding blind software changes and opposition to repair has left them facing multiple class action lawsuits in Canada and the United States.
Luffer says her best response is to keep expanding the scope of devices the business repairs and gain the protection of a robust customer base that isn’t threatened by corporate pressure.
Editor: Rayane Sabbagh | firstname.lastname@example.org