Inaccessible hardware

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 31, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Free and open source software has no shortage of spinoffs. There's the OpenBIOS project, which tries to make the firmware that runs computers free. There's the open hardware movement, which applies FOSS concepts to the machines it runs on. In academia, there's the open access movement, dedicated to sharing the information usually restricted to journals Increasingly, however, I'm starting to think we need an even more basic spinoff -- something that might be called the hardware free access movement.

What I mean is, we need advocacy for hardware that can be opened and repaired by anyone. Right now, it's a concept that is not just going out of fashion, but barely exists.

Look, for example, at the new iPad, which recently gave a two out of ten rating for repairability. The site reports that "the thin front panel is held on by a strong adhesive [and] puts walls of glass and aluminum between the user and the device’s insides." also notes that "the new iPad is impossible to remove without also removing the LCD screen—which is adhered to the front panel with foam sticky tape. The connector holding the front panel in place is beneath the LCD, meaning you have to disassemble the device all the way to the logic board and battery just to replace broken glass on the front."

Even  the "battery is glued down securely to the rear case. Gluing down batteries is particularly dangerous because of the risks of breaking a battery—if punctured, the lithium ion battery can explode. Even Apple doesn’t bother trying to replace the battery. When you arrange for an Apple Care “battery replacement,” they actually replace your entire iPad for a service fee."

Personally, I wonder how the latest iPad scored even a two. Zero would have been a more realistic score.

Nor is the iPad unique in being impenetrable. If you haven't already noticed the trend, look at your  smart phone, your ereader, your music player, or your tablet. You might be able to replace the battery on these devices, but even that's a rarity. In many cases, once the battery fails, you have to replace the entire device.

Even on a laptop or netbook, you might be lucky if you can upgrade the memory. Try to upgrade a hard drive or a mother board, and you run into trouble. A few laptop specialists do exist in any major city, but dark rumors persist of laptops and netbooks that stop working if you replace a component.

The ability to buy a custom built device barely exists in the devices that we carry about. If one of these devices malfunction, we might be able to bundle it off to be repaired by the manufacturer and returned to us a couple of weeks later. Just as likely, though, the malfunctioning device will be replaced, although who pays depends on whether the warranty is still good (in my experience, trouble starts about a week after the basic warranty ends).

The right to do-it-yourself

I can anticipate the rationale for such tamper-proof hardware. It's for the user's own good, manufacturers would probably say. These are complex devices, and need to be kept out of inexpert hands.

Never mind that most workstations are completely accessible and have components that can be swapped in and out, and few people ever seem to get into trouble by investigating them. In fact, the inexpert are largely terrified to explore any computing device without help and encouragement. I suspect that what really matters is that, if manufacturers don't repair devices, then they don't need to maintain skilled staff. Instead, handling malfunctioning devices becomes a non-skilled task that cheaper, non-specialized staff can perform.

However, from a consumer's viewpoint, the situation seems outrageous. Are these devices ours to do with as we like, or aren't they?

Call me paranoid, but inaccessible hardware seems part of the increasing conditioning designed to convince users that they don't really own their machines. Instead, like proprietary software, we might almost be borrowing them from the manufacturers for all the rights we have in them. Grudgingly, we are allowed to use them -- but only if we stay within the limits defined by the manufacturer. Otherwise, we risk voiding the warranty, or, -- worse yet -- destroying them by trying to use them as we would expect.

Admittedly, most people don't want to open up their devices, and wouldn't know what do if they could. Yet there is something disturbing about preventing the minority of tinkerers from learning more by themselves. Even if you aren't a do-it-yourselfer, why should you have to go the manufacturer for repairs? Why shouldn't you be able to find a local shop where you can get quicker, maybe cheaper repairs?

It shouldn't be any concern of the manufacturer how you choose to maintain and repair your devices. If you brick your device, you can't blame anyone except yourself. If anything, do-it-yourselfers might mean more sales for the manufacturers. Instead, modern manufacturers seem to prefer the patronizing attitude that they know best, and to take away the consumer's rights to use their product as they choose.

Just as importantly, inaccessible hardware only adds to the landfill problem. If you can't easily open up hardware, then you might disable devices that might otherwise last several years or be reassembled to make something useful. But, these days, if a dead battery cannot be replaced, then other still-functioning parts become landfill.

By contrast, accessible hardware can have a much larger service life. If all the parts can be replaced, then a device can be nursed along for years. When the time comes that it is no longer state of the art, it may still provide service as a second hand device of limited usefulness instead of adding to the mounts of electronic waste. Inaccessible hardware may not be the most urgent issue in manufacturing, but it's not only condescending to buyers and environmentally irresponsible as well.

Other bad habits

One more thing: a manufacturer of inaccessible hardware is likely to have other unacceptable habits, too. If you consider Apple's fondness for proprietary software and lock-down technologies, the inaccessibility of the iPad3 only seems natural. One attitude seems to go naturally with the other.

Slowly and quietly, manufacturers like Apple are changing their relationship with customers -- and their customers are worse off because of the changes.

If you ask me, it's more than time that people should be complaining about the situation and planning boycotts. Enough, surely, is enough.


  • Apple Hasn't Really Changed

    I think that saying Apple has gotten worse is unfair to people like Steve Jobs, who always held the view that a device should be one unified piece of hardware that was preset by the manufacturer and left that way for the life of the object. To be fair, Apple hasn't always been able to maintain this idea in all of their devices, but the first computers they made bear a striking resemblance to the idea of inaccessible hardware. The iPod and iPad have maintained a steady progression in that direction from day one. (iConnector, anyone?)

    Apple seems to have a belief that all internal parts of their devices should be accessible only to them, software included. The move to Mac OS X was probably a bit of a desperation move. They kept only the basics of the UNIX system and bolted entirely new and incompatible things on top. (That said, Cocoa is arguably a much better architecture than X, and they deserve credit for their method of packaging software, which just works.) I am still surprised that they went with UNIX at all. I have heard rumors that Apple wants to put iOS on all their products, and that doesn't surprise me at all. Maybe if Unity and/or GNOME 3 succeed, they will try it, and market it as an "innovation," like virtual desktops were when Apple introduced them...

    I agree that having hardware we can get inside easily is a Good Thing, I think that we should not expect Apple to ever try for something like that, because they have never believed that such was something to try for.
  • Inaccessible hardware

    It's not all bad. Some of the more enlightened manufacturers have always tried very hard to make their equipment as servicable as possible. I know because I work for one of them.

    IBM's Thinkpad range was always easily user-upgradable. And when things went wrong, many diagnostics were built into the BIOS. There was also a Hardware Maintenance Manual made freely available for each system (now downloadable as PDFs) providing detailed instructions on how to service and repair the system, including flowcharts to help you decide what parts (Field Replaceable Units!) to buy to fix any given problem. That included everything from bits of the casing to the fans, heatsinks and motherboards that fit inside it.

    Now that Lenovo have taken over the Thinkpad line from IBM I'm glad to report that they are continuing that tradition.

    Those plain black laptops may not be as "sexy" as the latest Apple gear, but they are built to last. And last. And then last some more.
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