Try This at Home: A Q&A with Kyle Wiens, Right-to-Repair Crusader
Back in 2003, two tech-savvy college kids tried to replace a part in a broken laptop, only to find that even this relatively simple repair was controlled by the manufacturer: Apple. Outraged that consumers couldn’t just repair their own stuff, Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules set out to beat the system—and ultimately, to change it.
Written by JEFF GREENWALD
Kyle Wiens knows he can’t stop entropy—but he’s trying his best to slow it down. A pioneer of the growing “Right to Repair” movement, Wien’s passion—for more than two decades—has been to increase the ever-shrinking distance between the stuff we buy and the local landfill. This applies especially to microchipped items: things like computers, smartphones, and many new appliances.
Increasingly, such digital devices are “locked”: There are “No user-serviceable parts inside,” and trying to affect a home repair can void the manufacturer’s warranty. From personal electronics to vacuum cleaners, soft-serve ice cream machines to heavy farm equipment, the items we purchase belong to us only in theory. If we’re not able or allowed to fix them (some require special tools you can’t find in stores), our agency over them dissolves. We’re forced to pay for expensive repairs, buy a newer model, and/or toss the object into a dubious electronics “recycling” bin.
In 2003, Kyle Wiens, now 39, became the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, an international community dedicated to empowering consumers to extend the life, usefulness, and repairability of products that simply should not be “throwaway” objects. [For a look at this mindset in motion, see our sidebar, “One Night at the Fixit Clinic.”]
A few years ago, IBIS World, an industry research firm, estimated that the ever-growing digital electronics industry has spawned only 150,000 jobs in tech repair, and that number has been declining by 2 percent a year for the last decade. IBIS contrasted that with jobs in auto repair, which number 500,000. To Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of Repair.org, there should be at least as many jobs in electronics repair, but that’s not the case for two reasons. One is the industry’s policies restricting or discouraging repairs; the other is a blind spot in our society at large. “There is no route in college for that. There are no trade schools for electronics repair, and there are no unions.” As a result, she says, “We have already lost a whole generation of talent.”
A prolific writer, whose wonderfully engaging essays have appeared in Wired, Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications, Wiens is also skilled at maneuvering legal and legislative battles. His latest victory—in September 2023—came when the “Right to Repair Act” passed the final vote in the California State Legislature, and was directed to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. Another coup came just a day later, when Google committed to 10 years of security updates for its Chromebooks, many of which were purchased by schools during the pandemic (and for which protections were about to expire).
“When you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you don’t expect it to last more than half an hour; that’s fine. But when you buy a refrigerator or a computer, it should be different.”
Wiens lives in San Luis Obispo, CA, where he graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science. We met on Zoom, Wiens joining from his hotel room in San Francisco during a one-day break between conferences.
JG: Kyle, can you talk about how you define entropy, and how it impacts the consumer world?
KW: So, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a bitch. Everything is constantly in a state of breaking, and most of civilization’s effort goes into preventing that. People buy refrigerators, for example, and they break after two years. What’s that about? Well, they put really cheap capacitors in them; what do you expect? But people don’t expect it. You buy the shiny thing, but there’s no communication at the point of sale about how long the thing should last. And I think that’s missing. When you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you don’t expect it to last more than half an hour; that’s fine. But when you buy a refrigerator or a computer, it should be different.
At what point does repair become craftsmanship?
Most of what we do at iFixit is enable people to do a repair for the first time. That’s not craftsmanship; they’re stumbling through and gaining just enough knowledge to succeed. I think craftsmanship has to surpass that basic level. We did a demo once at MacWorld where my lead technician said, “I’m going to repair an iPhone in front of you—but I’m going to do it blindfolded.” That’s the level I mean.
So, what are the elements of a craft-level repair? It can be speed; or it can be that you’re imbuing the object with something new, adding additional value. Or, you’re able to restore the thing perfectly to factory condition, like watchmakers who do Rolex repairs—now that’s a craft [for an example, see Craftsmanship’s recent photo essay, “The Master Watchmaker”].
Is craftsmanship getting something back perfectly to where it was? Or is it like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of pottery repair, where you’re adding something new? I’m more interested in adding something new… it’s a little bit more creative.
Maybe the evidence of your craft is the quality of your interaction with the thing you’re repairing.
Yes, I would say it has to do with the relationship and intimate knowledge of the thing.
Your battle with Apple started when you were 18. What happened?
“Our first approach was to write the repair manuals ourselves… By 2006 or so, we had written repair manuals for every Apple product back to 1998.”
I was looking for the service manual to fix my broken iBook and could not find it anywhere—even though I knew what it looked like and I knew which keywords to search for, because I had previously worked at an authorized Apple repair shop where we had access to those manuals. I stumbled my way through the repair and succeeded—barely. That repair was not craftsmanship! I later learned that the manuals had been online, and Apple had taken them down. That was the moment I said, ‘This shall not stand.’ We’ve been doing this work ever since.
At some point, it became a legal battle. What milestones have you reached so far?
Our first approach was to write the repair manuals ourselves. It actually worked for Apple products, because Apple was the only company in the world with open-source service manuals. By 2006 or so, we had written repair manuals for every Apple product back to 1998. But writing manuals for every other consumer product wasn’t going to scale, so we did the ‘Wikipedia’ thing on iFixit, where anyone could create and share repair guides. We now have more than 100,000 repair guides—that’s a lot! But there are many more gizmos out there.
Next, we started asking the manufacturers nicely. I thought if we showed them how to do it, maybe they’d come alongside. It didn’t work—except with a few companies like Patagonia, who thought it was cool and started working with us.
How did this relate to Apple?
At that point, we weren’t having corporate-level conversations with Apple. Historically, Apple’s approach to dealing with us has been to pretend we don’t exist. After leading by example didn’t work, we started asking, ‘Can we create an incentive for them?’
We got on the committee advising EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool—a federal green standards program where the federal government has to buy something like 95 percent of its electronics from the EPEAT list. Apple was participating in EPEAT, and we tried to influence those standards to encourage device designs that are easier to repair, easier to upgrade, and easier to disassemble for recycling. That led, in 2012, to Apple withdrawing entirely from the EPEAT. It was a big scandal; the City of San Francisco said they were going to stop buying Apple products.
Can you make the connection between Apple’s pull-out from EPEAT and the green repair language?
For example, EPEAT stated that batteries had to be readily removable, with commonly available tools. Apple released a computer with a glued-in battery and we said, ‘This doesn’t meet the EPEAT standard.’ That was the beginning of us trying to influence Apple and meeting a brick wall. We tried to inject repair-friendly incentives into the green standards. Apple fought us, successfully. So I said, ‘All right, we’re going to do legislation.’ I picked something I knew we could get passed easily—so we could then start working on what we really wanted. The first law we worked on, in 2011 and 2012, was cell phone unlocking.
And you can only switch your carrier with an unlocked phone, correct?
“The U.S. was the only country in the world where it was illegal to unlock a phone to move it from one service carrier to another. You want to travel overseas, and you can’t unlock your own phone and use it? It’s crazy.”
Right. At that time, the U.S. was the only country in the world where it was illegal to unlock a phone to move it from one service carrier to another. You want to travel overseas, and you can’t unlock your own phone and use it? It’s crazy. We petitioned the White House—this was in the Obama era—and it was the second most popular petition the White House had ever received. After about a year of back and forth, we got it done, which was cool.
Meanwhile, I was starting to build a coalition—just going around and talking quietly with people, initiating state-level work, and drafting the initial reference policy that would turn into each state’s Right to Repair clause. It took several years to start introducing those state bills. The first one was in South Dakota, in 2015.
What was the purpose of that legislation?
It was for broad-range repairs, the same thing that just passed in California [on September 13, 2023]. It means companies must now make parts, tools, and information available to everybody.
So until recently, the only way you could get repair information for Apple products—and buy tools, like Apple’s proprietary five-pointed screwdriver—was to go to iFixit?
The whole Right to Repair movement is really all about control. Philosophically, the question is: ‘Do we really own our things, or not ?’”
What’s the state of things right now with Apple and the Right to Repair?
Apple supported the Right to Repair bill in California, but it’s complicated. The law solves the problem where manufacturers have their own repair network but don’t make information available to consumers. That is, it’s solved as long as the manufacturers are not doing exceedingly sneaky, annoying things… but Apple falls in that category, so we don’t expect the California law to impact Apple very much. But it’s raising the bar, and we’re going to solve the problem with Apple in other states.
Can you give an example of an exceedingly sneaky, annoying thing that Apple is doing?
One issue is ‘parts pairing’: You take two brand new iPhones, swap parts between them, and they don’t work, because each part is serialized for a specific phone. So now, Apple is using software to make the parts non-interchangeable. And Apple’s not the only one. John Deere does it; some auto manufacturers do it, too.
So, even with the new law, a repair still requires interacting with Apple.
Right: You have to go through their system and give them your product serial number in order to buy a replacement part. Basically, Apple has to bless and approve every single repair that happens on their products. It’s as if Robert Pirsig [author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”] was driving across the country on his motorcycle, and had to call Honda from Wyoming for permission to swap out a spark plug. It’s just crazy.
What’s the endgame here with Apple? Where are you trying to get them?
It’s not like trying to convince a friend to do something. With companies, you have to change the incentive structures, and then you can move them. Ask most people within Apple, ‘Do you support Right to Repair?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Individuals support it; it’s corporations and systems that try to stop it.
For example, during the pandemic, a lot of U.S. school districts bought Chromebooks. Working with US PIRG (the Public Interest Research Groups), just this week we got Google to increase their software support for Chromebooks in schools from just a couple of years to 10 years. Now, I haven’t talked to anyone at Google who didn’t support that change. It’s just that, well, they have other priorities. It wasn’t evil; it was just something falling through the cracks. Entropy comes for us all.
We’re trying to change the system to get Apple to want to do the right thing… they have a culture of control that we’re going to have to beat back. The recent victory on the iPhone 15 charger port and cable is a good example of how you have to back Apple into a corner before they’ll change.
Can you unpack the Apple charging port and cable controversy?
It’s a good example of how Apple exerts control over the whole system. The iPhone has had the Apple ‘lightning’ port installed on it since September 2012. It’s a proprietary port—as opposed to the USB-C port, the industry standard, which is available everywhere. Apple has all kinds of patents on that lightning cable. I can’t just go and make one; I’d have to get permission from Apple and pay them a licensing fee.
Politicians in Europe passed a law encouraging the use of USB-C everywhere. But there was a loophole in the law, and Apple exploited it by including a USB-C adapter in the [iPhone] box! So, the iPhone was still the only phone without a standard USB-C port. EU politicians followed up with another law, specifically mandating a USB-C port on smartphones—that’s the real reason Apple finally put a USB-C port on the iPhone 15.
Clearly, even a small thing like that gives a lot of agency back to consumers.
Yes. The whole Right to Repair movement is really all about control. Philosophically, the question is: ‘Do we really own our things, or not?’.
How does John Deere fit into this picture?
In 2014, I wrote an article for Wired—“The End of Ownership”— about how farmers don’t own the software that runs their tractors. John Deere was so upset, they sent a letter to all their dealers calling me a liar. But it’s the truth. In 2015, we won a separate exemption for agricultural equipment. That article was the beginning of the agricultural Right to Repair movement—which culminated in passing our first agricultural Right to Repair law in Colorado. It goes into effect in 2024.
The problem is, these exemptions only allow farmers to do the tinkering themselves. They don’t allow someone like me to make and distribute the tools. Last year, I wrote an article for Scientific American, discussing why it’s so important to be able to make and distribute tools. Right now, you can whittle your own ‘digital wrench’ and do the repair yourself—but I can’t sell you that wrench.
The Church of Scientology also objects to the Right to Repair. Can you explain why?
This goes back to cell phone unlocking. Section 1201 of the DMCA [the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal law passed in 1998], says you cannot circumvent a lock that protects access to copyrighted work. The earliest examples were DVDs. A DVD is encrypted; so, creating software that breaks that lock so you can pirate a movie is a violation of Section 1201.
As another example, historically, you could tinker with the timing on your toaster. You could change the timing spring, the heating element. Now all of that is software-controlled, so you can’t—it’s illegal. The law was later interpreted to make it illegal for consumers to unlock their own cell phones. And it still applies to commercial industrial equipment—everything from laptops to ice cream machines. We’re now applying for an exemption to the law; but, The Church of Scientology is objecting, saying it would allow people to circumvent the lock on their proprietary E-meter [a primitive lie detector used by Scientology auditors (counselors) to examine a person’s mental state and make sure they’ve paid all their fees].
“We’re now working on a federal bill to address the 1201 problem. I testified in Congress a few weeks ago specifically about this evil law that doesn’t allow you to tinker with your own stuff.”
What’s your next step in this fight against Section 1201?
We introduced bills in 30 states this year, and passed laws in four. We’re now planning which states we’re going to be active in next year, and working on a federal bill to address the 1201 problem. I testified in Congress a few weeks ago specifically about this evil law that doesn’t allow you to tinker with your own stuff.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kyle. Do you have any closing comments?
Yes! The most fun thing about iFixit is learning something new all the time. I might work on cell phones one day, ventilators the next day, and skateboards the next. It never stops. For me, that’s the joy of it.