As regulators across multiple markets seek to tackle ever-increasing mountains of electronic waste, smartphone makers have been pushed to extend the lifespan of devices. In response several big-name players have launched self-repair facilities: but do these measures go far enough to tackle the problem?
Various manufacturers have heralded their green aims and credentials of late, yet there is a still a constant supply of fresh devices entering the market with upgraded cameras, improved batteries and enticing new features.
This marketing push combined with degrading batteries and a relatively high cost for repairing common breakages such as screen cracks makes it is easy to see why many replace devices sooner than other consumer electronics.
Figures published by Strategy Analytics at the end of 2021 pinned the global smartphone replacement cycle at 43 months in 2020.
Although this may sound high the analyst company noted the figure had been increased by pandemic-related issues, with the cycle expected to “recover” and shorten to 39 months by 2026.
It did, however note the length of time people hung on to handsets had been increasing since reaching an all-time low of 28 months in 2013. This trend was attributed to removal of subsidies, improved device quality and a lack of “major hardware innovations”.
In an apparent attempt to improve the longevity of their devices and (some may cynically say) stave-off the threat of stricter regulations, big name manufacturers have this year opened approved self-repair channels.
Apple, Samsung and Google have all begun to offer this with partners in the US, with initial indications these facilities would be rolled out more widely.
However, there are potential stumbling blocks. Firstly fixes require a reasonable level of competence to actually perform; as Apple puts it the service is suitable for those “experienced with the complexities of repairing electronic devices”.
Then there is the cost. A replacement kit to replace a battery and screen (not available separately) for a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra costs just under $240. This comes with instructions and tools but the user will, of course, also require the ability to actually successfully replace them.
If done incorrectly, getting someone to fix the fix will rack up the bill even further.
Self-repair smartphones are nothing new. Sustainability-focused brand Fairphone has been providing the means for users to fix and upgrade its modular devices since 2015.
Fairphone representative Anna Joop told Mobile World Live its users often bought handsets specifically for this feature, though accepted “opening up the phone can be intimidating to some people” noting it offered detailed instructions and, if needed, alternative repair options.
More widely across the industry, the “biggest barrier is likely the fact that most phones on the market today simply cannot be repaired at home. By now we are so used to having to throw things away that the possibility of repairing them frequently does not even cross our mind”, Joop added.
While welcoming the initiative from big handset players to follow it down the self-repair route, Joop noted there “is still a lot of work to do. Something that hasn’t changed is the core of the economic system: in fact, it’s become much worse. The industry still relies on producing and selling more and more. The life cycles are still very short and longevity is still not being sufficiently addressed”.
Although large companies appear eager to align themselves with more sustainable practices, regulatory moves and threats are likely to be a key reason for the big players to ease the process.
CCS Insight chief analyst Ben Wood told MWL it believes “a big driver for the implementation of these schemes is existing and looming legislative pressure. The announcements so far are a step in the right direction but there will need to be a more radical redesign of phones in future if they are going to be more easily repaired”.
He added there was significant demand for repair from consumers, adding CCS Insight’s latest research showed 44 per cent of US users were interested in being able to “affordably repair their mobile phones if they break outside the warranty period”.
“We expect regulatory pressure to keep building and demands to improve repairability to increase,” Wood added. “This will mean providing spare parts more easily and affordably, as well as improving the design of devices to make them more repairable.”
Change in oulook
Alongside allowing self-repair, the schemes extend component availability to third parties, which are then able to provide repairs at potentially a more competitive rate than was previously possible.
ABI Research director David McQueen indicated for Apple, especially, this meant a “significant change”.
“It has long resisted independent repair by restricting access to parts, manuals, and diagnostic equipment, creating products that are difficult to repair and campaigning against laws that would protect the freedom to repair,” he noted.
“Arguably, Apple’s move is good news for customers as they have more options for their repairs thanks to the expanded availability of authentic parts.”
“By increasing repairability, customers get a long-lasting product that retains its value for years.”
McQueen noted, though, even with legislation in place (as has already been passed in New York state) repairs to some devices could still be made awkward by vendors using software locks, special glues, specific tools or not providing the manuals.
However, he added the trend to lengthening the lifespan of consumer goods is one which benefits a growing repair industry, appeases regulators and increases end-user satisfaction.
McQueen added the moves also played into the trend of consumers becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of electronic waste. “This could affect overall sales in the consumer electronics sector resulting in a reduction in smartphone shipments and a lengthening of replacement cycles.”
Although undoubtedly a positive move for some consumers with the ability to repair, clearly there are still barriers in place with skills and cold hard cash needed to conduct the fixes.
However, the moves are a step in the right direction (even if it took some gentle persuasion from authorities) and may be the start of a trend which sees an end to headline-grabbing figures about mountains of disused handsets.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.