Revolt against the black-box era

A recent TechCrunch article highlights the efforts of a site called iFixit, which provides instructions for users to repair their own gadgets instead of sending them back to the manufacturer and paying a (usually rather steep) fee for repairs.

Given that some manufacturers such as Apple intend battery changes to be done at the factory now (something unheard of as recently as 2005), this is a welcome step in the right direction. It’s great that we have someone willing to challenge what’s becoming a new status quo, but kind of sad that we’ve gotten to this point to begin with.

I remember my first computer, the Atari 1200XL, and the printer we bought for it (which I wound up not really using that often), and for that matter the printer we bought for our first PC (a Packard Bell 80286-based unit with a whopping 1 megabyte of RAM and a 40 megabyte hard drive, which were huge in a world where the new 3½ floppy disks that held 1.44 megabytes were just catching on). Both printer came with all kinds of documentation on exactly what codes to send to it to change the font or text size. There was no messing around with proprietary Windows drivers as most programs ran under DOS and wrote to the printer directly. It was expected, particularly in the case of consumer level computer equipment, that one receive programming documentation; a lot of hobbyists programmed in lower level languages at least in part (I remember fondly writing assembler language subroutines to speed up dog-slow interpreted BASIC programs).

Fast forward to 2010. A fair amount of the software support for GNU/Linux and the many BSD Unixes is obtained from reverse engineering. Sometimes manufacturers play nice and provide the appropriate documentation. But too many, particularly in the case of 3D-accelerated video cards and wireless networking, consider that documentation a trade secret or (in the latter case) cite liability concerns under FCC or equivalent government regulations. Thankfully, there are some that don’t.

We’ve gone from appliances that came with schematics to Apple’s iPod and iPhone coming sealed except for the SIM card opening of the latter (and how to open even that is not obvious without doing research), Microsoft’s Zune being equally obnoxious when it comes to battery replacement, and many other devices with appearances of being designed in the presence of someone whose job it is to say “to hell with the user being able to fix it, we can charge them to fix it at our factory and make even more profit.” Even cars are not immune, I can only imagine what my grandfather would think about today’s cars lacking something simple like an idle adjustment screw (which has been extinct even as of my 1997 Ford Thunderbird, and I would assume anything more recent as well).

The iFixit site is a step in the right direction, but the ultimate responsibility for a change in trend comes from the manufacturers, and the manufacturers only speak one language in the end: money. Ultimately, the responsibility is on us. Vote with your feet and pocketbook.